ROME – Since the beginning of his pontificate, one of the things Pope Francis has advocated most vocally is a less clerical church with a greater involvement of laypeople at every level, including the Roman Curia.
At a time when the push for lay leadership is growing in the wake of further scandals related to Catholicism’s global sexual abuse crisis, with many arguing lay intervention would help break a systemic cycle of cover-up among bishops and priests, a Rome conference has highlighted the lives of seven lay individuals whose causes for sainthood are underway and who’ve been recognized as sterling examples of how to transform one’s daily life and activities into the service of God.
The conference, dedicated to lay holiness, took place April 30 at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, and focused on the lives of six laypeople, mostly young Italians, who died in their 20s after battling illnesses or rejecting unwanted sexual advances.
Speaking to a packed auditorium, Monsignor Fernando Ocáriz, leader for the personal prelature of Opus Dei, said that “every new saint and blessed is a source of hope and a living witness of the Gospel,” but the lives of laypeople offer a concrete example of people who “have sought to radically live Christianity in the world.”
Calling the individuals a “bright example of Christian holiness,” Ocáriz said their lives are “an occasion of grace not only for those who remember them in intercession, but for all faithful” who work toward “the sanctification of man and the glorification of Christ in men.”
The conference took place just weeks before the beatification of Guadalupe Ortiz de Landazuri, one of the first women to join Opus Dei and the first layperson from the group to be so honored, is set to take place in Spain May 18, the day commemorating her First Communion.
Ortiz de Landazuri was a standout chemist at a time when the scientific field was dominated by men, but deeply devout and widely recognized as someone whose faith shone as bright as her intellect.
Born in Madrid in 1916, Ortiz de Landazuri was raised in a pious household and was the only daughter among the family’s four children. After a brief time living in South Africa due to her father’s military career, the family returned to Madrid, where Ortiz de Landazuri graduated high school and enrolled in a chemistry class at Spain’s Universidad Central in 1933, becoming one of just five women in a class of 70 students.
She became one of the first women to join Opus Dei in 1944 after meeting its founder, Spanish Father Josemaria Escriva, who emphasized the pursuit of personal holiness in one’s concrete daily circumstances.
After their first meeting, Ortiz de Landazuri decided to dedicate her life to pursuing God in her professional life as a teacher at Madrid’s school of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In 1950 she moved to Mexico at Escriva’s invitation and helped establish Opus Dei in the country.
She set up a student residence for university women while continuing to pursue her own doctorate in chemistry. After obtaining the degree and winning a prize for her scientific research, she took on leadership roles at the Ramiro de Maeztu Institute and the Women’s School for Industrial Sciences, and later helped establish the Center of Studies and Research of Domestic Sciences.
Though her own life was not reflected on during the conference, the event was held in honor of her beatification to highlight the growing number of laypeople getting halos.
Those who were commemorated included Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, a member of the Italian Focolare Movement who died at 18 after battling cancer; Venerable Carlo Acutis, a young computer-lover who passed away at 15 after losing his fight with fulminant leukemia; Servant of God Enrique Shaw, who died from cancer at 41 and was known for promoting the social doctrine of the Church in business growth by founding the Christian Association of Business Executives; and Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo, who was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant and died in 2012 after refusing treatment in order to save her baby.
Also highlighted were Servant of God Marta Obregon Rodriguez, a young journalist who was involved with both Opus Dei and the Neocatechumenal Way, and who was murdered in 1992 after being abducted from her home by a man who attempted to rape her; and Angelica Tiraboschi, who also died at 19 after battling cancer, and who was known for her joy and deep faith.
Professor Maria Pilar del Rio, who teaches liturgical ecclesiology at Santa Croce, spoke at the conference on the “theology of the laity” that came out of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.
This new emphasis on holiness as something attainable and which should be pursued by all members of the Church, not just priests and consecrated people, wasn’t developed “at the table,” she said, but was drawn from the “lives, work and numerous apostolic activities that the laity have brought forward.”
Because of this, the topic of laity has been “welcomed and developed” since Vatican II in post-conciliar theological reflection, del Rio said, noting that the defining characteristics of lay saints are that they come from all backgrounds: Men and women, young and old, married and single, students and professionals, from all countries and backgrounds.
Each of the people highlighted, del Rio said, had encountered Jesus at some pivotal point, “and this encounter changed their lives. Then they immediately fell in love…with him who loved them first,” and then spent the rest of their lives in service to God and others.
She emphasized that holiness is “a task for all baptized without question,” and that all Catholic faithful, “of whatever state and status, are called to Christian life and perfection in charity.”
Laity, she said, are called to carry our mission in a secular world, and as such, they are invited “to continue the sanctifying work of God…not only for the salvation of men, but also of the reconciliation of the world with God.”
“Laity are called by God into the world from the world,” in a family and in society, and as a consequence, “the world for the laity is a place of call and mission.”