It has become a truism in the Catholic Church that Catholic men do not join things. I have heard it from priests and prelates and men of all ages. There is often an appeal to realism in the rationale for this: people are so much busier, they work longer hours, and so have no time for Church associations.
The issue of the phenomena of Catholic youths and Catholic men in particular not joining things should not be lightly dismissed. To my mind, it has at least as much to do with ecclesiology as it does with sociology. It coincides with fewer men going to church with their families and accepting what the Church teaches.
Associations of Catholic lay faithful are one of the signs of renewal envisaged by the Second Vatican Council. Such associations are proper to Catholics who want to see renewal in the Church and in society and who know that any authentic renewal begins in their own life, so they they need the support and solidarity with others who are on the same pilgrimage. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity says that such associations, “should hold in high esteem professional competence, family and civic sense and the virtues related to social behavior such as honesty, justice, sincerity, courtesy, moral courage; for without them there is no true Christian life”. Why should associations be a sign of renewal in the Church? I would suggest because they are a sign of a healthy laity. You can esteem all the above virtues without belonging to an association, but that is not the same thing as publicly identifying yourself with others in pursuit of a common vision motivated by the Gospel.
Vatican II spoke of the laity being able to renew the world with the Gospel to places where what we now call the institutional Church could not penetrate.
Increasingly we hear the use of the word “ministry” rather than “apostolate”, applied to the laity. We all share the apostolate -clerical and lay – which is to advance God’s kingdom. We do not all share a ministry – that is something generally confined to the church or the parish itself. There are plenty of commissions and committees in every parish and dioceses with committed and worthy people on them, but they differ fundamentally from Catholic associations, which are a sign of lay people whose Christian identity is seen as fundamental to the way the engage not only with the Church or diocese or parish, but also with the world. A Catholic association makes Faith a priority, the basis for association with others in the same state. A Catholic medical association, for example, exists for those who want to practice medicine within the parameters of the dictates of conscience sanctioned by the Catholic Faith, who are seeking to let it inform how they practice. There is a subtle but essential difference between a Catholic doctor and a doctor who is Catholic, and the difference is the sense of apostolate.
Catholic men and youth should be encouraged to join and identify with their relevant associations within their parishes. They might just be a touchstone of whether Catholics really do find meaning and purpose in their faith when engaging with the world of the family, or professional or civic life. It is also a measure of whether the vision of a laity who understand their fundamental identity as something derived from baptism into Christ and his body, the Church, has in any way taken root, whether there is a sense of God immanence in the world.
When all is said and done, heaven itself is nothing more or less than a Catholic association. There with all the redeemed we shall stand before the throne of the Lamb, who already calls us with graces to transcend our isolated “I” and find light, happiness and peace in a fullness of love beyond measure, a love which even now, we profess as our hope and our identity.
Charles O. Anyiam-Osigwe, Chairman of the Catholic Men Organisation of the Catholic Church of the Presentation, GRA, Ikeja, Lagos, adapted this write-up from an article – A true measure of the Church’s health by Pastor Iuventus published in the Catholic Herald, October 31, 2014.