Since the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, called the Church to a new “horizon of evangelization,” there has been increased interest in the mission of evangelization. Parishes and dioceses throughout the United States have active evangelization teams and offices of evangelization. Yet, as central as evangelization is to the mission and life of the Church, there is still reluctance on the part of many Catholics to become involved in it. Why? The answer is simple: “We Catholics don’t do that, Father!”
Well, as Pastor of Saint Miriam, I often need to remind folks that we were actually once a mission parish! And, as such, we grew intentionally, but also with the blessed help of the Holy Spirit and look at what we’ve become together in less than nine years? But, it took evangelization to get us where we are today! Yes, evangelization!
Therefore, this Lenten Season, I decided that we would intentionally begin with a brief introduction to evangelism – as defined for us as simply ‘spreading the word’ – but not just about the parish, about the Old Catholic Church, too. And, to set ourselves up for even greater success, I have outlines a focus in the three main areas, and have set out to recruit three new teams by the end of Lent to help the effort of evangelizing!
This idea is rather simple, really: after a time of formation this Lent, my goal is to have three teams formed. The first team will focus on enriching the actively practicing and involved Catholics in our parish. This group is the doers and they are often left out of the hunt! They do so much and are involved so often, we almost take them for granted. No more! We need their vitality, but they need us and God, too, or we will lose them to burnout. The second team will reach out to lapsed Catholics in the parish and our surrounding area. Yes, we have lapsed Catholics even in our own ranks. You know the ones: they attend once a year, or not at all anymore. Maybe they had a death and haven’t been back since, or a moved a few miles away and find it ‘inconvenient’. Whatever the reason, they live as part of the parish but are never contacted, never thought of. No more! The third and final team will contact non-Catholics (Yes, I said non-Catholics!) by providing informal visits to their homes, or speaking at public venues, and to the parish itself for a brief introduction that we, at Saint Miriam, may self-identify as Catholic, but we are all Christians and we can all welcome one another. After all, you can create Catholics, right? Not all Catholics are hatched as Catholics, are they?
I remember the Baptist who came to our mission parish the year we first began. We were housed in a Jewish Reconstructionist Synagogue and he used to come with a close friend. He was, as he put it so often, a ‘tried and true Baptist!’ But, he would tell me how secretly the liturgy moved him! He would explain that while a good Baptist, there was something about the incense and the liturgy that moved something never touched before. And that something is what we need to not only tell others about, but share it, too! Maybe, they will visit and if they visit they might just do the unthinkable: become a Catholic, too!
The overall three main areas that I am determined to make part our evangelism at Saint Miriam will encompass (1) Bible, (2) Christ, and (3) The Church. Now, I know, I know…you are thinking, “Have you gone mad, man?! Catholics don’t read the bible!” Yes, I know that; well, at least in theory, but I also know that most Catholics haven’t been given the chance to love the bible, and if they could actually find a way to believe that Sacred Scripture is the word of God in human language, and a source of Divine wisdom, maybe…just maybe they would use it more, engage it more, and find solace and strength in God’s word! And, if they did that, maybe they might also like to share it, too! Evangelize it?
So, I thought we would begin in Lent, a time when all of us are to take stock of who we are, what we are becoming, and to evaluate – honestly – the age-old question of, “Are we changing for the better?” I decided we would also begin in ‘small bites’ to not scare away anyone! This would be to start by looking at what exactly is evangelization? Why would a Catholic like to, or even want to do it? How one might begin? And, if Christ is the Word of God incarnate for us, and the Church is the household of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth made manifest for our worship and God’s glory and praise, then how do we not share that ‘pearl of great price’ with others? Share that gift, you win, God wins, the greater Church wins, and most importantly, the recipient of our effort wins, too!
I believe that God created us for such a life. God created us for friendship. We are social beings by our very design, drawn to conversation and companionship, so this sharing stuff should be easy! We prefer to work with other people who share our goals; after all, that is how most of us found our jobs. We prefer to live in towns and neighborhoods, rather than an isolated log of a tree somewhere in the wildness of nature (unless called to be an eremite). We mark our years off, not just by Gregorian date, but rather by times of celebration when we gather with others: birthdays, holidays, vacations, and family reunions. Friendship, too, is a natural good that draws us to a higher virtue by moving us outside ourselves and toward others. Therefore, we already share both material and spiritual goods; evangelization is a natural extension of these already-in-place parts of our known whole! Evangelization is all about a marvelous exchange – one to another – in the rawest, most basic, most human dialogue one can have with a fellow human being. It should not be scary, or even uncomfortable. We were made for it; yes, even Catholics!
Pope Paul VI (whose Mass we still use every week in conjunction with the Roman Missal) reminded us that the Church “exists in order to evangelize”. Evangelization is the work of the whole Church, not just the clergy, or those employed by Her. Evangelization is what we do, simply because of who we are, as Christian, and simply because we’re a practicing Catholics, and we love our parish, and Church as a greater universal whole.
I have found that the main issue with evangelization is the word itself, and tying it back to the simple concept that it’s what we do, because it’s who we are! It is not a Protestant thing; it is a Christian thing! To put it another way: If we don’t evangelize, we simply do not exist as a Church. If we don’t exist as a Church, our parish is also nonexistent, and taken to the natural and logical conclusion: We, as Christians, fail to exit, too! Wow, huh?!
We, as leaders of the Church, just like Saint Paul in his day, need to build more tents! We are “compelled” to do this work, but unless we empower others to follow our lead, we will all surely fail. But what blessings we shall come to know if we evangelize and tell others of what we have found! We’ll know the blessing of fulfilling a mission, of growing a parish and Church, and we will know the closeness of the Communion of Saints, even while here in this present life! We’ll know the joy of true friendship, but we must be willing to let our love be known, and allow it, in turn, to attract others. Evangelization, then, is love in action; love by invitation!
In First Corinthians, we find these ominous words, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” Paul’s utterance was so powerful that it was reiterated by John Paul II at the very beginning of his encyclical Redemptoris Missio. One of the wonderful attributes of the Second Vatican Council was its profound wish to renew the life and activity of the Church according to the needs of the modern world; to this end, it underscored the Church’s missionary character, basing it in a dynamic way upon the Trinitarian mission itself. That missionary impulse thus belongs to the inner nature of the Christian life and inspires ecumenism and evangelization so that we “may they all be one . . . and that the world may believe that you sent me.” (Jn 17:21)
Well, is that not the word of God and our mission rolled into one sentence? Should the scripture not illuminate us on matters of spirituality and faith? Then, as Catholics, and especially Old Catholics, we must begin to evangelize and become good at it! This vital job must be carried out, not just by missionaries, or by clergy, but by everyone. It’s the primary job description of all the members of the Church! And, since most Catholics are laypeople, that means it will primarily be the work of laypeople. We must find a way to empower them to bear witness to their Faith in the very ordinary circumstances of their workaday and schooladay lives, and in the context of their friendships and familial relationships. That is how a Church and a church grows!
I believe that Lent is a good time to begin. These next forty days of spiritual preparation is designed to hail again the decisive deeds of God for the redemption of the world, and the renewal of our own lives in Christ’s grace. We tell, and retell, THE story of our faith and without even knowing it, we evangelize! The difference is that we don’t call it evangelization, but at the heart of what we do, especially during the Holy Triduum, is all about the story; it is all about evangelizing and believing that which we tell. Evangelization must be based in truth and belief to impact others.
So, as we sink more deeply into our Christian life, Holy Scripture, prayer, and self-reflection this season, perhaps there is room for one more word, one more teaching, one more learning. Maybe, just maybe, through our efforts, we will make this Lent less about ‘fish on Fridays’, and life every day of the year. Maybe we will finally be able to lead others to ‘follow me’, rather than give up chocolate or that occasional drink. And, maybe, we can get others to consider such questions as, “Is Genesis still a relevant book for considering the human condition?” Or, “Do the prophets of old have anything to say to us today?” or, “Can we truly change the world if only we share our story and His Story with others we meet?”
Finally, don’t forget about the most important aspect of both Lent and evangelizing: our hearts. Would we consider giving them to God that God might renew them, too, and give us a new and different perspective on life that we might share to bring others to Christ? There is an alternative to seeing the evidence of God’s judgment upon our lives and how we live with others. There is an alternative to being judgmental about why someone is different. We can be made different by the very grace of God, and we can also make a difference with our hands, and feet, and voices.
It never ceases to amaze me how we, as Catholics, drive past the local Protestant church and shake our fists at their growth, on our way to the local diner for ‘Sunday breakfast’ and fail to honor the Sacrifice of the Mass, and the sacrifice of the One we are to worship and adore, let alone tell a single soul about our faith, our life, and our true hope.
Perhaps through sharing what we already have, in places we are already at, during the times we are doing things we are already doing… we can be a means by which the cross of Christ touches others and their life may be redeemed, too. In contrast to others who encourage discord and disharmony, we can lift up the cross of Christ, as a sign of peace, and bring hope back by the very voices we already have within us.
Fifteen years after Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi, John Paul II wished to invite the Church to “renew its missionary commitment”.
So do I this Lent…
Bishop James St. George is the pastor of Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in Flourtown, PA. He is also the Bishop Ordinary of the Diocese of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux in the Old Catholic Churches International. Bishop St. George is the provincial for the Order of Saint Francis, Old Catholic. You can visit Saint Miriam Parish at http://mysaintmiriam.org.