Meditations for Layfolk - Our Duty to Our Neighbours

Our Lord said: "A new commandment I give you. . . . by this shall all men know that you are My disciples if you have love one for another"; and everyone has noted that in the description that He gives Himself of the Last Judgement, He seems to make the whole future life depend entirely upon the corporal works of mercy. He does not upbraid the wicked for their blasphemy, nor for their pride, nor for their direct refusal to serve God, for they were quite surprised to learn that they had neglected their duty to God; it would seem as though they would at once have done all they could for Him had they seen Him in any want or distress. No rebuke falls from His lips that they have ignored the sovereign worship of the Father, but only, "I was hungry and you gave Me not to eat, naked and you clothed Me not, homeless and you did not take Me in. ... Depart from Me, ye cursed, for inasmuch as you did not these things to the least of My brethren, you did them not to Me." Saint Catharine of Siena tells us that we have a distinct obligation to help our neighbour, so that if this help be withheld we are guilty of sin. She notes, for example, that in the i8th Psalm, when we pray to be spared from the sins of others, we are really supposing that the sins of others may be our own very fault, and that it is quite possible that God will judge us not only for what we have done, but also what others through us have committed. Thus upon us rests the responsibility of countless others, of all those upon whose lives, either directly or indirectly, our influence is brought to bear. Surely the prospect is frightening, for who shall say where that influence of ours is to stop? An act is performed in life, and the ripple of the waters it has disturbed widen till they touch the shore.

Parents as well as priests come under this grave responsibility; nor is the wonderful effect of influence for good or ill confined to those who are in an official position of authority over others. All layfolk must be included, for upon each lies the obligation of doing what each can for his neighbour's soul: none are exempt. Indeed, everyone can do a great deal. The laity, in so far as their lives are fuller of activity, and as they are far more numerous than are the priests, have a much wider field of action. It is difficult to see where the possible scope of their effective power can cease; when we read the lives of such wonderful men as Ozanam and others of his type, we see that there really is no limit to the amount of good that can be effected by layfolk. So closely and intimately are they associated with their neighbours, that at every turn in the road they can be saying, doing, living, that which must bring ideas to those about them. If each, then, did his own best, what a huge change would come about! Take my own little circle in life. Supposing that upon all I had brought to bear the whole power of which I am capable, what a difference would by now have been seen in the little world which forms the boundary of my activity! Then each of these, too, would have become the centre of another circle round which revolves another. How many lax Catholics might have been led back to the practice of the faith! How many young men, when just a word might have saved them, would have been prevented from an evil step from which there was no recovery! How many boys might have been kept close to the reverence of the noble and pure ideals of Christ!

Of course, human respect makes us afraid of acting, for the power of the world springs, as always, from its boldness. By it bad men create an atmosphere around them. If the good were as bold as are the bad, there would be no bad left, or very few. Every unit tells. If every Catholic were a credit to his religion and openly professed the whole round of faith, how would the evil of the world be cowed! It is, perhaps, the little things that tell most - grace properly and respectfully said before and after meals, a real sign of the Cross, lifting the hat deliberately when passing a church, bowing the head at the mention of the Holy Name; these are the things that oddly enough most strike those outside with the true Christian fearlessness. Laymen should also be keen on their religion and be able to give a reasonable account of the faith that is in them; but the strongest argument of all is a religious and edifying life as a courageous Catholic. We are responsible, then, if there is a soul that we can help towards God, which through our laziness is thrown off from that direction to a lower plane of life. Of us will God ask, as He asked of Cain, "Where is thy brother?" and it is only a murderer who can dare make answer that we are not the keepers of our brothers. But what a joy to have been of use to others, to have given them a helping hand over the difficult places of life, and eventually to find a ready welcome from the courts of God, where we shall find gathered together those who under God owed to us their presence before Him! Perhaps I have been too afraid of professing my faith; no one will on that account respect me the more. Perhaps, on the other hand, I have tried to ram my religion down other people's throats. There is surely a middle course of gentle and kindly life, full of the wisdom of charity, based upon the perfect Figure of Christ.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.