Last week, the Theological Symposium of the 2016 International Eucharist Congress took place in Cebu, Philippines.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB, gave the following address on Evangelization:
Address of Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Theological Symposium of the 2016 International Eucharistic Congress
Cebu, Philippines – January 22, 2016
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Thank you for the privilege of addressing the International Theological Symposium in the Philippines that is part of the 51st International Eucharistic Congress in Cebu. You have invited me to reflect on the theme of “Evangelizing the Secular World”, a topic that has been at the heart of my ministry for the past 30 years. Because I am a student, teacher and lover of Scripture, I wish to develop the theme through the lenses of the New Testament which has provided me with the vision, energy, dynamism and images for my ministry these past years.
Why is Evangelization so challenging today? Why do we often encounter such massive ignorance of or indifference to the message of Jesus Christ? Why is God being pushed the sidelines of so many of our societies and cultures? We may wonder at times why people aren’t turned on by our stories, our ministry, and why the young aren’t interested in whom we are and what we do. Did we ever stop to think that maybe part of the reason is that we aren’t telling our story in the right way, or maybe not at all? Do we view our lives against the backdrop of salvation history and biblical history? How can we recapture the treasure and dynamism of the Word of God? How do we speak the Word of God with authority today? If the power of God’s Word in Sacred Scripture is to be felt in the life and mission of the Church, we must be vigilant to ensure that Sacred Scripture has a primordial place in our lives.
I believe that a great part of the difficulties we experience in our efforts to evangelize is due to ignorance of the Scriptures. To quote the Early Church Father and Doctor of the Church, Jerome, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” This biblical ignorance or illiteracy is directly related to our efforts to evangelize the culture around us. How can we make Scripture once again the core of our evangelizing efforts in the world? How can the hearts of people be set on fire by the Risen Lord who begs people to touch the text of his words and be deeply moved by these words?
Whenever I have spoken about Evangelization, I have heard several fears from many Catholics, which can be obstacles to our becoming an evangelizing Church. First, in an attempt to be “polite”, and motivated by a false sense of ecumenism or interreligious dialogue, people do not want to impose upon others or imply that they are superior to them in some way.
Second, many Catholics fear the very word “evangelizing” because they are afraid of being asked questions they cannot answer. Overcoming this obstacle means that we must learn more about Christ, the Bible and the Church’s teachings, history and our rich tradition.
The third obstacle is the crisis of biblical literacy. To evangelize means to spread the good news of Jesus Christ found in the New Testament. How can we possibly announce this Good News when the target audience does not know the vocabulary, language and imagery of this Good News?
This point was driven home many times during the 2008 Vatican Synod of Bishops on the Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. I was an eyewitness of that ecclesial event, having served as the English language media attaché of the Synod. No one made the point more succinctly than the late Cardinal Francis George, OMI, of Chicago. In his brief yet pointed presentation, Cardinal George said: “Behind this loss of biblical images lies the loss of a sense and an image of God as an actor in human history. …In Scripture, God is both the principal author and the principal actor. In Scripture, we encounter the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. …Our people, for the most part, do not live confidently in the biblical world of active spirit, of angels and demons, of the search for God’s will and God’s intentions in the midst of this world governed by God’s providence. …Scripture takes on the genre of fantasy fiction, and the biblical world becomes an uninhabitable embarrassment.”
I also think that we lack a sense of urgency of our mission and frequently give in to nostalgia. I will explain those points later in this presentation.
I invite you to consider Jesus, the evangelizer par excellence who offers us a proven method of proclaiming and living the Good News. He was a master teacher and a perfect communicator and he is the model for all who seek to communicate the Good News and evangelize our culture today. Jesus used parables to teach very important lessons. By parables, Jesus attempted to convey the true nature of a loving and benevolent God. These marvelous stories bear witness to a God who hears the cries of the poor and defends the orphans, widows and immigrants. The God of the Bible suffers with the people. God comes among us as a vulnerable baby born among the homeless, lives as an immigrant and refugee life, associates with the outcasts and compares the kingdom to receiving a little child. This God is then executed and buried in a borrowed tomb. The indirectness of parables makes the wisdom of Jesus inaccessible to hostile literalists. Jesus used parables to respond to the disciples’ and apostles’ burning questions about the presence of God, their lives with him and the challenges and crises they endured ministering in his name.
The Parable of the Sower
Many stories of the Gospel have Jesus glancing around for something to use as an illustration of his message. One such story is the parable of the sower – a remarkable study in contrasts. To Jesus’ Galilean listeners who were close to the earth, the image of sowing seeds was a very familiar one. The parable is startling on several accounts. First of all it portrays a sower who is apparently careless. He scatters the seed with reckless abandon even in those areas where there is virtually no chance for growth. The first seed that falls on the path has no opportunity to grow. The second seed falls on rocky ground, grows quickly, and dies as quickly. The third seed falls among thorns and has its life submerged by a stronger force. Finally the fourth seed falls on good soil and produces fruit – to astonishing, unknown, and unthinkable proportions. The normal harvest in a good year might be sevenfold, but never thirty or sixty, much less one hundred! The life-bearing potential of the seed is beyond imagination! The final yield is earth shattering! In the end, the parable portrays the sower as lavish and extravagant rather than foolish and wasteful.
I wish to focus on Matthew’s parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23). In the explanation of the parable (vv. 18-23) the emphasis is on the various types of soil upon which the seed falls, i.e. on the dispositions with which the preaching of Jesus is received (cf. parallels in Mark 4:14-20; Luke 8:11-15). The four types of recipients envisaged are: (1) those who never accept the word of the kingdom (Matthew 13:19); (2) those who believe for a while but fall away because of persecution (13:20-21); (3) those who believe, but in whom the word is choked by worldly anxiety and the seduction of riches (13:22); and (4) those who respond to the word and produce fruit abundantly (13:23).
Matthew incorporates almost of Mark’s version of the parable but adds his own perspective. There is a striking line in Matthew’s explanation of this parable. Puzzled by Jesus’ story, the disciples ask him to explain it, and he begins, “the field is the world and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom” (v.38). God works in the world, not simply in the church. The world is a mixed reality, both good and bad but the community cannot insulate itself from the weeds. Complete deliverance from evil comes only in the end time when, in the words of the parable, the just will shine “like the sun”; in the meantime, the community’s place is precisely in the world, in the midst of the weeds and the wheat.
Matthew’s community struggled with self-definition in the midst of the cataclysmic changes that flooded over both Jewish Christianity and Palestinian Judaism in the wake of the Jewish revolt against Rome and its devastating suppression in A.D. 70. Matthew wrote his Gospel for such a Jewish Christian community caught in the great tsunami of history, anxious about its connection to its sacred historical roots in Judaism and trembling before a future that promised substantial and perhaps even devastating changes.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by insisting that his mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But Jesus begins to anticipate this turning point from an exclusive focus on Israel to an inclusive mission to the Jews and Gentiles in the body of the Gospel as he encounters Gentiles who, in a sense, force their way onto the Gospel stage! We caught glimpses of this widening mission in the enchanting Christmas Magi who read the stars and come seeking the Messiah; or the Roman centurion of Capernaum who begs Jesus to heal his sick servant and evokes in Jesus a vision of a future mission beyond the boundaries of Israel. How can we forget the Canaanite woman who breaks down Jesus’ resistance by her insistent pleas on behalf of her sick daughter or the Gadarene demoniac whose terrible plight reaches Jesus as he comes ashore in the alien territory of the Decapolis. In that provocative story, life encounters death, enchained among the tombs.
Matthew’s Gospel reminds us that the field in which our God-given destiny unfolds is the world and not simply the church; the Spirit is alive in the world, and there in the mix of weeds and wheat. Time and again the biblical drama shows that what we might call secular events, even horrific, wrenching and destructive ones, move history forward and provide the setting for God’s revelation. The field is the world, and this strange array of peoples on the peripheries and outside the perimeter of biblical Israel breaks into the Gospel arena and becomes a vital part of Jesus’ mission. This is what happens when the seed falls unpredictably in the world and not just in the church.
As my colleague and mentor, Fr. Donald Senior, CP, brilliantly points out in his essay on “Biblical Reflections On Discernment of Who We Are and Where We Are Going”:
“Israel was not formed in an airtight vacuum but took shape in interaction with Canaanite and other ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Interaction with those cultures gave to Israel its language, its culture, much of its religious symbolism and ritual, its architecture, its form of government. The fundamental intuitions and symbols that became the language of biblical faith were born in the heart of Israel’s own historical experience: the trauma of oppression; the aspirations for nationhood and a unifying political structure; the merging of a capital city and a central sanctuary; the tragedy of failure and exile; the tenacious hope of ultimate peace and security.”
Fr. Senior continues: “Thus so many of Jesus’ own religious symbols, drawn from the strong repertoire of Judaism, are metaphors of gathering and healing, of reconciliation and forgiveness, of renewal and unquenchable hope in the midst of great suffering. The lost sheep is to be found; the sinner and outcast drawn in; the broken and sick healed; the enemy forgiven; the dead raised and the reign of God announced as drawing near. All of these reflect the drama unfolding in the world and its history that surrounded Jesus and his times.”
The field is the world, and our way forward to the future prepared for us by God must come not only by immersing ourselves in the church’s traditions and unfolding wisdom but also by being alert to the world and its drama where the Spirit is also at work. In fact, we have to be careful that we do not become overly absorbed in the domestic life of the church but constantly turn our face to the world, to our place in it and our responsibility for it. The field is the world – not only as the object of the Christian mission in history, but as the catalyst of the Spirit awakening the consciousness of the church itself.
Pope Francis is inviting us to become witnesses, missionaries and disciples in the world. That is our evangelizing mission today. It is not new. He has brought new urgency, new passion and new authenticity and transparency to this mission. For Pope Francis, authentic power is service. He is reminding us day in and day out that evangelizing is neither social ministry nor spiritual ministry; it is both. The more we show genuine concern and effective action for alleviating social ills and liberating the poor, the more believable will the gospel be. Conversely, social ministry will transcend itself only if the gospel is explicitly proclaimed side by side with action and concern.
If we decide to wait until our Church and the entire Catholic community is in exemplary spiritual condition, with all questions and doubts resolved, all scandals over, all required funds safely and surely in the bank to provide for our programs and schools, all controversies ended, all Christians and Catholics living in total harmony, nothing will ever get done!
Christ did not found the Church for saints and angels, but for sinners- people like us who strive for goodness and greatness yet know that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. For over two thousand years, we have not been in perfect order and we never will be! Even while telling us to preach the good news of hope, liberation and salvation, Christ warned us that scandals would always plague our footsteps (Luke 17:1-2). In St. Paul’s letters, the sins and excesses that he addressed were committed not only by the pagans but also by the early Christians. The Church has been “dysfunctional” from the very beginning! We are sinful people in need of conversion. But what consolation to know that the Lord is walking with us. He is in the boat with us, even when he appears to be sleeping. He has not abandoned us.
Pope Francis refers very frequently to the magnificent post-resurrection narrative of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). Having written my thesis on that marvelous passage, a question has often lingered in my mind: why did Luke alone spend so much time relating the Emmaus event, unique to his Gospel? The story was most likely told in response to Jesus’ continuing historical absence and its perception as a loss to Jesus’ followers. The main theme of the story is truly recognition of the Lord, not just recognition of his bodily presence, but of his powerful presence in the Scriptures and in the action of the breaking of the bread. The issue is how Luke uses the story to teach his readers in 80 A.D. They might have been saying to themselves that 50-60 years ago: “People were so fortunate to have seen the Risen Lord with their very eyes.” “If only the Lord were here with us today!” The two disciples could have easily and understandably succumbed to ecclesial nostalgia!
Nostalgia would cause people to say that having been there, back then, might make a difference in the way that they think and believe today! But Luke says that even those who were there weren’t able to recognize Jesus until the Scriptures were “opened” and the “eucharistic” meal was shared. The bottom line is this: a past generation is not more fortunate or blessed to have encountered the risen Jesus than is a generation that hasn’t seen him! Faith in Jesus transcends all history, space and time. Christians of Luke’s time and Christians of our time have the same essential elements necessary for recognizing the Lord: Sacred Scripture and the Eucharist.
How is Jesus alive and present among us? Do our hearts burn with love for the Lord? Do we allow the hearts of others to burn for Jesus? Or are we the cause of heartburn of another kind for the people to whom we are sent? Do people avoid us because of our coldness? When have we experienced that strange and wonderful feeling of “the burning heart” as we listened to the Word of God at the Eucharist or in private prayer? When have we given in to nostalgia, in our personal and ecclesial lives of faith? Is our own friendship with Christ contagious? Do we truly believe that he is walking with us on the road, in all the ups and downs of our histories?
To the Bishops of the United States on September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC, Pope Francis concluded his splendid address with these words:
“Consequently, only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn. The risen Lord continues to challenge the Church’s pastors through the quiet plea of so many of our brothers and sisters: “Have you something to eat?” We need to recognize the Lord’s voice, as the apostles did on the shore of the lake of Tiberius (Jn 21:4-12). It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of his presence, kindled in the fire of his passion, precede us and will never die out. Whenever this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth which causes our hearts to burn within us (Lk 24:32).”
Last March 2015, Pope Francis surprised the world by announcing a Jubilee Year of Mercy that formally began this past December. Francis wants this jubilee to go deeper spiritually and to be a far-reaching Christian witness of mercy to the world. Mercy is a theme very dear to Pope Francis, as is expressed in the episcopal motto he had chosen: “miserando atque eligendo”, literally, “Chosen Through the Eyes of Mercy.” During the first Angelus after his election to the See of Peter, Pope Francis stated: “Feeling mercy, that this word changes everything. This is the best thing we can feel: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient” (Angelus, March 17, 2013).
In the English edition of the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium the term mercy appears 32 times. In his Angelus address on January 11, 2015, he stated: “There is so much need of mercy today, and it is important that the lay faithful live it and bring it into different social environments. Go forth! We are living in the age of mercy, this is the age of mercy”.
In his 2015 Lenten Message, the Holy Father expressed: “How greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present, especially our parishes and our communities, may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!” He has repeated this thought: “Mercy is not just a pastoral attitude; it is the very substance of the Gospel message.”
Pope Francis wants to bring the whole church, starting with the cardinals, bishops, priests and consecrated persons, to open themselves to God’s mercy and to find concrete, creative ways to put mercy into practice in their areas of ministry. As Bishop of Rome, he is blazing the trail by word and deed, showing what mercy means in relation to the poor, the homeless, prisoners, immigrants, the sick and the persecuted. They are for him “the flesh of Christ.” In his homily to new cardinals on February 15, 2015, Pope Francis recalled that “the church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement.” This means “welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world.”
Two weeks ago, Pope Francis’ personal book, “The Name of God is Mercy” was simultaneously released throughout the world. The main theme of the book is mercy, and the Pope’s reasons for proclaiming a Holy Year of Mercy. The centrality of mercy, Francis says, is “Jesus’ most important message.” Mercy is essential because all people are sinners, in need of God’s forgiveness and grace, and it’s especially necessary today, at a time when “humanity is wounded,” suffering from “the many slaveries of the third millennium” — not just war and poverty and social exclusion, but also fatalism, hardheartedness and self-righteousness.
The theme of mercy also provides Pope Francis with a metaphor for articulating his broader aim of shaking up the Roman Catholic Church, which he laid out in detail in “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that was issued in November 2013.
“The Church condemns sin because it has to relay the truth: ‘this is a sin’. But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who recognizes himself as such, it welcomes him, it speaks to him of the infinite mercy of God. Jesus forgave even those who crucified and scorned him.”
“To follow the way of the Lord, the Church is called upon to dispense its mercy over all those who recognize themselves as sinners, who assume responsibility for the evil they have committed, and who feel in need of forgiveness. The Church does not exist to condemn people, but to bring about an encounter with the visceral love of God’s mercy.”
Pope Francis doesn’t have easy answers to the great issues, crises and questions of our time, let alone answers and solutions he seeks to impose. He clearly realizes that the field of Evangelization is the world in which we live, the world that God so loved. He wants to create a culture and a process in which we can better discern the Holy Spirit’s answers to those questions, not necessarily in an absolute way, but in a way that makes sense in our own time.
In the Acts of the Apostles 4:31, we meet one of the first crises of Evangelization faced by the early Church, and how the Spirit was present in the midst of it all. Peter and John were arrested and brought before the officials and were interrogated, threatened and ordered to speak no longer in the name of Jesus the Lord. Once released Peter and John returned to the community and it was at this point that the community utters a remarkable prayer. The occasion of the prayer is not a result of actual harm inflicted on the believers but rather the fact that the Word of God was chained, impeded by force, threatened and suffocated. When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word with boldness. What do we mean by boldness?
The word in the New Testament is “parresia”, not “parousia” which refers to the final coming of Christ. The parresia is the boldness that is the fruit of courage. Despite the threats, despite the challenges, despite the difficulties, despite the very fact of losing one’s life, we must not enchain the Word any longer but speak that Word with courage and with boldness.
There is nothing politically correct about preaching and living the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel message is at times completely incorrect in the eyes and ways of the world! The gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed with boldness and courage. It is a boldness that does not overpower, that is not rude, that does not bully, that is never disrespectful, that never shows off or flaunts gifts that one has received – but where the Spirit has been so lavishly poured out upon individuals and as a faith community, the church has an obligation to announce and to proclaim Jesus Christ boldly, unapologetically and unabashedly. We must be bold and creative in our pastoral efforts with young people. Speaking the Word boldly is prerequisite for the work of Evangelization.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis invites and challenges all of us to move beyond our “comfort zones.” He wants us to be warm, welcoming and forgiving. He wants us to eat with tax collectors and sinners; he wants us to forgive the woman caught in adultery (while admonishing her to sin no more); he wants us to welcome and respect foreigners (even our enemies), and, above all, not to judge others. He has spoken simply, powerfully and beautifully about returning to lost unity, a desire to achieve a missing fullness, a disarming invitation to simply come together to witness to the beauty of the love of Christ. He wants to build bridges that everyone can cross. He is especially conscious of the poor and those who have been marginalized, social outcasts kept on the fringes of society. On the need for joy in evangelizing Francis has written: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter…. An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”
On being close to the people he writes: “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”
He models that “a church which ‘goes forth’ is a church whose doors are open…. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way.”
The church needs to preach salvation, not doctrine. An imbalance occurs when the church speaks “more about law than about grace, more about the church than about Christ, more about the pope than about God’s word.”
Evangelization must be an invitation to respond to God’s love and to seek the good in others, he says. “If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.”
On the need to keep the doors to the sacraments open: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
The church’s internal “wars” – the tendency to form groups of “elites,” to impose certain ideas and even to engage in “persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts” – are all a counter-witness to evangelization. “Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?”
In his homily during the “Mass for the Evangelization of Peoples,” celebrated in Quito’s Parque Bicentenario (Bicentennial Park) last July 7, 2015, Pope Francis focused on the theme of unity and independence. The Holy Father spoke of Jesus’ cry for unity at the Last Supper, and Latin America’s cry for independence which is commemorated in the Park where the Liturgy took place. “I would like to see these two cries joined together,” he said, “under the beautiful challenge of Evangelization.” He continued, “We evangelize not with grand words, or complicated concepts, but with ‘the joy of the Gospel’.”
“Evangelization can be a way to unite our hopes, concerns, ideals and even utopian visions. We believe this and we make it our cry. I have already said that, “in our world, especially in some countries, different forms of war and conflict are re-emerging, yet we Christians remain steadfast in our intention to respect others, to heal wounds, to build bridges, to strengthen relationships and to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 67).”
Laudato Sì: Instrument of Evangelization
“Laudato Sì” is a privileged instrument of Evangelization of our contemporary world because it strives to answer the deeper questions about ecology and the environment within God’s revelation as found in his creation and the teachings of the Catholic Church. At this critical moment in history, what is at stake is not just our respect for biodiversity, but our very survival. Scientists calculate that those most harmed by global warming in the future will be the most vulnerable and marginalized. The dignity and rights of human beings are intimately and integrally related to the beauty and the rights of the earth itself. After all, who will dare to speak for the voiceless resources of our planet? Who will step up to protect the silent diversity of its species? Will our generation accept responsibility for pushing our environment over the tipping-point?
At the heart Laudato Sì is this question: “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” Pope Francis continues: “This question does not have to do with the environment alone and in isolation; the issue cannot be approached piecemeal”. (LS §160) This leads us to ask ourselves about the meaning of existence and its values at the base of social life: “What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us?” (LS §160)
Laudato Si’ must be read not only as a work of Catholic social teaching, but also as an effective instrument of the first Evangelization and the new Evangelization, and a witness to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. Pope Francis’ letter reflects a profound confidence and openness to the world. He draws on an ecumenical and interdisciplinary range of authorities — from scientists, saints and theologians to international agencies; from other world religious leaders to previous popes and Catholic bishops conferences in every continent and even a Sufi mystic in one of his footnotes.
Pope Francis’ tone is passionate, personal and urgent. He has drafted this major encyclical letter with the mind and heart of a disciple of Jesus and the pen and voice of a prophet who has seen and personally experienced the grave injustices and ugliness that human beings can cause on this earth.
Laudato Sì is a perfect example of how the Church, at the highest level, understands the modern world, enters into a profound dialogue with the world, and repeats again her age-old message of salvation in a new way. Laudato Sì is rooted in the concrete realities of our times. Some have criticized the Pope for not mentioning the name of Jesus until he is almost 13,000 words into his long document. But “the gaze of Jesus” is at the heart of the pope’s vision in Laudato Si’, even if the Lord’s name is hardly mentioned. With Laudato Sì Pope Francis is laying the groundwork for a new Christian humanism, rooted in the simple and beautiful image of Jesus that he presents for the world’s consideration. For in the end, it is in the name and mission of Jesus of Nazareth that the Pope issues his call to conversion – a compelling invitation to each of us to look at the earth and all of its creatures with the loving eyes and heart of Jesus Christ. This is clearly a first Evangelization for those who may encounter Jesus for the first time, and a new Evangelization or wake-up call to those who once knew Jesus and grew distant from him. With Laudato Sì, we learn to cherish the world God so loved and adore the Son given to us by the Father.
If we wish to be ambassadors, instruments, bearers of the message of Gaudium et Spes, icons of Evangelii Gaudium, and heralds of Laudato Sì in our contemporary world, we must be in direct contact with Jesus of Nazareth, who is the alpha and omega and the joy and hope of the human family. We must have a relationship with Him. We encounter Jesus in the Church, in the sacraments and in the liturgy and in the handiwork of God’s creation. Take heed of Pope Francis’ words addressed to future apostolic nuncios at the Vatican’s Diplomatic Academy (June 25, 2015):
“It is not possible to represent someone without reflecting their features, without evoking their face.”
“Do not lose sight of the face of He Who is at the origin of your journey.”
“I urge you not to expect ready ground, but to take courage and plough it with your own two hands — without tractors or other more efficient tools which we can never be sure of. Prepare the ground yourselves for the sowing, and wait with God’s patience for the harvest, of which perhaps you may not be the beneficiaries; do not fish in aquariums or farms, but have the courage to move away from the safety of what is already known and cast your nets and fishing rods out into less predictable places. Don’t grow used to eating packaged fish.”
“Teach prayer by praying, announce the faith by believing; offer witness by living!”
Let me leave you with this one final thought, inspired by the great apostle to the Gentiles, Paul of Tarsus. In Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth, he exclaims: “For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (I Cor 9:16).
Paul doesn’t say that one would be “damned” for not proclaiming the Gospel, for not evangelizing. We must understand the “woe” against the background of prophetic statements elsewhere in the Scriptures (cf. Isaiah 45:9; Hosea 7:13; see also Matthew 23:13-36). It is a woe of suffering and punishment. Paul calls down grief upon himself should he fail to preach the Gospel, should he abdicate his responsibility to evangelize. “Woe to me if I fail to proclaim the gospel!” Paul challenges each one of us on what it means to be called, commissioned to serve God and our neighbor and to proclaim the gospel and evangelize in our day.
For Paul, evangelizing is truly a matter of necessity, of compulsion, of apostolic imperative. It is the gospel that is for all people, the gospel that drives him to reach out to both Jew and to Gentile, to those struggling under the burden of the law and those who whistle in the dark, blissfully ignorant of the Gospel’s demands. For Paul the Gospel is needed by both kinds of people, it is the one thing that is for all people.
For those of us who claim to be evangelists or who strive to proclaim, preach and live God’s Word, we must ask what truly motivates us for the work that we share as co-workers with Paul in the proclamation of the gospel. That motivation must be joy, and never anger, recrimination, condemnation, hostility, arrogance, meanness or harshness. It must be the joy that inhabited Jesus, the joy that animated the great apostle to the Gentiles and that animates Pope Francis, who really is an embodiment of New Evangelization in today’s world.
The late Fr. Walter Burghardt, another great Jesuit from the Americas, once preached a homily at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for the First Sunday in Lent in which he quoted Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous remark that “These Christians don’t look redeemed.” Fr. Burghardt concluded: “For your penance, look redeemed.” Something for us to remember…
Pope Francis looks and acts redeemed. He is imitating Jesus, the great teacher and communicator who has redeemed humanity. Francis is simply inviting us to imitate the Redeemer in word and deed. Is it any wonder that so many people are looking to Francis, listening to him and learning from his example of evangelical joy and simplicity? Only in this way will the world believe our message and give Jesus Christ a chance.
Fr. Burghardt’s challenge is also addressed to us today: “Go out and look redeemed!” Go and announce the joy of the Gospel of Jesus! Go and be his joy and hope for the world! It is not only a penitential burden but a heavenly and earthly delight.
Fr. Rosica is the English language Assistant to Holy See Press Office.