“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”
– Mark 16:15
This key verse of the Gospel for the Ascension of the Lord was also the theme for Pope Francis in a recent address he gave to about 150,000 representatives of the Neocatechumenal Way. Some reports of this event suggest that much of the address was a subtle rebuke to a group that has not always been exemplary in the way it goes about evangelization. But this is a constant theme of Pope Francis: challenging us to rethink how we present the Gospel, because the hope of the New Evangelization has been thus far unfulfilled.
The Ascension marks the point where God turns over the great work of redemption in the world to us as His agents. The Body of Christ is found in the world first in us, the communion of believers. Only then can it be found in the Eucharist, for no one can receive the True Body without first having been taught and welcomed into this communion of persons. If we care about fulfilling the Gospel mandate to bring Christ to the world and the world to Christ, we do well to listen to and reflect on these words from Pope Francis.
“Only a Church that renounces the world announces the Lord well. Only a Church free from power and money, free from triumphalism and clericalism, testifies in a credible way that Christ liberates man.”
The organizations that are well-funded for the stated purpose of evangelization, and powerful drivers of opinion among Catholics – are they announcing the Lord well? Do they preach a Gospel that is credible to the brokenhearted and those bound by structures of sin? How are they doing at re-filling the pews of Catholic churches? Or are they preaching neo-Pelagianism, a promise that those who can save themselves by believing and doing the right things will be rewarded with comfort and success in this world and the world to come?
“Pope Francis also drew attention to the plural form of the mandate ‘Go,’ saying a ‘complete missionary’ does not all alone but ‘walks together.’ He said this is an art as it implies walking together without isolating oneself and without imposing on others one’s direction of march, ‘united, as Church, with the Pastors, with all the brothers, without breaking away ahead and without complaining about the slowest.’”
This is hard. How does one stay together in community without “imposing on others one’s direction of march”? The only way this is possible is to let the head of the Church set the direction. And this is the direction Pope Francis is setting for us: mercy and joy. Are we following that direction? And are we following his words about not breaking away ahead or complaining about the slowest? (A nod to the law of gradualness.)
“Christ’s mandate of ‘making disciples’, the Pope continued, ‘is totally different from the dynamics of proselytism.’ It is sharing one’s encounter with Christ that has changed one’s life, the Pope said, stressing that the heart of the mission is to witness that God loves us.
He urged members of the Neocatechumenal Way not to count on arguments that convince, but on a life that attracts; not the ability to impose oneself, but the courage to serve.”
Are we winsome in how we live our faith? How are we serving others, based on their needs and true desires, not imposing the types of service we feel comfortable giving? Do we radiate the experience of God’s love? Or are we focused on arguing our points, ever refining our “skills” in apologetics, but never stopping to apologize for tactics that are more likely to annoy than convince?
“Reminding them of their vocation of proclaiming the Gospel, living in the family, he urged them to ‘bring this family atmosphere into many desolate and unconcerned places.’ By making disciples of all peoples, he said, Jesus meant to emphasize that ‘in his heart there is room for every people. Nobody is excluded.’”
Are we inviting others who are desolate and uncared for into intimate friendships, participation in our family, or welcoming and supportive small groups? Or are we hunkering down in our nuclear families, afraid of the taint of outsiders sullying our pristine conception of a “domestic church”? Are we discipling our children by how we show love as a family, or are we focused on disciplining them and teaching them rules? Are we excluding people from our own families when they don’t meet with our approval? Are we excluding people from close friendship just because we don’t want to make more room in our social circle?
“Finally, Pope Francis urged the Way to love the cultures and traditions of peoples they are sent to, without applying pre-established models. They must not start from theories and schemes, but from concrete situations, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest, helping the Church grow ‘united in the diversity of peoples, gifts and charisms,’ the Pope said.”
Are we, like St Paul in Athens, actively looking for what is good in the culture and habits of those who are not yet part of the Church, and using that as a point of connection, the seed of conversation and conversion? Are we speaking words of liberation and healing to their particular struggles? Or are we approaching evangelization with a script that takes little notice of the person in front of us? Do we think that the “unchurched” have nothing to offer, or are not part of the Church simply because they are ignorant?
Do we love the diversity of gifts of others inside and outside the Church, and seek to discover how working together can help us to become more than the sum of our parts? Do we affirm the variety of charisms and spiritual practices that enrich the Church? Do we trust that the Holy Spirit is truly at work in each person called into communion? Or do we insist on one best way of being a Catholic, of praying, worshiping? Are we quick to put people in a limited number of boxes for how they might serve the Church? Are we suspicious of other people’s inspirations if they are unfamiliar to us?
Catholic Church attendance has been hemorrhaging for decades, and religious “nones” rapidly rising. We are failing at evangelization, quite simply and tragically. The definition of insanity is continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. We must cast out into the deep and throw our nets on the other side of the boat. Pope Francis is giving the faithful frequent guidance on what we need to be doing differently to bring the joy of the Gospel to a hurting world. Are we listening? Are we doing?
Lillian Vogl is a woman of many facets. Professionally, she is learned and licensed in law and finance. Spiritually, she is a lifelong lover of the Divine and student of Scripture, Catholic by choice, mystic by election, and blogs at “Beyond all Telling” (www.patheos.com/blogs/beyondalltelling/). Personally, she nurtures the flourishing of her husband, two children, and friends with all the beauty and structure of a good compost heap.