Is evangelization about finding the “right” people?

Note: This post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

If elitism is considering a person (or group of people) superior to others, then our desire to follow Jesus’ command to evangelize demands that we abandon any elitist attitudes. The true evangelist believes that the Good News is, as the Venerable Pope Paul VI wrote in 1975,“meant for all people of all times” (Evangelii Nuntiandi§13).

If we are to be true evangelists, this forces us into uncomfortable and new places. It means that we must seek to spread the Gospel to all people—the rich and the poor, the passionate and the indifferent, our friends and our “enemies,” those of status and those whom society would deem worthless. And (this is where it gets even tougher!) we must cultivate “an ever-increasing love” for those who are being evangelized (EN, §75). To be an evangelist is see every person as God does—quite the opposite of an elitist viewpoint of others.

The work of evangelization also cuts against any “self-elitism” or spiritual arrogance. It’s all too easy, even for the committed evangelist, to sometimes slip towards the temptation of thinking,“I know the arguments to answer the skeptic. My presentation of the Gospel is spot-on. My tireless work for the poor makes people stop and think. I’m a disciple because I learned nearly everything there is to know about the Bible and Catechism.” In doing this, we might share the Gospel lovingly with all; yet still implicitly place ourselves on a pedestal as the evangelist.

Read more…

Is Discipleship Too Much?

This is the second post in a series examining concerns and cautions about evangelization voiced by Fr. Francis P. DeSiano, CSP, President of the Paulist Evangelization Ministries.

As I discussed in Part 1 of this series, authentic evangelization is never elitist. True evangelists are humble, projecting the goodness of God in Jesus Christ and not their own accomplishments, while increasing in love for every person they seek to share Jesus Christ with.

Yet even as we maintain a spirituality of evangelization that leads us further and further away from elitism, difficult questions still follow as we wonder about what discipleship means and the many forms it can take. In the first two parts of his series, Fr. DeSiano challenges us to ask:

  1. If one estimates that most self-identified Catholics are not disciples, then is our definition of discipleship too high or exclusive? (Part 1)
  2. If growing disciples is a slow process, does that mean it’s not a mass movement for everyone? (Part 1)
  3. Does an emphasis on discipleship “marginalize” or possibly “exclude, more and more ‘ordinary’ Catholics?” (Part 2)
  4. Can God’s grace be “far wider than those who are consciously followers?” [i.e. those whom we might call disciples or those who have responded to evangelization] (Part 2)

I’ll take these questions one at a time. First, if one estimates that most self-identified Catholics are not disciples, then is our definition of discipleship too high or exclusive? This question is a critical reminder that “we” (not you, nor I, nor our pastors or our parish council) do not get to decide what discipleship is. Drawing from Scripture our Church teaches that a disciple:

  • Professes, spreads, and lives the faith of the Church CCC §1816)
  • Lives “the simplicity of a life in conformity with the Lord’s example” (CCC §2470)
  • Prays! (CCC §2601, 2612)
  • Is initiated and nourished by the Eucharist (CCC §1275)
  • Responds to Jesus’ invitation to enter His kingdom (CCC §546)
  • Establishes habits befitting a disciple of Christ (CCC §1494)
  • Continues in Jesus’ word (CCC §2466)
  • Witnesses to Christ and works using the gifts received from God, in ecclesial and temporal affairs (CCC §1319, 2427)
  • Imitates Jesus (§2347)

Discipleship is the process of growing more and more as a follower of Jesus Christ. A disciple isn’t perfect. A disciple is, however, growing more and more as a follower of Christ—seeking to be transformed and conformed to Jesus Christ’s image. Is this description from the Church too high or exclusive? Under our own power alone, yes. It would be impossible. But, with the love of God and help of the Holy Spirit, anyone can respond to Jesus Christ as a disciple, an intentional follower of the Lord.

Second, if growing disciples is a slow process, does that mean it’s not a mass movement for everyone? Absolutely not. God’s time is not our time. Many mass movements take years, decades, or centuries to grow—bearing all sorts of fruit along the way. Again, I immediately think of the lives of disciples in the New Testament. We hear of some who have dramatic conversion processes and quickly “drop their nets” and assume a new life. But there are others, hundreds of nameless other disciples of the New Testament who formed the early Churches who probably experienced slower conversions. As each of these new disciples shared their encounter with Jesus Christ with others, the movement grew. Right on down to our generation today. Slow? Yes. Mass movement? Also yes. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Third, does an emphasis on discipleship “marginalize” or possibly “exclude, more and more ‘ordinary’ Catholics?” One of Jesus’ clearest instructions is, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations”(Matt 28:19). If we fail to place an emphasis on discipleship, we are ourselves deliberately choosing not to imitate Jesus, not to follow his command or his example in his earthly life of consistently inviting people to follow him and probing those he converses with to create an place of encounter and response to His love. Discipleship is for everyone and excludes no one. It’s inviting and walking with others to model what the life of a disciple is really like—the ups and the downs, the victories and the suffering. If openly talking about relationship and encounter with Jesus Christ as the “fundamental decision of [a Christian’s] life…which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” is an uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or disconcerting topic for those whom Fr. DeSiano calls “ordinary Catholics,” then all the more reason to emphasize discipleship in a warm, loving, and inviting way, rather than to simply shy away from it (Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, §1). Discipleship is not the same thing as cultural Catholicism, but it by no means excludes Catholics who are enriched by Catholic culture.

Fourth, can God’s grace be “far wider than those who are consciously followers?” Of course! An emphasis on discipling others is in no way a limit or restriction on the mystery of God’s saving power and grace. The teachings of our Church and, as Fr. DeSiano points out, even our liturgical worship point to this blessed reality. Yet, at the same time, as the Venerable Pope Paul VI explained in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “the religion of Jesus,” “objectively places man in relation with the plan of God, with His living presence and with His action” (§53). This is why to be consciously experiencing and responding to the love of God is a truly right relationship, the one each person was designed for.

Fr. DeSiano’s questions remind us that it’s all too easy for disciple-making to lose focus on Jesus Christ, and instead become about adding membership to a club. When we treat discipleship like a club, people are marginalized, excluded, and the Gospel message becomes obscured by our sinfulness. Discipleship is too important to become “just another club,” another “in-group.” In a nutshell, real discipleship is about not selling ourselves short as Christians. Jesus Christ calls us to follow him as disciples and gives us the Holy Spirit to make discipleship a real possibility, even for the most fainthearted, weak, sinful, unenthusiastic, [insert problem…], of us! This is a wonderful blessing—a joy—as Pope Francis recently reminded the world in Evangelii Gaudium. It’s not too much for us—it’s what Jesus asks of us.


For Motivation: Evangelization is a Necessary Duty

Evangelization is:

“the duty incumbent on her [the Church] 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” (§5)

-Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975)

The Witness of a House

There’s something wonderful about discovering good in the world–of stumbling upon Christians who are living a beautiful life of witness when you’re not even searching for such inspiration.

I recently found out that the Servants of God’s Love, a community of religious women in the Diocese of Lansing, have an apostolate mission called Emmanuel House which provides 100% volunteer driven nursing home, assisted living, and/or hospice care to elderly adults in need–all for free. One of the two homes is within running distance of my own residence, so today I ran over with the baby and jogging stroller over to see the place. And it’s really there. An ordinary ranch house, in a suburban neighborhood.

As I ran home, I was thinking about how maybe this kind of house is like a specialized version of Dorothy Day’s vision for Homes of Hospitality in every parish in the U.S. I mean, there are some parishes that aren’t (for practical reasons) ideal locations for a House of Hospitality for the homeless, due to lack of mass transit options or geographic distance from other resources for the homeless. But, there are elderly poor spread out all over our country.

I’m sure starting something like this isn’t easy. In the video below, Sr. Mary alludes to a year spent in prayer to discern how God was leading the effort. But maybe there are parishes where the resources are in place to open more homes of hospitality for the elderly.

I know that I was blessed by the witness of the Servants of God’s Love and the community that has formed to support Emmanuel House. Demonstrating, as Pope Paul VI writes in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “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 neighbor with limitless zeal” (§41).


Evangelization and Sacraments — A Powerful Quote

Some wonderful words from the Venerable Pope Paul VI on the difference (yet not competition) between the preaching/teaching of doctrine, the ordinary natural life, and the supernatural life of grace…

“Yet, one can never sufficiently stress the fact that evangelization does not consist only of the preaching and teaching of a doctrine. For evangelization must touch life: the natural life to which it gives a new meaning, thanks to the evangelical perspectives that it reveals; and the supernatural life, which is not the negation but the purification and elevation of the natural life.

This supernatural life finds its living expression in the seven sacraments and in the admirable radiation of grace and holiness which they possess.

Evangelization thus exercises its full capacity when it achieves the most intimate relationship, or better still, a permanent and unbroken intercommunication, between the Word and the sacraments. In a certain sense it is a mistake to make a contrast between evangelization and sacramentalization, as is sometimes done. It is indeed true that a certain way of administering the sacraments, without the solid support of catechesis regarding these same sacraments and a global catechesis, could end up by depriving them of their effectiveness to a great extent. The role of evangelization is precisely to educate people in the faith in such a way as to lead each individual Christian to live the sacraments as true sacraments of faith- and not to receive them passively or reluctantly.”

Evangelii Nuntiandi (§47)

Pope Francis’ “How to Prepare to Preach”

Here’s a quick outline of Pope Francis’ basic steps for preparing to preach, from the new Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, a fantastic follow-up to the inspiring guidance of Evangelii Nuntiandi. 

1. Call on Holy Spirit in Prayer (§146)

2. Give full, undivided attention to Biblical text. This takes time. Needs to be done seriously, as the biblical text will be the “basis of our preaching.” (§146)

  •  Understand the words, use literary analysis, but don’t get bogged down in the details. (§147)
  • Discover the principal message of the text, “the message which gives structure and unity to the text…what the author primarily wanted to communicate.” (§147)
  • To understand fully the central message of a text, “ we need to relate it to the teaching of the entire Bible as handed on by the Church.” (§148)

 3. Personal preparation of the preacher (§149-151)

  • Prayerful personal encounter with the word
  • Fervor (renewed daily), growing “in love for the word we preach”
  • Allow readings to resonate in one’s heart
  • “What is essential is that the preacher be certain that God loves him, that Jesus Christ has saved him and that his love has always the last word”

 4. Spiritual Reading of the Text (Lectio Divina) (§152)

“This prayerful reading of the Bible is not something separate from the study undertaken by the preacher to ascertain the central message of the text; on the contrary, it should begin with that study and then go on to discern how that same message speaks to his own life. The spiritual reading of a text must start with its literal sense. Otherwise we can easily make the text say what we think is convenient, useful for confirming us in our previous decisions, suited to our own patterns of thought.”

“In the presence of God, during a recollected reading of the text, it is good to ask, for example: “Lord, what does this text say to me? What is it about my life that you want to change by this text? What troubles me about this text? Why am I not interested in this? Or perhaps: What do I find pleasant in this text? What is it about this word that moves me? What attracts me? Why does it attract me?” When we make an effort to listen to the Lord, temptations usually arise. One of them is simply to feel troubled or burdened, and to turn away. Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make.”  

4. Attention to the Hearers (§155)

  • Contemplate the hearers–what do they need to hear?
  • Link to human experience, the situation of the hearers
  • “Let us also keep in mind that we should never respond to questions that nobody asks. “

5. Ways, Methods, and Styles of Preaching (§156-7)

  •  The “way” we preach is “a profoundly spiritual concern”
  • High quality product, use all talents and creativity
  • Concise
  • Use images
  • Simple language, “Preachers often use words learned during their studies and in specialized settings which are not part of the ordinary language of their hearers. These are words that are suitable in theology or catechesis, but whose meaning is incomprehensible to the majority of Christians. The greatest risk for a preacher is that he becomes so accustomed to his own language that he thinks that everyone else naturally understands and uses it.”
  • Concise and simple, without forsaking clarity
  • Positive (“offers hope, points to the future, does not leave us trapped in negativity”)

6. Intentional Improvement (§157)

“How good it is when priests, deacons and the laity gather periodically to discover resources which can make preaching more attractive!”

Note: I numbered the main points for sake of clarity. I don’t think they are intended to be sequential, but more overlapping phases and elements of preparation.