A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Discerning Together

By Fr John Larsen SM

Paths for Marists to Walk Confidently into the Future

Part 1 of 3


What is a Lay Marist? There are so many descriptions that at the end of the day we could be quite baffled. My own experience has exposed me to many forms of Marist Lay life. As a 13-year-old schoolboy in New Zealand I signed up as a Lay Marist along with many of my class-mates. I was living in a Marist boarding school and signing up as a Lay Marist assured me of a late supper every couple of weeks after study and before going to the dormitory as our mentor, Father Craig Larkin, explained what was expected of us – mercifully, very little, in fact. From memory, Fr Craig suggested just a decade of the rosary every day.

As a young priest at the very same college twelve years later I was assigned to be chaplain to a Third Order group of elderly people, many of whom were friends of my parents. This chaplaincy assignment was seen by my confrères at the college as an unwelcome Sunday afternoon chore best left to the most newly ordained who in turn could hand it on to the next fresh recruit from the seminary one year later. In fact, those women, and they were mostly women, who asked for the chaplain to lead the rosary, give Benediction and a little spiritual talk and stay for afternoon tea, were a tower of strength and wisdom for a young priest. They had kept the faith in a Marist way while bringing up families and enduring a Depression and at least one World War. They knew a thing or two and gently encouraged a brash but rather naïve young Marist priest.

At the same time, some were saying that all the lay staff in the college where I was teaching were really Marists, too. Some of the teachers would not have taken kindly to being called ‘Marist’, but mostly they just smiled and nodded. Were all our lay staff really Marists?

Later, as a missionary in the Philippines, there were any number of groups, all claiming to be Lay Marists – Marist student groups, Marist Mission Companions, Marist visitors of the jail and of the psychiatric hospital, Marist Young Professionals, Marist Prayer companions, Marist Interested College Students (who were more or less seminarians). Were they really all Lay Marists?

Delegates at the International Lay Marist Conference, Ireland, 2019

My most intense experience of living with a Lay Marist was when four of us were in Burma (or Myanmar) as missionaries in very remote and demanding places. Two of us were priests. One was a seminarian. One was a “Lay Marist Missionary” called Ronald. He stayed living and working with us in Myanmar and Thailand for more than ten years and if anyone deserved to be called a Marist it was Ronald. While he was with us he married Carolyn and they had a child called JP. This was a real Marist Family working and living with us. Now they have gone their own way. Are they still really Lay Marists?

Also, we had many volunteers sharing our lives as Lay Marists in Thailand. Some of them would have claimed to be Lay Marists but, as far as I know, very few, if any, persevered in the Lay Marist vocation when they returned home.

This is just my limited experience. So many ways of being a Lay Marist that, at the end of it all, I am not sure how to describe a Lay Marist and I am not sure if being a Lay Marist is just for a time, or a reason, or a season.

The call

Father Colin famously said that he wanted “the whole world Marist”. This is the basis of much of the belief that we Marists are called to show forth the Marian face of the Church. It is often contrasted with the Petrine face of the Church. More exactly, they are two dimensions of the same Church, which has both a masculine side and a feminine side and would be unhealthy without a strong relationship between the two.

In this sense, Fr Colin was fore-shadowing the words of Pope Francis, who has pointed out many times that Mary’s call to give flesh to the Word preceded the call of Peter to be the rock on which the Church was built. We can say “the whole world Marist”, because Marists share with all baptised Christians the call to give a particular tone to the whole Church, which has a Marian dimension complementing the Petrine one.

Delegates from Vanuatu

However, if we too glibly quote Father Colin’s call for “the whole world to be Marist”, then we risk saying that everyone is Marist, and before long, if everyone is Marist, there is no particular identity to the Lay Marist vocation. Perhaps this summons for the “the whole world to be Marist” is best understood as a Utopian Vision of Fr Jean-Claude when the whole world will be united around Mary at the end of time, just as she unified the vision of the early Church after Pentecost. That is how Father Justin Taylor explains the theme.

Nevertheless, the danger remains that the phrase could diminish the sense that the Marist call is personal, indeed unique, to each individual Marist.

Mary herself was called by God to a special vocation at the time of the Annunciation. She was called to give flesh to the Word, to bring the bearer of the Good News into our world. We Marists believe we share this call of Mary’s and so we take on her Name.

Perhaps we have become too quick to say everyone is Marist – all the teachers in our schools, all who work with us in ministries, all our parishioners, all our families and friends. In one sense, we are indeed all Marist, in that we are all called by our Baptism to express the Marian face of the Church. However, some people have received a personal call and make a personal response.

The clearest examples of such people are those who make Religious Vows as Marists – Sisters, Brothers and Priests. These people commit themselves to live their priestly and/or religious vocations specifically as men and women who know they have been called by God to live as Marists – to do the Work of May and bear her Name.

However, from the beginnings there are Lay People who are also Marists, who also know that they have been called by God to live their lay vocation as Marists – to do the Work of Mary and bear her Name. Lay Marists are people who know they have been called to a particular way of living the Gospel, such as Mary lived it herself. Not everyone has this vocation, and if we think everyone is called to it, then it loses its particular focus.

This was borne home to me recently when I met a woman who had volunteered to work with Professed Marists for several years in voluntary ministry. She still does wonderful work running an education program for the poorest children. She is committed, generous and competent, and full of praise for the work that the Marists are doing.

Delegates from New Zealand and Australia:
Beverley McDonald, Penelope Van der Lee, Tutangata Ama, Margaret Woods

However, when I asked her if she considered that she herself was a Lay Marist she said: “No. I do not find much appealing in the Marist spirituality. I find my direction with John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. I relate better to the Carmelite spirituality than to the Marist spirituality”. She is a wonderful co-worker with the Marists – volunteering several years of her life to work with Marists – but she knows she is not a Lay Marist.

So, an essential dimension of being a Lay Marist is the strong certainty that God has called this or that lay person to live the Gospel Way with Mary and in accordance with the Marist tradition and spirituality.

Photos: thanks to Bev McDonald

Tagged as: , ,

Comments are closed.