Thursday, October 18, 2012

Called to be Evangelistic Catholics

Twenty Ninth Ordinary Sunday Year B

The great American Catholic TV evangelist, who achieved fame on the tele-screen long before Billy Graham made it big, the Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, once commented, “The first word of Jesus in the Gospel was ‘come’; the last word of Jesus was ‘go,’ and that pretty much sums up the primary occupation of the Church and every Christian. We are called to be disciples in order that we may become missionaries. In that magna carta setting out the evangelising mission of the Church in the modern world, ‘Evangelii Nuntiandi’, the Servant of God Paul VI wrote that “… the task of evangelising all people constitute the essential mission of the Church… Evangelising is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelise, that is to say in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass…” (EN # 14)

Now, this may seem absolutely strange and foreign to you, given the fact that the idea of proclaiming the gospel of Christ and sharing your faith with a non-Catholic seem to make us Catholics feel most uncomfortable. If you are a Catholic – even if you are a “good” one – the sort who would unequivocally exclaim – “I was born a Catholic (if that is even possible) and I will die a Catholic!” – the chances are quite high that you have NEVER attempted the conversion of another, except maybe your non-Catholic spouse. Catholics are known for many things, such as novenas, devotions to saints, love for the Blessed Mother, going for confession and abstaining from meat on Fridays.  One thing that generally doesn’t come to mind when we hear the word “Catholic” is evangelisation. 

There are a number of reasons why Catholics shy away from evangelisation. The first reason is that Catholics have grown familiar with the bureaucratic subdivisions in Church which, unintentionally, results in the perceived professionalisation or specialisation of ministries. The work of evangelisation is often seen as the primary task of ‘professional’ missionaries, such as the priests and the religious, although this is a common misconception. Laity often believe that the extent of their contribution to missionary activities is confined to monetary and financial support. This is certainly one of those most unfortunate misconceptions in the Church today.  In fact, evangelisation is not only the responsibility of the religious and clergy; it is a requirement for the laity as well.  Every member of the Catholic Church is personally responsible for sharing the gospel message with others.  The Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, which is the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church teaches that all baptised Christians “must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God”. 

The second reason for a lack of evangelistic spirit among Catholics is that they generally have an extremely positive view of other religions and non-Catholic Christians. Because Catholics see goodness in others and sincerely believe that God would not begrudge or withhold salvation from anyone, they often feel that it would not be proper or even the loving thing to impose their beliefs and thoughts on them. The vast majority of Catholics, therefore, view evangelisation as a negative thing.  There is a belief among many Catholics that our relationship with God is a highly personal matter and that “we shouldn’t impose our religious beliefs on others”. Political correctness is often mistaken as charity, whereas evangelisation is seen as triumphalism, a vestige of colonialisation, and outright condescension.  But it can never be repeated enough that Charity must always be in service to the Truth. Great wisdom can be derived in this area from another of Vatican II’s 16 documents, Nostra Aetate, the Declaration of the relation of Church to non-Christian religions. The document states that “the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.” In other words, evangelisation should never be interpreted as a gesture of hatred, disrespect or even condescension on the part of the Church. It is an act of charity, demanded by a God of love who wishes all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth.

When it comes to speaking of the Catholic Faith and expressing it publicly, many Catholics often find themselves walking on eggshells. Where could we start? Perhaps, our first reaction would sound something like this, “I evangelise by example not with words.” We may even quote St Francis of Assisi who said, “Preach the gospel of Christ always, used words if necessary.” Or maybe, it would be, “I would like to, but I’m not trained or knowledgeable enough to do it.”  Or finally, “I could never be like the Protestants.”

Before proceeding to suggest a simple action plan for mission, a clarification is called for in order to make a distinction between Protestant evangelism and Catholic evangelisation. Protestant evangelism is an ‘event’ where the preaching of the gospel leads to the moment where the unbeliever professes with his lips (the sinner’s prayer seems to be the most convenient formula) and believes in his heart that Christ has saved him, and so the same is realised. Voila! He’s a Christian! He’s saved. Catholics, on the other hand, are process people. That’s why we take so long to prepare someone for baptism, namely the RCIA journey. We speak of a growth in sanctification through a life dedicated to prayer, the sacraments, and good works. Catholics are also ‘big picture’ people. Evangelisation, the primary mission of the Church, is not just confined to a verbal proclamation of Jesus’ salvific identity and mission. It consists of many different but complimentary components.

First, one of the most widely used means is just the simple presence and living witness of Christian life. Christian witness lays the foundation for Catholic evangelisation.  Avoiding foul language, making the sign of the cross and saying grace before meals, having a positive disposition, and avoiding gossip, practicing ethical values in your workplace, school or neighbourhood.  People who see the ‘difference’ will begin to ask questions.
Second, Catholics are also called to the service of humankind and all forms of activity for social promotion and for the struggle against poverty and injustice. But simple life witness and service of humankind are not sufficient. We need to match words to deeds too.  The Servant of God Paul VI went on to explain in Evangelii Nuntiandi that “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 evangelisation 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.”
Following this, the third means of evangelisation is that of respectful dialogue. Sharing one’s religious faith in the context of mutual and respectful dialogue means being open to listen to the other’s story too. One does not seek to win arguments for argument sake, but rather, dialogue is an expression of deep respect and love for the other.
Fourthly, all the above ultimately leads us to the opportunity to proclaim Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Catholics can rest assured that they don’t have to bang a Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the head of the other person. There are many painless (but effective) ways to verbally share our faith. For example, we can offer to say a prayer for a coworker who is sick or in a painful situation.  We can explain how our faith comforts or sustains us in time of need.  We can casually relate a message heard in a homily at Sunday Mass. We may then invite them to attend Mass with us. Liturgy is a powerful means of evangelisation because it is ultimately the Work of God, not the works of men. Ultimately, we are reminded that prayer is an essential component of evangelisation because conversion is never something humanly manufactured or manipulated, it is the gift of faith from God.

Evangelisation is not an optional add-on. It is at the very heart of what it means to be a Catholic. Evangelisation is never a form of self-aggrandisement. But true evangelisation — whatever form it takes — is born from a love for people and a desire that everyone on earth come to know the love of Christ and the blessings of living in his kingdom. As St.Paul once told the Corinthians: “The love of Christ impels us” to proclaim Christ (2 Corinthians 5:14). According to the post-Vatican II document, Evangelii Nuntiandi, “the presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation.”  In this Year of Faith, we are given an opportunity to be re-evangelised in order that we may evangelise. We must heed the summons of the Holy Father to deepen our faith and enter into an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the World so that we may once again with joy and enthusiasm communicate the faith of our fathers, the same faith we profess, celebrate and live today! 

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