Viewpoint: What is the Definition of a Really Active Catholic?

by M. Francis Mannion

When you think of an active Catholic, what comes to mind? Probably, someone who, at least, attends weekly Mass, maybe prays a little each day, and does some reading on spiritual matters now and then.

Yes, but what is a really active Catholic? Why, someone who also does one or another or a combination of the following: acts as a lector and/or an extraordinary minister of Communion, serves at Mass, sings in the choir, teaches Sunday School, works with the RCIA, belongs to the Knights of Columbus, sits on the parish council, helps with funeral lunches, etc.

Is that description correct? Yes, of course. Parishes could not function without the investment of time and talent of a whole host of parishioners. And we rightly describe the really active parish as one in which many ministries and parish activities are up and running and involve a great many people.

But the vast majority of Catholics do not and cannot take on the roles I have described. Many work long hours, maybe have two jobs, don’t have a lot of free time, and have to expend a great deal of energy on being good spouses and parents.

Not being able to devote more time to the parish can make some Catholics feel like second-class citizens in the Church.

Can one be a really active Catholic without involvement in parish ministries and activities? Certainly, one can.

Many Catholics don’t know that there is a whole category of non-parish activities that come under the heading of the “lay apostolate.”

What is a “lay apostle”? It is any Christian who brings his or her faith to bear upon their ordinary, everyday lives. A good spouse or parent who works hard at their family vocation is a lay apostle. A janitor in the local public school system who is an exemplary Christian, a doctor who seeks to bring Christian ethics to his or her job, a nurse who brings Christ’s love to sick patients, a good Christian lawyer who follows high ethical standards, a social worker who sees Christ in the needy, a cleaning lady in a motel who offers her work up to God, a Catholic politician who brings his or her faith to the political process–all these are lay apostles. They may only go to the parish on Sunday mornings, but they practice their faith 24/7.

What I have just described makes it possible for everyone who is baptized to be a really active Catholic.

What I am saying here comes from Vatican II and a whole host of Church documents since then. Pope John Paul II issued in 1988 a landmark document called “The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People.” The document promoted lay ministry and lay activity “within the Church,” and called all Catholics to take responsibility for the life of the Church.

But it emphasized even more strongly the vocations of all Catholics to be lay apostles “in the world.” Every Pope since Vatican II has emphasized and promoted the lay apostolate, calling all Catholics to do their part in bringing Christ into the “secular” arenas within which they live and work.

So, if you are a Catholic who cannot do much more than go to Mass on Sundays–but put your Christian heart and soul into your “secular” activities, then you are a really active Catholic.

If you would like to read up on this matter, I highly recommend Ministry or Apostolate? What Should the Catholic Laity be Doing? by Russell Shaw (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, 2002). This short book brings clarity to a complex subject and is eminently readable.


Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.


  1. I heartily agree. Building-based activities should be seen as catapaults that launch people out through the church doors to fulfil their lay vocations.
    It really doesn’t help matters that in the UK we have an annual Vocations Sunday where only one kind of vocation is up for consideration.

  2. “Apostolate” is a good term that’s been around for awhile. I can imagine that some in the hierarchy would be slightly nervous about attributing “apostleship” to a lay person. Do we think of Mary Magdalene or the woman at the well as apostles? By action they certainly were.

    More frequently these days, I hear the term “disciple” applied to what an active Catholic might be. The terms are used interchangeably in the Gospels. In fact, most Last Supper accounts most of the time describe a gather not only of apostles, but of disciples.

    I would hope that pastors and pastoral leaders don’t really make people feel like second-class citizens because their committees aren’t full. In the Church today, it is lay Catholics who have different political viewpoints from some bishops who feel marginalized. Their sister and brother apostles sometimes don’t help matters.

  3. Interesting post. Even more interesting that we lay Catholics should be referred to how-to books and papal teachings to discover what it means to be a good, active disciple of Jesus when a quick consultation of a good reference Bible or topical concordance (“discipleship”, “servanthood”, “holiness”, etc.) will yield excellent results.

    This circuitous way (ie., via the Church’s “sacred personnel” or its proxies) of getting readily accessible spiritual truth to the laity betrays the hierarchy’s age-old anxiety that we poor, dumb lay-folk might actually read and understand the Bible without its assistance. It continues to be presented as a “complex subject” by the sacred personnel so they can continue to perceive themselves as being essential to its proper elucidation. But clearly, in this age of incredibly profound, widely available, and user-friendly Bible study resources, their concerns are null and void.

    What was the voice which St. Augustine heard saying? “Take up and read! Take up and read!”… Or something like that…lol…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *