What follows are a series of related reflections that might inform any Catholic individual or group aware of the call to share our faith with others. They take as their starting point the faith conviction that we must know who we are and what each of us is called to, before we can presume to call others into the life of the Catholic faith.
Where to Start?
There are a series of points that form the heart of each of the various sections that follow.
In this first section they are:
- Evangelisation and baptism are deeply connected
- The Christian message is as relevant as it has ever been and, arguably, even more so
- Evangelisation, while not easy in the current context, is possible because it is God’s desire to call all people to himself
- The Church is the messenger, not the message
- The Church is perfect in itself and imperfect in its membership
- Evangelisation and Church renewal are profoundly linked
- The material provided in these two sections of the website is not intended to be exhaustive, and is subject to change
- There are primary texts each of us must be reading if we wish to come to a deep understanding of what God is asking of us in the area
As baptised members of the Body of Christ, each of us is vocationally mandated to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ with our lives. It is our duty and our joy.
No one imagines that this is always easy. In a society that rejoices in its increasing pluralism and secularity, the Christian message can seem out of place. Yet this is precisely the situation in which that message is most needed: as men and women search for meaning, belonging and hope at a time where the fleeting seeks to replace the substantial, celebrity masquerades as a substitute for character, a cult of death gathers around both ends of life, and the allure of the sensational replaces the pursuit of truth.
Into this situation God continues to speak through his Son, Jesus. For the words of Jesus are as eternal as God is, and they hold an increasing relevance the more the world into which they were originally spoken has need of them. It is for the sole purpose of communicating the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world in need that the Church exists.
The Church does not exist to proclaim itself. The Church is the messenger, not the message. The message is pure, eternal, strong and alive. The messenger exists because of the message, and is constituted by it, but the messenger is only as pure, eternal, strong and alive as is its adherence to, and faith in, the message.
Being also constituted by the people who have been called into it, the Church reflects their strengths and weaknesses, their virtues and infidelities, their truth and their misunderstandings. This is not to question that the Holy Spirit is with the Church and guiding it to the fullness of perfection that resides in the one in whom we live, move and have our being. Rather, it is to acknowledge that we exist in the ‘now but not yet’ of Christian salvation.
Everything needed for salvation has been given in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and communicated in the power of the Holy Spirit. This gift is made manifest in his body, the Church, and is communicated in Church prayer, sacraments and teaching. Yet the gift is on the way to fruition in each of us. We have both received, and are on the journey towards, the promise of life that has been revealed in Christ Jesus. The Church may be holy and perfect in itself, but as expressed in its members there is still a long way to go. The Church is in need of constant renewal.
It is for this reason that it is impossible to think about evangelisation in the contemporary context without reflecting on Church renewal. The impact of the messenger on the communication of the message cannot be denied.
This provides the structure for the material contained in this section of the website: 1. Catholic evangelisation and 2. Church reform. It should be noted that the reflections here provided are to assist the reader to think about different aspects of evangelisation today, and not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of these matters. It is the intention to regularly update, revise and expand on these reflections as time allows, as questions arise, and as new documents and material become available.
It should also be noted that a serious study of evangelisation in the Catholic context will include close attention to the following documents: 1. Ad Gentes [2nd Vatican Council 1965], 2. Evangelii Nuntiandi [Paul VI 1975], 3. Christifideles Laici [John Paul II 1988], 4. Redemptoris Missio [John Paul II 1990], 5. Verbum Domini [Benedict XVI 2010], 6. Evangelii Gaudium [Francis 2013], 7. Misericordiae Vultus [Francis 2015], 8. Gaudete et Exsultate [Francis 2018].
Such a study will include constant reference to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents of the Second Vatican Council, particularly Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium. All these can be found on the Vatican website at http://w2.vatican.va/content/vatican/en.html
There are many other documents there that would also be very helpful. The Apostolic Letters Novo Millennio Ineunte [John Paul II 2001] and Ubicumque et Semper [Benedict XVI 2010] would be prime examples, as is the Encyclical Laudato Si [Francis 2015].
It is presumed that an attempt to gain an understanding of evangelisation will involve an immersion in the Christian Bible, in particular the four gospels that are at the foundation of the Catholic faith, while also paying close attention to the Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament letters. These texts will be read with the eyes and heart of a Catholic Christian, with the deep awareness that in order to be able to comprehend what the sacred text means, we need to draw on the wisdom and teaching of the community through which the Holy Spirit inspired the text: the Church.
The reflections related to evangelisation contained on this website must be read with these documents and sacred texts in mind.
To be a Witness
The points discussed here are:
- Evangelisation is not a new topic for the Church
- There is a Catholic way of understanding evangelisation
- It is who we are, not just what we say, that matters
- This is God’s work, not ours
From Pope Paul VI through to Pope Francis the Vicars of Christ have called the Church to launch out again to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to the world. Even before Paul VI the Church’s engagement with the world was a topic for much debate and reflection. Pope John XXIII called the 2nd Vatican Council, and two of the central documents of that Council addressed the need for the Church to revision its place in, and response to, the contemporary world: Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes.
In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI announced the formation of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, and the 2012 General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops was dedicated to the theme “The New Evangelisation for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.”
Evangelisation is a word that does not always sit easily within the Catholic context. It would be fair to say that until relatively recent times, it is a word we would more closely associate with our Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters. Catholics have often taken another approach; one in which the culture itself is transformed by Catholic values in its institutions, music, art, literature and architecture. People were either brought into the life of faith by their immersion within Christendom, or by means of the missionaries who came to those who had yet to hear the Christian message.
The age of Christendom is now behind us: we are experiencing a change of era that began some time ago and is gaining momentum. No longer can we assume that faith will be caught by some sort of Christian osmosis. Rather, it now more than ever needs to be taught and individuals must be invited into it. Evangelisation is back on the agenda.
Still, for many Catholics, the idea of evangelisation does not sit easily. Therefore the question arises: what if there were a Catholic way of understanding evangelisation in the contemporary world? To begin to answer that question it is helpful to recount an experience this writer had a few years ago. I was present as more than 100 young adult Catholics were making their way into a local pub for an event. They were there to reflect on their faith in the context of a social gathering, a talk and subsequent discussion. Nearby a young evangelical Christian was standing on the street corner predicting the end of the world, and denouncing the Pope as the antichrist, and the Eucharist as idolatry, among a number of other things. The question that arose for me as I witnessed this scene was: who is actually testifying to real faith, hope and love? The young man on the corner or the young people happily filing past as they made their way to their gathering in search of a deeper understanding of the one who gave his life for them? The young evangelical, if asked, would have said that he was conscious of evangelising. The young Catholics, if asked, wouldn’t have been so sure. However, does that mean that they were not?
This highlights an important point with regard to Catholic evangelisation: Catholics reveal who they are, and what’s important to them, not just through words but through their actions. It is how we live that reveals what it is, and who it is, we believe in. The young evangelical on the street corner had his words – words that polarised and at times taunted. The young Catholics had their actions (the event and everything surrounding it) that spoke to an eternal quest beyond the wisdom of this world. While we must not dismiss the evangelical approach – there is much we can learn there – that point is that we may need to learn to deepen our confidence in the Catholic approach, for I believe that it has more to recommend it. It is who we are, not just what we say, that matters.
It is as we live our faith that our witness to even the difficult aspects of that faith shines through. It can be very hard to talk about Catholic teaching to those who do not want to hear it. However, it is entirely possible for each of us to do our best to live by that teaching and thereby witness to the whole Gospel message. Challenging other people with the truth as we understand it to be may at times be appropriate, but there is nothing more powerful than the witness of a faith lived well. As Pope Paul VI taught: “For the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbour with limitless zeal…Modern (woman or) man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if (she or) he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” [Evangelii Nuntiandi #41]
We should keep in mind that we don’t have to do any of this by ourselves. The Father longs to share the Good News manifest in the life, death and resurrection of his Son. The Holy Spirit has been given to guide, assist and sanctify us as we live our lives of faith and reach out to others.
Evangelisation might be a new word to Catholic ears, but it expresses a call that is as old as God’s relationship with humanity: the call to come home to God. You and I are to witness to this.
Living as Adult Catholics
The points discussed here are:
- We need to think about who we are proclaiming the message to
- We are adept in finding reasons to delay
- Our inadequacy, far from being a problem, is the avenue through which God pours his grace
- There is only one way forward: give yourself completely to God
- Failure will happen, just keep returning to God
- Say ‘yes’ to allowing God to lead you into ‘the deep’
- Evangelisation simply means living an adult faith
In our baptismally mandated mission to evangelise, the question of who we are sent to evangelise is important. Clearly the proclamation of the message and person of Jesus Christ is intended for all people. We are to witness to our faith and to the hope we have in the presence of whoever crosses our path.
This can be a daunting prospect, particularly if we start to focus on whether or not we are fully equipped to do what’s required. There are always many reasons why we think we cannot do what is asked of us. In a manner reminiscent of the excuses supplied by the guests invited to the feast (see Matthew 22), we are well practised in our ability to be able to justify our inaction. Our reasons are many and various: we’re too busy, we’re not experienced enough, we’re too old, we’re too young, we’re not theologically trained enough, we’re just lay people, it’s not our job anyway…the list goes on. In the end all the excuses tend to boil down to one salient point: we don’t trust that God will work through us in our inadequacy.
This is not the problem we imagine it to be. The grace to recognise that without God’s assistance we cannot even begin to do what God is asking of us is a very important grace indeed. The recognition of inadequacy is in fact the foundation upon which God can begin to work through us. As Paul reminds us (2Cor 4:7 and following) God delights in working through us in our inadequacy, to make it clear that this is not our doing but God’s.
It is understandable that we might feel daunted. There is a lot at stake and a lot is being asked of us – everything we are and have. This is a thought picked up by St Paul in his letter to the Romans. At the beginning of chapter 12 he is very direct: unless you give yourself completely to God you will have no idea what to do or where to begin. He teaches that unless we place ourselves at God’s disposal we will not know what God is asking of us, much less be able to do it. [See Romans 12:1 – 2]
This challenges the tendency to want to remain Catholic while not wanting to take it too seriously. Our faith experience remains that of the ambivalent novice swimmer: content to play around in the shallow end of the pool, imagining that it is not for us to swim into the deep. The problem is that playing around in the shallow end of the pool is not going to satisfy most adults. We have to go deep – where it is challenging, a little dangerous, but ultimately much more satisfying. If we do not, our spiritual lives and our experience of faith are in danger of remaining childish, unchallenging and ultimately for an adult, unsustainable. When the heat comes, our faith withers and dies (see Matthew 13).
But how do we enter into the deep? Paul describes it perfectly in Romans 12. On the surface of it, it is so simple. Paul is saying “give yourself completely to God…do not compromise…if you do this, God will transform you and your life.” So simple and yet, where do we start? I invite you to try it today and see how you get on. You may form all sorts of good intentions, but invariably you will find yourself stumbling at almost every hurdle. Years of failure can wear you down. You start to wonder whether what Paul is describing is possible, or even desirable. You relax, you compromise, and you go back to the shallow end of the pool.
This is an important moment. It is the moment when we realise that without grace there is nothing we can do. Left to our own devices we can achieve very little when it comes to the life God is offering us. In fact, without grace we can achieve nothing. But that is alright. The life of faith has very little to do with our personal achievement. On the contrary, all we can do is believe that God wishes to fill our lives to the brim with his love and his presence, and then ask him to bring this about in us. The people in the deep end of the pool are not heroic, strong people in their own right. They are just people who said ‘yes’ and allowed God to lead them into the deep.
The proclamation of the Gospel to all people, all of the time can be an overwhelming prospect, until we recall that all we are being asked to do is to trust God to lead us. The rest is up to God.
The connection between an adult Catholic faith and our ability to proclaim the Good News with our lives could not be clearer. It is as you live in the light of your deep relationship with Christ that the people around you are touched and made aware of the invitation to enter into their own relationship with Christ. Who you are, how you live and how you invite other people into our faith, are deeply connected.
We are to witness to the Good News with our lives as Catholics who are mature in the faith. As members of the Body of Christ, we are each called to speak to the world in the way he did: each in accord with our particular vocation. The only way we can do this is if we stay intimately connected to the person of Jesus and the Good News he brings.
Be as Christ Jesus
The points discussed here are:
- The heart of the message (the kerygma)
- Salvation and evangelisation are deeply connected
- God is the primary evangeliser
- Our role is to respond to what God is doing
- We must learn to be attentive to the Holy Spirit
- Your spiritual life must, therefore, be your deepest concern
- This will mean that you are to ‘be as Christ Jesus’: his life will be yours, and your life, his.
‘Evangelisation’ simply means to live by and share the Good News. The Good News is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, lived, suffered, died and rose again, that you and I might share in the eternal life God has always intended for each of us. This is the source of our joy and the source of our hope. This is the reality into which each baptised person has been reborn. It is through baptism that the Good News becomes the essence of who we are.
Acknowledging and living out our baptism, confirmed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and nourished and healed in the eucharist, is the heart of both salvation and of evangelisation. Salvation is the entry into God’s lifegiving love, won for us in Jesus Christ. Evangelisation is allowing ourselves to be renewed and transformed by salvation, so that our lives become a living witness to all that God is doing in and around us.
Elsewhere we will discuss the role that we play in all this. Before doing that, however, it is most important that we do not race past this important point: God is the primary evangeliser. Salvation is a gift from God, and so too are the lives that are transformed by him. Not only that, but it is God’s desire that all people be called to life in him, that we are responding to as we live and share the Good News. Evangelisation is God’s task and God’s responsibility. We evangelise to the degree that we allow him to live and work through us. We have our role, but our role involves responding to what God is doing.
This has important implications for the way we understand our role. It is essential to authentic evangelisation to become increasingly aware of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts, our lives, our Church and our world. If we are people who are not deeply immersed in the life of the Holy Spirit, we have very little to offer to God’s work of evangelisation. If your spiritual life, your life in prayer and the sacraments, is not your deepest concern, then you have very little to offer when it comes to sharing the Good News with others. “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) and you will have something to offer to those who are in need of God’s healing love.
So, if we are to cooperate with God’s plan to work in and through us to reveal his kingdom, we must make our intimate connection with God a central focus in our lives. There are a number of passages of Scripture that remind us of this and that shed light on how to understand our mission and how to go about it. At the beginning of Philippians chapter 2 Paul writes, “we must be the same as Christ Jesus”. This is an instruction that warrants regular meditation, as it sets before us the road that we are to travel.
One implication for the Catholic is the awareness that salvation is not simply something that Jesus does on our behalf (that is to say, ‘for’ us). While it starts and ends with that, salvation also involves what God is doing in and through us. We are involved in our own salvation. This is an ‘inconvenient truth’, and yet, it is the only way to make sense of our experience. Living the life of faith can be hard. On a day-by-day basis you and I are called to take up the cross and follow the one who has gone before us (Matthew 16:24). We do this in faith and in hope, knowing that Jesus’ death and resurrection has transformed everything. But follow in his footsteps we must, for we are to be ‘as Christ Jesus’.
To be as Christ Jesus we must expect that the pattern of his life will be ours. What might this mean? Firstly, there is only one starting point. Like him, we are to be intimately connected to the Father, and our relationship with God is to be at the centre of all we say and do.
Then, like Jesus, we are to speak the truth of the Father’s love through every word and deed. On the surface of it, this sounds nice. But as Jesus experienced, truth and love shine a light into the crevices of society and into the very hearts of people, and that degree of clarity is not always appreciated. And so, like Christ, we can expect to be misunderstood, falsely accused and, in one way or another, put to death. You must be the same as Christ Jesus: take up your cross and follow him.
For God so Loved the World…
The points discussed here are:
- Our attitude to ‘the world’: Realistic optimism
- Evangelisation means celebrating all that is true, good and beautiful wherever it exists
- And that God is offering life in and through Jesus
At this point we need to talk a little more about the people to whom we are called to proclaim the Good News. Our attitude to the ‘world’ will impact significantly on our approach to evangelisation. It comes down to this: do we experience the world negatively or positively?
If our view is negative then our approach will be something like: “We have the truth, they do not. We are right, they are wrong. We are good, they are bad. We are saved, and they are on the path to damnation.” There is a long history of this approach surfacing regularly within the Church, and within those more recently established Christian communities that today proliferate.
If our view is positive then our approach will be more like: “We have a truth to share, and so do they. We are right and often wrong, and so are they. We are good but also sinners, and so are they. God is bringing about salvation in us all, and we are here to proclaim the Good News that God loves us all and wishes all people to be reborn in Jesus Christ. The question of who is saved and who is not we leave to God, for only God knows our hearts” (Romans 2:1-16).
Because of this, I would describe the Catholic approach to the world as being ‘realistically optimistic’. By this I mean that, while it is clear that there is much in our world that is damaged and inauthentic, we recognise that it is being created by God and considered by him to be ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31). The damage and inauthenticity we all experience is the reason why God became human, so as to reveal to us his power to bring healing and authenticity, and to breathe his life into us where we had only experienced death. He does this because he loves the world (John 3:16). There is much beauty, truth and goodness in the world, and evangelisation means helping people to recognise that where it exists, and to praise God for it. It also means helping people to understand that where there is death and inauthenticity (i.e. sin) God is offering life in and through his Son.
God and Creation
The points discussed here are:
- A Catholic perspective
- A sacramental worldview
- You are not ‘purely spiritual’
- God is revealed in creation
- Science and faith are not opposed, but inform one another
- Keep to proclaiming the creed and avoid biblical fundamentalism
The topic under which these reflections are housed is entitled ‘Catholic evangelisation’. It reveals the conviction that while all the Christian communities, and the individual Christians within them, experience the gift of salvation and the call to share that with the world, there is a particularly Catholic way of understanding these things and of going about them. This is part of the truth that we bring to the Christian conversation.
At the heart of the truth that we share is our sacramental worldview. In short, by this we mean that it is the Catholic conviction that the spiritual is only authentically experienced in and through the physical. We hold this conviction for two reasons: 1. this is the way that human beings are built, 2. this is how we experience God in and through the person of Jesus Christ.
You are no angel. That is to say, no matter how hard you try, you cannot operate as if you are a purely spiritual being. This has enormous implications for the Christian life we live, and it begins with the acknowledgement that God is revealed in and through the physical.
It starts with creation, where the wonder of the Creator stands revealed. For as we can glimpse an artist by looking at her work of art, we glimpse God by contemplating what he has made. Whatever you understand the origins of the universe to have been, scientific consensus has increasingly gathered around the conviction that the universe came into existence at a particular moment, and that there is much more to that universe than we can scientifically know or understand. In recent decades scientists have confirmed that both time and space are relative, lending itself to the faith conviction that God is not bound by either. While not all scientists agree by any means, there are an increasing number who note that there is no scientific reason for saying that God does not exist [see https://www.pri.org/stories/2014-04-25/does-god-exist-can-science-really-disprove as a starting point].
The problems tend to arise when Christians disregard scientific evidence to argue for a biblically fundamentalist view of how creation came to be. Instead of regarding the Genesis creation accounts as the original writers had intended them to be understood, as stories designed to convey deep truths about the nature of the relationship between God, creation and humanity, there are some who argue that they are historically accurate in every detail. This in spite of the fact that there are two creation stories in Genesis and that they are mutually contradictory (so never intended to be taken literally), and in spite of the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
This leads to an unfortunate polarisation, where people of faith can feel they need to reject scientific hypothesis and discovery in order to maintain their faith convictions, and people educated scientifically can feel they cannot include the existence of God as a possibility in order to hold to the scientific facts as they understand them to be. And yet it needn’t be so.
God’s relationship with creation is as mysterious as God himself. There are four things that we know: 1. That the universe exists purely and simply because God wants it to, 2. That God regards creation as ‘good’ (i.e. worthy of love and care in itself, and as a reflection of himself), 3. That God has a plan to restore and heal all creation in Jesus Christ, 4. That we cannot separate the spiritual and the physical if we are to truly know and love God.
When and how the universe came into being is for scientists to argue and reveal. Why it came into being, and what God plans for it, are to be discovered as we enter ever more deeply into the life of faith.
Why are we discussing these things on a website concerned with Catholic evangelisation? Before we can share the Good News with people, we need to understand what that Good News is. A few years ago a catechist told me that he teaches children that the world was created in seven days (already an error – Genesis says six), and that these children had to believe this if they were to believe in God. While I couldn’t fault his enthusiasm, his knowledge of what is essential to the faith and what is not left a lot to be desired. We teach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Everything else to be found in the Bible is open to interpretation. This does not mean it is to be ignored. It is the word of God. However, it does mean it needs to be read in light of the person of Jesus and not insisted upon as literal in its own right. The essence of the Catholic faith is to be found in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. Everything else is the subject of theological, scientific and historical discussion.
The Spiritual and the Physical
The points discussed here are:
- The significance of the Incarnation
- We experience God through the physical
- The essence of sacramentality
- Evangelisation is about more than changing beliefs
If the interconnection between the physical and the spiritual is primordially manifest in the relationship between God and creation, it is the Incarnation that takes it to a whole new level. The fact that God ‘incarnates’ (lit. takes on flesh) in the person of Jesus Christ changes how Catholics relate to the world, their experience, one another and their own bodies.
The dualism that can plague some spiritualities (where the spiritual is seen to be divorced from, and superior to, the physical) has no place in our faith. Instead of being a rarefied experience, Catholic spirituality is at its clearest and best when every person, every sunset, and every created thing is recognised, to varying degrees, as a reflection of the One who has called everything that exists into being. We don’t experience God in spite of the physical but, in fact, experience him through the physical. This is what is referred to as ‘sacramentality’.
This will have significant implications for the way in which Catholics live out their spirituality. While prayer and a deep spiritual life are essential, if these are divorced from an authentic moral life, an attention to social justice, a care for the planet, and a desire to serve those in need, then we have failed to understand the very essence of our faith: “It is not those who say to me ‘Lord, Lord’ (spiritual) who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my Father in heaven” (physical). See Matthew 7:21.
It is this conviction that lies at the foundation of Catholic sacramentality. This is not the place to go into each of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church in detail. However, because of its implications for understanding how evangelisation is to be understood within the Catholic context, we must acknowledge the importance of sacramentality. Why? Because without an understanding of these things we can fall into the trap of believing that evangelisation is simply asking people to assent to certain spiritual realities (e.g. that God exists). While that is all very well and good, the essence of evangelisation from the Catholic perspective is about how we reveal to people that God is at work in and around them, calling them into a deeper and deeper relationship with himself. From there we are to show by example that this awareness only takes on authenticity to the degree to which is allowed to transform every aspect of our lives, from the seemingly mundane to life’s most significant moments. We can witness to this reality because we are ourselves aware that God is at work in our own lives even as they are.
This is what ‘sacramentality’ is: the deep awareness and conviction that God is present in creation, our relationships, our work, our experiences and all the ups and downs of life. The seven liturgical sacraments only have any validity in a spirituality that recognises God at work around us as a continuing force that nurtures an experience of conversion and freedom, growth and transformation. Evangelisation in the Catholic context is about the transformation of lives, not just about the change of beliefs.
God’s Plan is Now
The points discussed here are:
- We respond to what God is doing now
- Is God’s plan future or present?
- God’s plan is being fulfilled even now: there is only one question…
It should be increasingly clear how the Catholic insight into sacramentality impacts on our understanding of evangelisation. We are to be a people whose hearts are intent on discovering and responding to the presence of God in our midst. It is in this context that, I hope, the following reflection makes sense.
A few years ago I was visited by a couple of very nice Jehovah’s Witnesses. The conversation started out promisingly enough – I was asked if I believed in God. When I said ‘yes’ I was told that was surprising as (according to my guests) ‘most people today are agnostics’. However, I was reassured that it appeared that I was not ‘most people’.
We were off to a good start, until I was invited to agree that the world is in a bad state and that we should be worried because God is coming back at any minute to sort it all out and to wreak havoc. I tentatively noted that I did not agree. My guests wondered how a person could believe in God and yet not believe that the world was about to be punished. Recognising that the two women were quite perplexed to find someone like me, I felt the need to explain myself. I put it this way:
‘To be fixated on the thought that God has a future plan for dealing with the world and with the harm caused by humanity is to fail to recognise God’s current plan. The kingdom of heaven is among us. If we are attentive we see signs of God at work all over the place. Every act of kindness and compassion, every parent who wants something better for his or her children, every teacher wanting to pass on knowledge and an appreciation of life is inspired to do so because God is at work in their lives. They may not recognise that they are working in accord with God’s plan for the world, but they are. Every good act is a participation in the life of God and performed in response to and in the strength of God’s grace. The future is God’s business. As Jesus said, “you do not know the day or the hour” (Matthew 25:13). Our job is to focus on today and to co-operate with what God is doing here and now.
Recognising that God is at work and that his kingdom is amongst us is the catalyst for our participation in mission and evangelisation. Catholics witness to the reality that God is here amongst them by the joyful quality of their lives and the hope that they share. If that is not your personal experience of your own faith, then the challenge to deepen your understanding and experience of your faith is one that you might like to think about.
In this we are to be like Abraham, our father in faith (see Genesis 12). These Old Testament figures can seem removed from our experience and irrelevant to our journey. That’s until we remember who we are dealing with: God. God exists outside space and time. His words to Abraham hold an eternal relevance because the One who uttered them is eternal.
The call to Abraham to trust in God’s plan and to co-operate with that is our call too. We might wonder how it can possibly come to be, but the response is always the same: in his time God will act. The only question is – will we choose to allow God to act through us? That God’s will shall be done and God’s kingdom shall come is not in question. However, the degree to which that will, and that kingdom, reside in you in me is in question. It is ultimately up to each of us. What do you choose?
You are the Church
The points discussed here are:
- Whose work is evangelisation?
- Who expects anything from sheep?
- Evangelisation is grounded in baptism, not ordination
- God’s love for the lay vocation
- The Church is there to support you in your vocation
- No one group within the Church is the Church in its entirety
Recently I was talking with a group of Catholics about the work I do, and my role as the director for the National Centre for Evangelisation. During the course of the conversation the question was asked: why should we do the work that the priest is ordained to do? Surely evangelisation is his work, not ours?
It’s a good question. We belong to a faith community that has been singularly blessed by the presence and ministry of priests down through the centuries, and while there have undoubtedly been problems, their contribution to the Church and to the world cannot be denied. Without their leadership and example it would be impossible to imagine a Church with the history and spiritual legacy that it has today. Later we will discuss the intensifying call for the need for Church renewal, and the degree to which resistance to that renewal undermines the Church’s mission to proclaim the Good News. But for now let’s acknowledge the debt we owe to these men, both now and in the past, who have given their lives to the service of the gospel.
That having been said, the downside to having access to this spiritual powerhouse is that it can instil a degree of complacency in those Catholics called to another vocation. Bishops and priests are thought of as the shepherds and we the sheep. No one expects anything of sheep other than the fact that they turn up when required, barely distinguishable one from the other. It is the shepherds we remember, and historically theirs is the only voice that is heard…with perhaps a few rogue sheep making their bleating presence felt in the distant background.
Of course the problem is that the sheep/shepherd imagery fails to recognise a deeply Christian principle: that each of us is uniquely loved by God and called to participate in the body of Christ, into which we have been baptised. The role of the laity may not be to lead the community liturgically and pastorally, but each of us has a unique role that only we can fill. The Church and the world are diminished if we fail to live out those roles.
So, back to the question with which we started this section: “why we should do the work that the priest is ordained to do”? The answer is fairly simple: he is called to witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ by virtue of his baptism, not his ordination, and so are you. In fact, it is your role as a lay Catholic in proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ that may at times be more central than that of the priest. To understand what is being said here, you need first to understand how these two vocations are connected and how they are different.
If you have ever wondered about the fundamental difference between the priestly and the lay vocations, here is it in a nutshell: priests are Christ for us. They bring us his word. They nourish us with his body and blood. They bestow his forgiveness. They intercede for us with the Father as Jesus does. They stand in the person of Jesus Christ as they teach and lead us. They exist to shepherd God’s flock [see Pastores Dabo Vobis, John Paul II, 1992, no. 1]. But to what end? So that we may grow evermore deeply in our understanding of what it means to be Christ for the world. That is the essence of the baptismal vocation [See Christifideles Laici, John Paul II, 1988, no. 3].
It is not that one vocation is more important than the other. Neither is it being said that the priest does not have an important role in proclaiming the Good News in the world. Of course he does, by virtue of his baptism. But never undervalue the lay vocation – God loves it so much that he has called most of us to live it. It is also the vocation he chose for himself when he became one of us.
Living in response to the lay vocation can be a daunting prospect. It is not for no reason that most of us delay setting out on that road and settle instead for a half-hearted Catholic spirituality. The lay vocation is a tough one and is often lonely and exposed. Your life is to proclaim the presence of Jesus Christ in a world that is at best indifferent, and may even be increasingly antagonistic to that presence. There is only one way that you’ll be able to manage it: by the grace of God. Your prayer needs to be deep and regular and transformative. For if you try to go it alone, you will fail.
We are all called to proclaim the Good News. In fact, it may even be said that lay Catholics are the Church’s frontline when it comes to the evangelisation of the world. Our role is primary. We are to be in the world, witnessing to our faith and our personal relationship with Jesus Christ in everything we say and do.
Here’s a controversial thought: the Church exist to support you in that. This is where the life of the sacraments and your personal prayer come in. The sacraments are provided for you by virtue of belonging to the Church. Regularly you are to hear again the words of Christ and be nourished by his flesh and blood. As appropriate you partake of the sacrament of reconciliation to ask for the healing that you need. When you are sick and in need you receive the strength of anointing. You participate in these things, not because someone a long time ago told you that you have to, but because your mission as a baptised Catholic makes it imperative that you be taught, fed and healed by Christ in this way. In our precarious position as Christ for the world we stand in great need of the transforming experience of Christ that the sacraments represent, and which only the priest can provide.
Before completing this section just one additional point: you are the Church. Misunderstanding this leads to a common misconception evidenced by many Catholics. It is revealed whenever one of us (whether priest, religious or lay) refers to the ‘Church’ as meaning the hierarchy: ‘the Church needs to do this, or the Church needs to do that’. While we all know what they mean, it indicates a poverty of understanding of what the Church actually is and of how it is constituted. No one group within the Church is the Church in its entirety. You are the Church and you get to have a say on how the faith of the Church is to be lived by you in your life. And you get to challenge members of the Church, no matter who they are, when you believe that is required. It is for this reason that in the subsequent reflections we turn to the significance of Church reform and its interconnection with evangelisation.
(Former Director of the National Centre for Evangelisation)
1 July 2018