[The following is excerpted from a talk I gave last Saturday on the New Evangelization. Since I’m a monk and not a missionary, I focus mainly on personal conversion and good example as fundamental to witnessing to Christ. What is presented here is not exactly how I actually gave it---I'm a little freer with the prepared text when I'm "live"---but it's close enough.]
There’s a book of the New Testament that you probably hardly ever hear at Mass. Maybe you don’t read it very much yourself. It’s the shortest of St Paul’s letters and the least doctrinal: the Letter to Philemon. But there’s one verse in it that perfectly sums up the essence of the New Evangelization. It is this: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may promote the knowledge of all the good that is ours in Christ.” So today we will reflect on “all the good that is ours in Christ” and how we can prepare ourselves to share our faith and promote the knowledge of the Gospel.
We have to start with understanding what we have already received, so we know just what it is that we are called to share with others. But to share our faith doesn’t necessarily mean we have to stand up in front of crowds and preach the Gospel to them. Remember what St Francis said when he sent his brothers out to evangelize the region: “Preach the Gospel, and, if necessary, use words.” By this he meant that actions speak louder than words. The example of a faithful and devout Christian life will convince more people about the truth of the Gospel than many homilies and speeches. So I will mainly be talking about evangelization by personal conversion and example.
We don’t have to think that the whole burden for saving souls is placed on us. We have an important role to play, but it is the Lord and his grace that make things happen, that change hearts and minds from the inside, leading people to repentance and conversion. Our task is simply to offer the invitation, in one way or another. Someone recently wrote this about our role and the Lord’s: “Fish are caught, then they’re cleaned. We’re fishers of men. It’s our job to catch them; Jesus will clean them.” So Jesus does the hard part; we just have to attract them by our good example.
I think that much of “the good that is ours in Christ” can be fairly summed up in the first chapter of St Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
First of all, what we have to share is the awareness of how much God has blessed us in Christ—St Paul says, “with every spiritual blessing from Heaven.” We were chosen in Christ to be children of God the Father, a free gift of his grace. But this gift came at a great price. For St Paul says that we have “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our sins.” We became children of God by Spirit and water and blood. So we should not take lightly the gift of faith and of all the means of sanctification that the Church offers to us. All the graces of God, even though they are free gifts, bring with them a certain responsibility. It is precisely because they are free that we have a responsibility: we didn’t earn them, we don’t deserve them, and so if there are others who haven’t yet received them, we ought to offer them the opportunity to receive these graces as well.
We are the ones, St Paul says, “who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in [Christ], were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the Guarantee of our inheritance…”
Having thus received the sacraments of initiation and the message of the Gospel, we need to mature in our faith. These are the things Paul says we still need:
–a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God
–the enlightenment of our hearts
–knowledge of that to which He has called us, our heavenly inheritance
–experience of the immeasurably great power of the Lord at work in us who believe
If we are going to receive these greater gifts, we have to be serious about living our faith. When our faith is the primary thing in our lives, and when in bears fruit in our joy and peace and hope and sense of fulfillment, then others will notice this and ask us the reason for our joy and hope. That is when we can start telling them that the Lord Jesus makes all things new, through all He has given us in his holy Catholic Church.
There’s an important element we should consider when attempting to deepen our faith so that we can have more to share with others. It is a point made by Archbishop Arenas, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. He notes that in the Book of Revelation, Christ says this to the people of one of the local churches: “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (2:4). According to the archbishop, that verse offers a key to understanding the New Evangelization. He writes that the New Evangelization “does not consist in proclaiming a new message different from the one that has always existed, nor in merely using new strategies or boisterous methods to attract people. It is in fact a question of returning to the ‘first love’ mentioned to us in the Book of Revelation.”
So this is what you need to reflect on: Try to remember the time when you were most fervent in your love for God. Perhaps there was a special grace when you first heard the Gospel message, or when you first embraced it freely and personally. Maybe there was a time when the Lord did something very special for you, or when you felt his presence strongly, or when He answered an urgent prayer of yours. You need to recall your “first love” for the Lord, as a married couple might like to relive the times when they first fell in love.
This will be for you several things. It will be a moment of gratitude. It may also be a call to repentance if, as the Lord said in the Book of Revelation, you have fallen away from your first love. And then it will be a moment of decision, of renewed conversion, and as your love and faith are renewed, you will spontaneously desire to share this with those you love and with any others who may be interested.
Many fallen-away Catholics are such because they have “abandoned their first love,” have wandered off in other directions, or their faith has been weakened through various trials or even the pleasures of life and the seductions of the world. But God always offers the grace of recovering our first love, and those who do so find their lives renewed with hope and with joy. So if you are reaching out to fallen-away Catholics, try to get them to remember a time when their faith was alive, when they felt God’s love for them and were able to love Him in return. Let them know that it is possible not only to recover that first love, but also to deepen it so that their faith permeates every aspect of their lives. This is when they can truly be transformed by the power of the truth and love of the Lord.
The Bible gives us some important counsels on how to live our life in Christ once we have recovered our first love. If we live in God’s grace and peace and truth, then it will radiate around us and bring others to Him, even without our explicit preaching. A Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov, once said: “Acquire inner peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” To live the Gospel and the whole of the Catholic faith is to acquire this inner peace, for it gives us a clear consciences and opens our souls to receive all that God in his goodness wants to give to us.
There’s a whole program of living the sort of life that will attract others to Christ, and St Paul outlines it in chapter 12 the Letter to the Romans. One of the main points, which in a sense encompasses all the others, is this: “Do not be conformed to this world [or, to this age] but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,” that you may know and do the will of God.
We do not live in a Christian society; the values of this world are not the values of Christ. It has been that way to some extent for the last 2000 years, but today it seems to be worse than ever. So if we are not to be conformed to the mentality of this world, we have to receive the mind of Christ, we have to turn to the teaching of the Gospel and of the Church, so that we can know and do the will of God in the midst of all the confusion in this world about what to believe and how to act. We have no excuse if we do not know. The Lord, through his Church, is holding out the answers to us.
I remember something that happened a number of years ago, which points out the value of not being conformed to the mentality of this world but rather standing up for what we know is right. It may be a relatively small point in itself, but it ended up bearing much good fruit. I used to live in a monastery about 150 miles north of here, and for a while I was the guest master, the one who receives people coming on retreat and takes care of them.
Once a very attractive woman, a nominal Catholic, came on retreat. She was a successful corporate attorney, but she had taken some time off to make a sort of generic spiritual retreat at various places in California, including New Age, Buddhist, and other non-Christian places. I guess it was only by God’s providence that our monastery somehow got on her itinerary.
Anyway, she arrived on a hot summer day wearing a lot less than she should have been. I could have thought to myself, “Well, this is just the way of the world; many women dress immodestly these days” and just left it at that. But the Bible says not to be conformed to the ways of the world, and since she was there in our monastery, I said to her: “Before you come down to church for services, make sure you put some clothes on.”
She of course became indignant at this, but what happened was that it sparked a debate on all sorts of issues in the Catholic Church. She had many ideas not in keeping with the Church’s teaching, and she wanted to change the Church. We corresponded for a while, and she came back for more retreats, and the Holy Spirit started to reach her a little at a time.
Well, to make a long story very short, she recently professed her solemn vows in a traditional Catholic community of cloistered nuns, and she loves it! Every time she writes to me she thanks me for helping to set her straight and redirect her from the ways of the world to the truth of the Gospel and the Church. It all started when I took a little risk and told her she was not dressed appropriately for church. It was a very simple way to witness to the truth and to basic Christian morality, yet it planted the seed of a religious vocation, which is bearing much fruit and will give perpetual glory to God, by winning many souls for the Kingdom through the prayer and sacrifice of her consecrated life.
There are other issues, especially moral issues, about which Christians have to be careful about not conforming to the ways this world and this present age. Pope Benedict reminds us that “it cannot be assumed that all Catholic citizens think in harmony with the Church’s teachings on today’s key ethical questions.” So we have to align our minds and hearts with the Holy Spirit, who is leading and preserving the magisterium of the Church in the fullness of the truth.
To be continued…