Thirty years ago, if you had told me I was going to write a book about opportunities for lay Catholics to become more involved in the Church, I would have said that would take a miracle.
I grew up the oldest of seven children in an Irish Catholic family, going to church every Sunday. I even had a sort of evangelical experience while I was working at a hospital during high school. But by my young adulthood, I was not a model of religious piety. I worked hard, but I did a lot of partying too. I got married at 27 and was divorced by the time I was 32.
I still have some trouble piecing together how I got so lost in my 20s. But slowly, I returned to the Church.
After an annulment, I remarried, and though my wife didn’t convert to Catholicism until 15 years later, we raised our three children in the Catholic faith.
My churchgoing and sacramental life became consistent. I juggled a career and a family, and on Sundays we would go to Mass. Occasionally, I would yearn for greater spiritual engagement, but that feeling would usually disappear amid the busyness of life.
But about a dozen years ago, with some significant professional and material success under my belt, I began to feel that something was missing, that maybe these three things in my life – my family, my faith, and my career – shouldn’t be separate. And maybe the balance among the three wasn’t quite right.
So I started to pray.
I had this soft inkling, no great thunderbolt, that God wanted me to become more involved in the Church, even to speak or preach there or to be of service in some way. The message seemed to come out of nowhere.
The extent of my involvement in church until that time had been to sit in the pews and help with fundraising. But a little voice kept pushing me. So I thought, Okay, I’ll go down this path a little bit.
I discovered there were plenty of opportunities to become involved in daily parish life, partly because of, no doubt, the decline in vocations.
My niche has turned out to be the parish finance committee, but I also serve meals to the homeless who come to our church for help.
As part of my due diligence, I went to talk to an old friend of my father’s, theologian Michael Novak. His enthusiasm about the idea of greater lay involvement in the Church led to what, for me, has become a life-changing dialogue.
We talked about the future of the Church and all the difficulties it faces in the coming years: the steep decline in the number of clergy and the external pressures from an increasingly secular society are going to make the 21st century a challenging one.
But my conversations with Michael made me hopeful about the opportunities for lay people to serve and to deepen their faith, and it became clear that there had been dramatic developments in the wake of Vatican II encouraging lay participation in the Church.
Indeed, my late father became a Eucharistic minister at age 65. I saw firsthand the great fulfillment it brought him, and I wondered why he didn’t start sooner. I think he would say he wished he had, but that he was too busy with his career and family.
And I wondered if other people might feel the same way or simply do not realize how much they could give and gain by getting more involved in the life of the Church.
Ordinary Catholics can make extraordinary contributions. In my own parish near Los Angeles, I have seen firsthand the lay leadership in our high school, in parish business affairs, and in a majority of the 69 ministries that are presently on offer.
There are now abundant opportunities for people to serve and engage with their neighbors in varied and substantial ways, whether professionally or on a volunteer basis.
One might say the days when it was enough to “pray, pay and obey” are over; the opportunities to bring one’s faith alive, to be God’s hands and feet on earth, have never been greater.
A few years ago, I met Bob Buford, a successful businessman and author of a book called "Halftime," devoted to helping middle-aged people do something significant with their lives.
He likes to talk about how when you’re younger, you want to devote 80 percent of your time to your job and your family and 20 percent to other things.
But slowly, the priorities start to shift as you get older. Your 40s and 50s, he says, are the “bridge years.” Bob calls this transition, “going from success to significant.”
Well, I’m 60 now, so I guess you could say I’ve come to this shift a little bit later than many. My wife says I shouldn’t beat myself up over it.
But now I’m ready to cross that bridge. I want to make a positive difference in people’s lives. I have found a calling. And if my book can help others to do the same, well, I’ll thank God for that.
William E. Simon, Jr. is co-author with Michael Novak of "Living the Call: An Introduction to the Lay Vocation" (EncounterBooks, 2011). This essay is adapted from the book.