10/25/2013 In pastoral essay, Bishop O'Connell focuses on how being a witness is the best teacher of our faith
Pope Francis told young people that in every encounter with Christ’s cross, they can draw strength from him and they can leave the heaviest part of their burden with him. CNS photo/Sergio Moraes, Reuters
Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.
The mission of the Catholic Church has not changed since Our Lord Jesus Christ stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and read, quoting from chapter 61 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4: 18-19).
After handing the scroll to the attendant, Jesus sat down and began to teach, uttering that cryptic phrase, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 21).
No, the mission of the Catholic Church has not changed since that day, some 2,000 years ago because it is the mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ, “yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega. His are the times and the ages. To him be glory and dominion, now and forever. Amen” ( Roman Missal, “Blessing of the Easter Candle” at the Easter Vigil). It is still being fulfilled. The world has changed, however. And things within the Catholic Church have changed. The challenge for us as Catholics today in a changed world confronting changes within our own Church is: how do we keep Christ’s changeless mission, the Catholic Church’s changeless mission, vital and alive? How do we make sure that the Gospel is recognized, preached and known? How do we ensure that the message and the mission of Our Lord Jesus Christ continue to be “fulfilled in our hearing?”
Isn’t that the true purpose of the Catholic Church? Hasn’t that been its responsibility and reason for existence since that day in the synagogue in Nazareth?
Our Lord Jesus Christ identified his mission as preaching the Gospel to the poor. Over these many centuries, Catholics and other Christians have come to know that the object of our preaching — the poor — is not only confined to those who lack material resources. The “poor” who need to hear the Gospel also includes those who lack a relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. They, too, are the “poor.” They, too, are the “mission” of the Catholic Church. And that makes them part of the “new evangelization” that is so large a part of the Church’s conversation and efforts in our day.
In his address to participants in a meeting within the Diocese of Rome, Our Holy Father Pope Francis remarked that The proclamation of the Gospel is destined for the poor first of all, for all those who all too often lack what they need to live a dignified life. To them, first, are proclaimed the glad tidings that God loves them with a preferential love and comes to visit them through the charitable works that disciples of Christ do in his name. Go to the poor first of all: this is the priority. … The Gospel is for everyone! This reaching out to the poor does not mean we must become champions of poverty or, as it were, “spiritual tramps”! No, no this is not what it means! It means we must reach out to the flesh of Jesus that is suffering, but also suffering is the flesh of Jesus of those who do not know it with their study, with their intelligence, with their culture. We must go there! I therefore like using the expression “to go toward the outskirts,” the outskirts of existence. All the outskirts: from physical and real poverty to intellectual poverty, which is also real. All the peripheries, all the crossroads on the way: go there! And sow there the seed of the Gospel with your words and your witness. This means we must have courage (“Address to Participants in the Ecclesial Convention of the Diocese of Rome”, June 17, 2013).
These comments are not really new, as Blessed Pope John Paul II often remarked, but, in the person of the recently elected Pope Francis, they take on a new vitality, freshness and urgency. They describe his sense of the “new evangelization.” Such poverty, such urgency for a “new evangelization” can be seen in our own day when people, especially our own Catholic people, do not know and understand the mission of Christ, his Gospel, the deposit of faith, the living tradition of our Church enough to articulate their meaning and confront those who seek to undermine or destroy them. Don’t kid yourselves. They exist outside and inside our Church.
Such poverty, such urgency for a “new evangelization” can be seen in our own day when people, especially our own Catholic people, speak with dismissive, reckless abandon about the Church and its timeless mission and teachings or, worse, when they deny them as though their fundamental truth is “up for grabs,” “dependent solely upon public opinion,” “something that should not offend anyone but, rather, should make everyone ‘feel good’.”
Well, that’s not the way our Catholic faith works. That’s not the way our life in the Catholic Church is or should be. The Gospel of Christ is not “up for grabs.” The truths of our Catholic faith are not “dependent upon public opinion” at all. Blessed John Paul II wrote The search for truth, of course, is not always so transparent … The natural limitation of reason and the inconstancy of the heart often obscure and distort a person’s search. Truth can also drown in a welter of other concerns. People can even run from the truth as soon as they glimpse it because they are afraid of its demands. Yet, for all that they may evade it, the truth still influences life. Life in fact can never be grounded upon doubt, uncertainty or deceit; such an existence would be threatened constantly by fear and anxiety. One may define the human being, therefore, as the one who seeks the truth (Pope John Paul II, encyclical Fides et Ratio, Sept. 14, 1998, para. 28).
And the Cross of Christ is, indeed, offensive to many who just don’t understand it or don’t want to. The Cross never “feels good.” It wasn’t meant to. That’s what sacrifice is all about. That’s what Jesus meant when he told us to “lay down our lives.” The Catholic Church stands for something specific, concrete and unambiguous in the face of unrelenting assaults on what we believe and teach and practice as Catholics. We must recover a true sense of the Church and its mission: what it is; what it means; what it requires of the Catholic believer. There is a price to pay, a cost for being Catholic. That’s the “new evangelization” and we cannot do what Christ and the Church asks of us without the conviction of faith that Christ’s mission and the Church’s mission are one and the same.
The Venerable Pope Paul VI put it this way when he stated: “There is thus a profound link between Christ, the Church and evangelization. During the period of the Church that we are living in, it is she who has the task of evangelizing. This mandate is not accomplished without her, and still less against her (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, para. 16, December 8, 1975).”
In his first encyclical letter, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis wrote Faith does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time … it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey toward a future of hope (Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Lumen Fidei, para. 51, June 29, 2013).
The Catholic Church does not exist so that society or culture in any given era can transform or convert it. No, the Catholic Church, following the example and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ, exists to transform and convert society and culture, to transform and change the world. It does so by proclaiming Christ and his Gospel without hesitation or reluctance or doubt. It does so by embracing the truth of its teachings, social and doctrinal, with the firmest commitment. It does so by handing on the deposit of faith and the true and living tradition of the Catholic Church, whole and entire, not some caricature leaning to the extremes of left or right or some “cafeteria-like” selection of an individual or group, to every successive generation. It does so by offering the people of our day “a place” and a home to encounter the living God in Jesus Christ.
Again, in his landmark apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, the Venerable Pope Paul VI wrote The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, para. 22, Dec. 8, 1975).
More recently, in a homily to his fellow Jesuits on the feast of their founder, St. Ignatius Loyola, Our Holy Father Pope Francis wrote that Christ is our life! Likewise the centrality of Christ corresponds to the centrality of the Church: they are two focal points that cannot be separated: I cannot follow Christ except in the Church and with the Church (Pope Francis, “Homily to the Jesuit Community in Rome,” July 31, 2013).
His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in an address to the Bishops of Japan, had already declared that The need to proclaim Christ boldly and courageously is a continuing priority for the Church; indeed it is a solemn duty laid upon her by Christ who enjoined the Apostles to ‘go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News (Pope Benedict XVI, “ Ad limina Address to the Bishops of Japan,” Dec. 17, 2007).
He and Pope Francis share the conviction of the Venerable Pope Paul VI, namely that … the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church. It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity.
She exists in order to evangelize (Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, para. 14, Dec. 8, 1075).
In that same text, the Venerable Pope Paul VI posed three profound questions that still require our answer as Catholics: In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience? To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming the people of this century?
What methods should be followed in order that the power of the Gospel may have its effect ( ibid., para. 4)?
I believe that the answer to his first question — “what has happened” — is, simply, “indifference.” We have ceased to care, blaming our indifference on disagreements with or open dissent from some of the Church’s teachings that make our Catholic life inconvenient or at odds with secular values, or on some scandal, as difficult or discouraging it may be, or another concern rooted in the behavior of others, especially those with leadership roles in the Church. The excuses are far too easy and we have become lazy in our faith. Why bother? Live and let live. We shouldn’t impose our beliefs — truth — on others. Sad but true.
I believe the answer to his second question — are we capable — is, to the extent that we are willing, we will be capable. After all, our mission as the Catholic Church is that of Our Lord Jesus Christ and it has persevered in good times and bad longer than any institution in history. When teaching World History to high school students, I often pointed out to them how directly the Catholic Church influenced the progress of history for the past two millennia. Think about that. The history of the world “A.D.” is largely the history of the Catholic Church and its impact, again, in good times and bad.
As far as “methods” are concerned, the Pope himself has proposed an answer leading to still more questions: Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? Such a witness is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization. The above questions will ask, whether they are people to whom Christ has never been proclaimed, or baptized people who do not practice, or people who live as nominal Christians but according to principles that are in no way Christian, or people who are seeking, and not without suffering, something or someone whom they sense but cannot name. Other questions will arise, deeper and more demanding ones, questions evoked by this witness which involves presence, sharing, solidarity, and which is an essential element, and generally the first one, in evangelization. … All Christians are called to this witness, and in this way they can be real evangelizers ( ibid., para. 21). And Pope Paul VI often reminded us, as did each of his successors, that in order to evangelize effectively, the Catholic Church must continuously evangelize herself. Why? … She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love. She is the People of God immersed in the world, and often tempted by idols, and she always needs to hear the proclamation of the “mighty works of God” which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by Him and reunited. In brief, this means that she has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel ( ibid., para. 15).
It was Blessed Pope John Paul II who posed this challenge to our Church: The moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelism --- a re-evangelization of Christian communities that have lost their original vigor … (Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio, para. 3, Dec. 7, 1990).
That commitment, those energies, a “new evangelization” of ourselves first who have, indeed, lost our “original vigor” and, then, of those who have yet to hear the Gospel, are the ways — the only ways — the Catholic Church can renew itself and transform the culture(s) that surround us. A “new evangelization” for us but the same mission that of Our Lord Jesus Christ announced in the synagogue in Nazareth. Let the work begin… again. Let His Word “be fulfilled in our hearing.”