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Status Ecclesiae, December 2005

Lay Mendicants

by John Mallon, Contributing Editor, Inside the Vatican

The "status of the Church" from one writer’s viewpoint

“Ha! If I threw a quarter into a room, ten guys would dive for it!" So said a Catholic banker friend when I asked him if he knew anyone who could help Inside the Vatican financially. The ten guys to whom he was referring would be laymen running orthodox Catholic apostolates. My friend was not unsympathetic or being flippant, he was merely naming the state of affairs — the state of the Church.

In the past few months, I have seen numerous appeals from very worthy Catholic apostolates saying that if they didn't raise a certain amount of money soon they would have to severely cut back their activities or even close down.

This is a serious problem, because these groups are doing work that dioceses and parishes can't—or won't—do. Some is work that official organs of the Church simply cannot do.

As a Catholic man in lay apostolic work told me some time ago, the scandals of 2002 not only hurt Catholic giving to parishes and dioceses, but has affected many nonprofit groups as well.

However, it cannot all be blamed on Church scandals. Since last Christmas, beginning with the Asian tsunami, the globe has been assaulted with unprecedented disasters, both natural and man-made, creating needs of the most urgent kind, including a record hurricane season which put an entire region and major city in the United States out of commission. Some call the result "giving fatigue."

This has put Catholic laymen and laywomen in the awkward and unaccustomed position of simply begging. We are seeing the emergence of "lay mendicants." While there is a long tradition of mendicant religious orders, this is an odd experience for lay people, especially men, who have been in the business world. One could become a millionaire honorably manufacturing bottle caps, but one can work just as hard trying to explain or defend the Gospel of Salvation and barely stay above the poverty line. Perhaps this is as it should be, but it can be hard on the nerves of those with the strongest faith.

In trying to support myself as a Catholic writer, I recently had a brief crisis of being ill and unable to write, which meant I didn't get paid. I maintain a mailing list by which I alert people to my latest articles, so I bit the bullet and sheepishly asked the people on my list if they could make a donation to my online PayPal account to help me. I asked that if my articles were useful or helpful to them if they would consider a donation. I was startled and humbled by the generous response. It wasn't a fortune, but it got me through the month's bills. It taught me much about gratitude, humility, God's Providence and the goodness of His people.

On the other hand, some stories are disappointing. A friend of mine who has done work speaking internationally, and very successfully, to young people about chastity has been faced with losing her non-profit status due to the loss of an important backer. She and her colleagues sent appeal letters to members of an organization of Catholic CEOs— millionaires—and received not a single response. I told her that didn't speak well for that organization.

These apostolates all fill a void. Recently a young priest told me that on his first assignment he was "spoken to" by his pastor after preaching against contraception. It was clear he was not to do it again. "Watch the collections go down," the pastor said. It's enough to make one wonder what the Church exists for if this is the attitude.

The orthodox lay apostolates that have been raised up in the last decade or so remind me of the words of Jesus, "If these do not praise me, the very stones will cry out" (Luke 19:40). If you look around you might notice that many of the issues being addressed by these lay apostolates are urgent issues which one seldom hears addressed from the pulpit: abortion, chastity, homosexuality, pornography. Natural Family Planning vs. contraception, apologetics, and of course, news and commentary which is not in the tank for dissent.

It is a commandment of the Church to contribute to her sustenance and upkeep, something I try to remind people of when they withhold donations in protest. Sadly, many have felt they have no other recourse in the face of episcopal and clerical wrongdoing, especially when their letters of concern receive only patronizing form replies. Still, we cannot let the sins of men distract us from the awesome beauty and true mission of the Bride of Christ, the Church universal.

We celebrate now the season of giving when God gave His only Son for our salvation; who gave His life that we may live. Despite so many demands, I pray that Catholics will continue their characteristic generosity motivated by gratitude for God's gift of Everlasting Life, to the Church, who is charged with carrying on Christ's work of salvation; in dioceses and parishes, and yes, to those crucial lay apostolates who are stones crying out.

God bless you and Merry Christmas.

John Mallon is a Contributing Editor to Inside the Vatican magazine