Fr Conor McDonough
Some three weeks ago a supermarket in the small town of Trèbes in the southwest of France, became a scene of terror. An armed man, Redouane Lakdim, claiming to act in the name of Islam, entered the shop, shot a worker and a customer, and took a hostage, intending to use her as a shield against the forces of law and order gathering outside.
Among the gendarmes who had rushed to this horrifying scene was Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame, a ferociously talented officer, newly assigned to the area. During negotiations with Lakdim, Beltrame offered to take the place of the hostage.
We all know what happened next: the tragic death of a dedicated servant of peace.
It emerged in the aftermath of the tragedy that Beltrame was a recent convert to Christ, having received his first communion at the age of 33. According to the priest who was preparing Arnaud and his fiancée for marriage, this accomplished man of the world had even built an oratory in his home as a place for personal prayer.
Clearly, offering himself in exchange for a hostage flowed from his Faith in the one who said, “Man has no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). But it’s clear too that, aside from this moment of great heroism, his daily commitment to excellence was of a piece with his following of Christ.
His mother bore witness to her son, saying: “Arnaud could never put up with mediocrity; he always wanted to go further, higher, faster.”
Was Arnaud Beltrame an active member of the Church? I have no idea whether he fulfilled any of the undoubtedly important lay roles in his parish – reading, singing, collecting, parish council work – but I do know that when Beltrame put on his gendarme’s cap on the morning of March 23, he was acting as a member of Christ’s Body. When he went to work that morning, and every morning, he was doing something holy.
How so? Isn’t work something secular and worldly, remote from the holiness of the church sanctuary? Far from it. According to the clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council, the vocation of the laity is precisely secular: “What specifically characterizes the laity is their secular nature[…]. [They] seek the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God […]. They are called [to the ordinary circumstances of family and social life] by God so that […] they may work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven” (Lumen Gentium 31).
If we think of the lay vocation as primarily a matter of getting involved in running the parish and its liturgies, we risk missing this point. We risk, as Pope Francis often says, ‘mothballing’ the Church, making of the Church a cosy community, rather than a missionary movement.
Arnaud Beltrame offers a vivid paradigm of the ‘normal’ lay vocation: confidently secular, worldly and holy, sanctifying the world by being love at the heart of the world.
This is the call of all the baptised: to be holy policemen and accountants and parents, to be the leaven of the Gospel in our schools and sports clubs, to draw strength from prayer as we canvass and campaign and organise, to transform social media with the joy of the Gospel and to be ready always and everywhere – even on a Friday morning when terror grips a sleepy town – to witness to the Kingdom of Love which alone will endure when the world passes away.
Commentators on Church affairs often speak of the importance of the laity gaining ‘decision-making power’. I’m never sure what decisions are being referred to. It would certainly be good for the voices of the laity to be heard in financial and pastoral decisions of parishes and dioceses, but there are even weightier decisions to be made by the baptised: the decision, each morning, to turn from sin and towards Christ; the decision of workers to consecrate their labour; the decision of a mother to teach her child to pray; the decision of a carer to love with the love of Christ. These are decisions that really matter, and that are, with God’s help, always in our power.