The Family: Apprenticeship for the Apostolate

Archbishop Richard Smith says insufficient attention has been given since Vatican II to the apostolate of the laity.


Archbishop Richard Smith says insufficient attention has been given since Vatican II to the apostolate of the laity.

November 19, 2012
Following is Archbishop Richard Smith's catechetical presentation at the Nov. 1 session of Nothing More Beautiful.


With our opening session this evening, we embark on our fifth and final year of Nothing More Beautiful. I would like us to understand these coming months as not an end but a beginning, a sending forth, a launching out into the deep waters of our day, just as Blessed Pope John Paul II called us to do on the eve of the millennium.

"Apostolate" means just that: sending forth. Jesus sent out his apostles to proclaim the good news of salvation. Likewise he sends out into the world each and every member of his Body, the Church, with the life-transforming message of the Gospel.

In this final year, we focus upon the apostolate of the laity. In recent decades, we have given a great deal of attention to lay ministry within the Church, and rightly so.

However, insufficient attention has been given, at least in my opinion, to the lay apostolate. By this I mean the call of the laity to be leaven in the world; to knead into every aspect of our society the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As regards the goal of the laity's witness and work, the Church sets the bar high – very high. It is nothing less than the transformation of the world. No aspect of society or culture should be outside the ambit of the Church's activity or concern. This is why we shall have sessions dedicated this year to bringing the light of the Gospel to the political and social order as well as to the workplace.

Of course, where everything must begin is in the home, in the family. For this catechetical session I will focus on a phrase used at the Second Vatican Council to describe the mission of the family with respect to the apostolate. The document of the lay apostolate speaks of the family as "a sort of apprenticeship for the apostolate" (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 30).

This opening session considers how we might understand this. How do we apprentice for the apostolate in the home?

We are led to the answer to that question when we consider the liturgical feast we celebrate today. We have gathered this evening on the Solemnity of All Saints. This feast reminds us of our universal call to be holy, to be saints. The apostolate arises out of holiness.

Holiness begins with our encounter with Jesus Christ, from falling in love with him, who loved us first (1 John 4.19). Our response of love is directed to both God and neighbour, in accordance with the commandment of our Lord.

This is why the Church teaches that to live a holy life is to be fully dedicated to giving glory to God and offering service to our neighbour. Such a life results in what the council calls "an abundant harvest of good" (Lumen Gentium, 40).

We see clearly that there is no shortage of evil and harm being harvested today. What we need is an abundant and constant harvest of good. Holiness is the indispensable ground of the apostolate aimed at that harvest so as to transform the world. We need people to live holy lives with everything that means. This is the way the laity exercise the apostolate proper to them. The preparation must be given in the family.

So, how can the family be the first school of holiness and thus an apprenticeship for the apostolate? Let us consider this in accordance with what it means to live a holy life, namely, so to live as to give glory to God and serve our neighbour.

What does it mean to give glory to God as a family? How does family life prepare its members for a life of loving service? I will now reflect with you on each of these questions in turn.


We give God glory by putting God first. God must be our first love. Recall the ancient teaching of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deuteronomy 6.4-5).

The very first of the commandments is: "I am the Lord your God. . . . You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20.2-5). We know that Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, affirmed this as the greatest of all commandments and linked it with love of neighbour (Matthew 22.37-40).

He incorporated the priority of God in that great summary of his teaching called the Sermon on the Mount: "Seek first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6.33). Before all else, surrender to the rule of God in your hearts. Then, Jesus tells us, and only then, all else will be given to you.

Let's spell this out in practical terms. Giving God glory in the family must begin, of course, with the spouses. The starting point is an acceptance of the truth and beauty of marriage.

In our day, when states presume – with an arrogance that is breathtaking – that they can define marriage to accord with adult desires, we must affirm again and again that marriage is a divine institution with a God-given purpose. It is an exclusive union of one man and one woman, ordered to the love of the spouses and the procreation and raising of children.

The call to marriage is written into the very constitution of the human being (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1603). This is first taught by the Book of Genesis (Genesis 1.26-28) and affirmed by Christ himself (Matthew 19.4-6; Mark 10.6-9). Spouses give glory to God when they accept this truth with trust in God's wisdom and shape their life together in accordance with God's purpose for this institution.

Furthermore, Catholics hold marriage to be a sacrament. By this we mean it is both sign and instrument of God's saving action in the world. According to St. Paul, it makes visible the love of Christ for his Church (Ephesians 5.31-32). That divine love is unconditional, forgiving and creative of life.

Spouses give glory to God when they place Jesus at the centre of their life together and accept in faith the mission that is theirs. By loving one another unconditionally, by forgiving one another whenever there is hurt, and by being fully open to the gift of life, they mirror Christ's love and give glory to God.

As husband and wife receive the gift of children, they assume the responsibility of bringing them up in the faith and training them to give glory to God.

The teaching of the faith is a solemn responsibility of parents, says Archbishop Smith.

The teaching of the faith is a solemn responsibility of parents, says Archbishop Smith.

I am grateful to my parents for many things, but that for which I am most thankful is their decision to bring me to St. Michael's Church in Halifax on May 10, 1959, for Baptism. When Father Ron Docherty poured water over my head and pronounced the baptismal formula, I was washed clean of original sin, adopted as a child of God and given the gift of membership in the Church.

There is no greater gift that parents can give their children. At that same event, my parents made a solemn promise before God and the Church to raise me in the practice of the faith. All parents do that when their son or daughter is baptized. Through fidelity to that promise, parents give glory to God.

Fulfilling that promise means deciding early on what the family's priorities are to be. That decision is guided by the teaching of Jesus: seek first the kingdom; love God first of all and above all. For the Catholic family, this means that Sunday Mass, daily prayer and participation in the sacraments come before all else.

I worry today about the manifold pressures on families, pulling them in a multitude of directions, such that the worship of God on Sunday gets replaced by something else.

I expect my upbringing was much like that of many gathered here in the basilica this evening. My parents' idea of negotiating with the children about going to Mass was "Dear, you're going!"

This included vacation time. I remember being on road trips and the first questions we would ask upon arrival anywhere was: "Where is the Church and what time is Mass?" Everything else we wanted to do was planned around that.

Now, please, don't get me wrong; I am not proposing my family as a model. We had struggles like all families do, and the world in which we live today is far different than the one I knew growing up. What I am highlighting from my experience are principles that transcend time and must find application in every age.

God is first. His commandments – including honouring the Sabbath – are to be obeyed. He is truly present in the Eucharist and deserving of both our love and our reverence. By giving God pride of place on its list of priorities, the family gives glory to God.

The family also gives glory to God when members pray together and seek to know the teaching of the Lord. Regarding prayer, this can be done very simply. It could be grace together before meals or praying the rosary together as a family.

In my last parish before I became a bishop, one young family had the simple practice of placing a candle in a corner of a room, so as to create a sacred space, and then gathering at the beginning of each day for only a few moments to offer their spontaneous prayers to the Lord for whatever needs came to their minds and hearts. Simple.

Daily prayer as a family does not have to be complex. Perhaps daily use could be made in the home of the special prayer cards the archdiocese has prepared to mark our centenary. What is important is that spouses pray together and that parents and children pray together. In this way, too, we give glory to God.

With respect to the teaching of the faith, this is clearly a solemn responsibility of parents, but this does not mean that mom and dad need to be professional theologians or expert catechists. They are the first teachers in the faith, yes, but we have Catholic schools and parish catechetical programmes to support them in this role.

What is indispensable on their part, though, is their personal witness. If what is taught in the school or parish is not lived out in the home it will have little hope of taking root in the children.

At the end of the ceremony of Baptism, a special blessing for parents says the following: "(The parents) will be the first teachers of their (children) in the ways of faith. May they be also the best of teachers, bearing witness to the faith by what they say and do. . . ." In other words, teach by example.

Seek first the kingdom of God; put God first. By doing this in the family we give glory to God and grow in holiness.


The second dimension of holiness is the service of others; in the words of Jesus, to love others as he has loved us (John 13.34-35). Apprenticeship for the apostolate in the family through growth in holiness means that the family must be a place where we learn to love as Jesus loved.

Much can be said about this, but for our purposes this evening in the limited time available I would like to highlight just two ways we model Christ's love: first, by being really present to each other; and, second, by stepping out of ourselves into the service of others.

The cross teaches that genuine love must embrace forgiveness.


The cross teaches that genuine love must embrace forgiveness.

We can understand how to learn both of these ways in the family by reflecting on two key moments in the life of Jesus that reveal the truth of his love: the institution of the Eucharist and his death on the cross. I hope to show how the first, real presence, leads to the second, service, and is its necessary precondition.


On the night of the Last Supper Christ showed us that love involves real presence. It seems to me that this is a very important point to grasp for family life today.

More and more relationships today are characterized by presence that is not real but virtual. Social networking today is taking place through sites like Facebook and Twitter, and communication is increasingly virtual through things like emails and text messaging. These can have great benefits, certainly, but we need to ask what it is doing to our capacity to relate in a real way to one another, to be truly, really present to each other.

I once spoke with a gentleman who had been talking with his teenage daughter about all the texting that takes place among her friends. He asked her "Why don't you use the phone as a phone and call your friends? You know, speak with them?" "In order to do that," she said, "I'd have to have something to talk about."

Whatever is going on in the texting, it wouldn't appear to be any significant conversation. Of course, the more this virtual interaction becomes widespread in our society, the more it will inevitably creep into the daily life of the family. The interface can become not personal, one-to-one, but indirect through a medium such as the television or computer game.

But it is in the family that relationships must be real, not virtual. If the family is to fulfill its mission, it must be a home where members are not just present with one another in the same place, but present to one another in love. The presence to the other must be genuine, real.

What did Jesus teach us about real presence at that Last Supper?

When he instituted the Eucharist, Jesus taught that his real and abiding presence with us in that sacrament is more than a "presence with," as wondrous and comforting as that might be. It is a "presence to." It interacts with and engages the other and invites us to communion.

Christ did not say only "this is my body, this is my blood." He said "this is my body given for you; this is my blood poured out for you." With those words, he was referring to his approaching death on the cross and teaching that his death was a self-offering, a self-gift for the life of the world.

By then offering the gifts to his disciples he was engaging them and inviting them to make of their lives a self-offering, through, with and in him to the Father, for the life of the world. In other words, Christ's real presence to the other in love engages the other at the deepest level of their life with the totality of his own.

In the family, love finds expression in real presence when we redirect our gaze away from the virtual to the real, when we turn away from the television, from the computer, from the video games and turn toward one another in ways that are deeply meaningful.

Virtual presence deepens our sense of anonymity even as we connect with others. Real presence affirms that I am known and that I matter.

This real presence of family members to one another has the all-important effect of enabling each one to discover the truth and beauty of his or her individual identity. One's identity is discovered and celebrated through that real presence demanded by love.

Here we can begin to see how our real presence in love to each other in the home is the necessary foundation for a life of Christian service. It is essential for family apprenticeship in the apostolate.

Why? To give of myself in service to others, it has to be truly myself that I give; I have to be real. Pope Benedict teaches that it is not enough simply to give something to another; we must be personally present in the gift (Deus Caritas Est, 34). Christian love is self-giving.

But to give myself away, my real identity must be discovered and affirmed. This has to take place in the family and is forged by our real presence to one another.


Let us turn, now, to this second aspect of modeling the love of Jesus. We have seen that loving as Jesus loved demands real presence, which in turn affirms the beauty and truth of ourselves. It also means giving oneself in service to the other.

We learn this latter point most clearly in the cross of our Lord.

The death of Jesus on the cross reveals that true love leads to self-sacrifice and self-gift. His death was his obedient self-gift to the Father for the sake of the world.

In the Gospel of John he says that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends. This is what he has done for us and has thereby made manifest a key characteristic of love. Love does not preserve oneself at the expense of another; love gives oneself for the sake of the other.

There are many opportunities in the family for this selfless love. We need think only of parents who make financial sacrifices for the sake of their children's education, or mum and dad sitting up all night with a sick child, or family members chipping in to help a child with a school project.

Parents model sacrificial love daily when they give of themselves for the sake of the children. They teach sacrificial love when they encourage their children not to keep their toys for themselves but to share them with siblings and others, or when they keep before them an awareness of the needs of the world's poor and discuss with them what they can do concretely to help.

In the experience of family members helping one another and others, we touch and live out an essential dimension of human nature. It is part of our essence to give ourselves to others, to be gift for others. We act counter to our nature as human beings when we are selfish and self-centred.

This is why it "feels right" to do good for others. It is how we have been created. The scriptural account of creation in Genesis tells us that we have been fashioned in the image and likeness of God.

We know from God's self-revelation in Christ that God is love; that God is relationship of persons; that out of love God gives himself to us. To be created in this image and likeness, then, means that we are fashioned to be in relationship with God and one another. This truth is affirmed by its supreme manifestation in Christ's death on the cross.

However, we know that there is a reality in our lives that stands in the way of selfless loving. It is that disease we call selfishness and that roadblock known as bitterness, the refusal to forgive.

The apostolate of the laity must confront this, because it is wreaking havoc in our homes and in our world. We confront it with the cross, which teaches that the only effective antidote to the disease of bitterness and retribution is love that forgives.

Consider once again the revelation of the cross. It teaches that genuine love must embrace forgiveness. The humanity for which Christ died was a sinful humanity. What proves that Christ loves us, says St. Paul, is that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.

The cross of Christ reveals both the nature of this sin and God's response to it. The cross demonstrates that sin is ultimately rebellion against God.

At the same time the cross reveals God's answer to this rebellion. God did not react with violence or respond with condemnation. God's answer to the sin of the world is love, a love that remains steadfast even in the face of deepest betrayal. God is steadfast love, and he responds to our sin with mercy and forgiveness.

This dimension of love must be taught and lived in the family, if it is to be an authentic apprenticeship for the apostolate. The family is the place where we must learn to forgive.

We acknowledge this every time we say that family prayer called the Our Father. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." There we ask God to forgive us to the extent that we are willing to forgive others.

Hurts that occur in the family are the deepest of all, because brought about by people we love. But it is that very love that enables us to forgive.

Genuine love, Christ teaches, remains steadfast even in the face of hurt and betrayal. The training in love that occurs in the family needs to embrace apprenticeship in forgiveness. The tendency within the human heart to selfishness and to anger finds its antidote in the family when that is a place where a love that gives and forgives is genuinely taught and effectively appropriated.


The family is the primary apprenticeship for the apostolate. It is where we learn to be holy, to dedicate our lives to giving glory to God and service to others.

In sum, it is the place where, by reflecting upon the life of Jesus, we learn genuine love. When we make the teaching and example of Christ the centre and foundation of our family life, the family becomes both the training ground for the apostolate and the nucleus of a real civilization of life and love.