HOMILY “Evangelization: A Call to Mercy”
St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Freehold, New Jersey
June 25, 2016
Today’s Conference has taken the theme “Evangelization: A Call to Mercy,” very appropriate in this Extraordinary Holy Year of Mercy, proclaimed by our Holy Father Pope Francis. As Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, I have the privilege and honor of addressing that topic with you at Holy Mass today. Permit me, please, to divide our theme into two parts in this homily: first, “evangelization and, then, “a call to mercy.”
“Evangelization” is not an unfamiliar term in the Catholic Church of the last half-century. The word itself has roots in Greek, “eu-angelion,” meaning simply “good news.” Evangelization is basically the process of “sharing good news,” as we use it, the “Good News” or “Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Our Protestant sisters and brothers used the term long before we did. Many other Christian communities are referred to as “evangelical” because their life of faith centered prominently around the Bible, especially the Gospels and New Testament. The core of Catholic teaching and belief is also scripturally based --- no question --- but our formulation of the doctrinal expression of our faith developed and prevailed more visibly as the Catholic Church grew throughout the world over the centuries.
In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council affirmed the duty of all the baptized “of working for the ever greater spread of the divine plan of salvation to all men, of every time and all over the earth (dogmatic constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 33).” This idea hearkened back to the very commission of the Lord Jesus to the Apostles on the Mount of the Ascension: “Go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28: 19).” For a small band of followers that was a pretty substantial charge. But they did what the Lord Jesus asked them and here we are, continuing that mission 2000 years later.
Many people associate the Catholic call to evangelize with St. Pope John Paul II and rightly so since he wrote and spoke of it so very often from the earliest days of his papacy. But it was Blessed Pope Paul VI who wrote about it, laying the foundation for our contemporary Catholic understanding. He defined evangelization “in terms of proclaiming Christ to those who do not know him, of preaching, of conferring Baptism and the other sacraments (apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, 17).” In other words, Blessed Pope Paul VI saw the goal of evangelization to introduce people to the person of Jesus Christ but to do it “according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture (EN, 40).”
Evangelization begins with “personal conversion.” St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans puts it this way: How can they call on the One (Jesus Christ) they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can they preach unless they are sent (Romans 10: 14-15).
The Apostles preached because they were first sent. But they first heard. And they first believed. And they heard from Him whom they first knew. St. Paul gave us this formula for evangelization. Evangelization is rooted in a desire to be saved by the Lord Jesus --- a real desire, a burning desire --- flowing from our love of the One we know, who speaks to us, who touches and moves our hearts. The Catechism of the Catholic Church phrased it this way: “From this loving knowledge of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him, to evangelize, and to lead others to the ‘yes’ of faith in Jesus Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 429).” Our personal conversion recognizes that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of truth (1 Timothy 2: 4).”
This brings us to the second part of today’s theme, “a call to mercy.” Evangelization begins with a personal conversion to Christ but it doesn’t end there. Our personal conversion is so deep, so profound, so compelling that it wants to leap out of our hearts, out of very being to tell the world what the Lord Jesus means to us. And so we proclaim it loudly and boldly to others. Evangelization is a personal conversion that becomes a “proclamation of good news.” It builds upon a very natural, human inclination not to hold good things to ourselves but to let others know. And the more we speak and proclaim, the more we reach out to others the more immersed we become in our encounter and conviction of faith in the Lord Jesus. Evangelization changes us through our proclamation to the point where when others see us, hear us, they see and hear the Lord Jesus. Evangelization is personal conversion, proclamation ad “witness.”
St. Pope John Paul II wrote “People put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and action than in theories (encyclical Redemptoris Missio, 42).” 15 years before these words, Blessed Pope Paul VI reflected “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses (EN, 41).”
My dear sisters and brothers, what is it that we witness in our evangelization or, better, “who” do we witness? The Lord Jesus! And what is it in him, about him that is so transforming? It is his “mercy.” That is why we gather today around the theme “Evangelization: A Call to Mercy.”
Pope Francis proclaimed to us: Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy … These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God (papal bull Vultus Misericordiae, VM, 1).”
Mercy is the love freely shown to us by God who first reveals himself to us and makes his presence known and felt. We do not “earn” this mercy; we do not “deserve” it; we do not have a “right” to it. Mercy is a free gift of God that, when given, draws us into God’s very being, making God present “to” us and then, “through” us to others (Bishop O’Connell, pastoral letter Mercy and Truth Shall Kiss).
Evangelization is personal conversion to the Lord Jesus that transforms us. Evangelization is proclamation of the Lord Jesus that draws others. Evangelization is witness to the Lord Jesus Christ that convinces them that he alone is the Way. And mercy is the motivation and the mission and the message that calls us to evangelize, to make disciples of all nations and to know that he is with us all days, even to the end of time.
Most Reverend David M. O’Connell, C.M., J.C.D.
Bishop of Trenton