The Gospel of today’s Mass recalls the mission of the proclamation of God’s Kingdom given initially to the Apostles, but in fact to all through baptism, and which unites us in a common cause, “And as you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”. Evangelization, as we know, is integral to the very meaning of what it means to be Church. In the words of St Paul, “It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken’. Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak” (2 Cor 4:13). Evangelisation is achieved through three constitutive elements identified by Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, namely proclamation of the Gospel and witness to Christ, celebrating the sacraments and humble service (cf. Deus Caritas est, 25a). Together we, in the diversity and richness of many charisms, spread the Good News.
The first Reading of today’s Mass holds many important lessons for this task. We hear part of the story of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and yet became the right hand man of Pharaoh. Through interpreting Pharaoh’s dream he knew that years of abundance would be followed by years of famine. He took the necessary measures to store food and was able to feed the nations. We, as leadership of the Church in Southern Africa, must always have the hope that God will transform what we perceive to be adversity into a blessing. Jospeh was sold into slavery but through that evil a great good was achieved. We may face many hardships, such as a shortage of resources and vocations, but let us never lose sight of God’s plan which brings blessings. Like Joseph, we too must read the signs of the times. There is a type of famine that grips the earth, the famine of those who hunger for and seek truth and meaning. We have the stored resources, the treasures, with which we can nourish others. This we do with the same generosity of Joseph and without holding back. Just as many nations went to Egypt for food, so we gather together different nations, cultures and languages into the unity of the one family of God.
But the task of evangelization is inseparable from our own discipleship. Pope Francis made the point, “When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly. We may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, all of this, but we are not disciples of the Lord”. Discipleship means carrying our own cross and following Christ. Evangelization is not simply the proclamation of the Gospel by going out and heralding the Good News, as important as that is. There is another pathway that must also be followed. In the words of Pope Francis, it is “the inner journey, the path within, the path of the disciple who seeks the Lord every day, through prayer, in meditation.” These are not separate pathways; they are mutually dependent on each other. Prayer, meditation, the celebration of Sacraments are integral to proclamation and give credibility to it, just as proclamation ensures sincerity in prayer and worship. For this reason all our activity must be founded on an ever-deepening encounter with Christ through Word, Sacrament and prayer. The inner-spiritual life is essential for the mission, just as the mission strengthens and feeds our spiritual life.
The urgency expressed by successive Popes for what has been termed the “new evangelization” means that there is also an urgency for the renewal of our faith expressed in prayer and spiritual life. It is accurate, I think, to say that the crisis facing the Church is not fundamentally a crisis of vocations, of lack of trust, or people leaving the Church, or the supposed irrelevance of the Church to young people. It is a crisis of faith, a crisis of where our hearts lie. The crisis of faith is, perhaps, not so much a loss of faith as such, but a faith that is being taken for granted, not nurtured or challenged – a complacency about our spiritual life and our call to discipleship. Liturgy becomes routine, our prayer superficial and the practice of faith in action mundane and without passion. A weariness has set in, a “saltlessness”. It can only be changed by seeking with fresh eyes the message of Christ and a return to the Gospel, where the starting point is a desire to know Christ more deeply with a commitment to obedience, especially to the commandment of love of God and neighbour. The Gospel of Jesus both disturbed and fascinated many, including the commandment to love. We can become so wrapped up in ourselves and content that we do love God and, after all, we wish our neighbour no harm, that we no longer allow the Gospel to disturb us and to put ourselves at risk. The famous quote from Pope Francis recalls us from our comfort: “it is true that going out on to the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded church that goes out on to the streets and a sick, withdrawn church, I would definitely choose the first one”.
Jesus, the incarnation of God, shakes us into the realization that we may be the greatest intellectual of all time, a bishop or religious, an ordinary person, but we are not his disciples unless we are able to express the same gentleness, care and compassion to the least of his brothers and sisters. It was in touching the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion that St Thomas recognized the divinity of Christ and made his profound profession of faith “My Lord and my God”. It is in the wounded-ness of those around us that we must see the face of Christ – and respond. Pope Francis has been clear that it is through concrete acts of mercy that we serve God. “If a disciple is not journeying to serve, there’s no reason for the journey. If his life is not for service, there is no point in living the Christian life”. Touching Jesus’ wounds transformed St Thomas, just as those who were touched by Christ were transformed. Our kerygma and our witness is not primarily through words – it is through those concrete and personal actions that acknowledge and affirm the dignity and value of the other.
In the words of Blessed Oscar Romero, “The transcendence that the church preaches is not alienation; it is not going to heaven to think about eternal life and forget about the problems on earth. It’s a transcendence from the human heart. It is entering into the reality of a child, of the poor, of those wearing rags, of the sick, of a hovel, of a shack. It is going to share with them. And from the very heart of misery, of this situation, to transcend it, to elevate it, to promote it, and to say to them, ‘You aren’t trash. You aren’t marginalized.’ It is to say exactly the opposite, ‘You are valuable.’” Part of the “crisis of faith” is a weakening of this sense of communion with others, of being in solidarity. It is a loss of the sense of caring for those when trouble strikes. It is a loss of a personal approach – a certain anonymity has set in. The warmth of a loving community has grown chilly.
As many people search for meaning and a sense of purpose, we rely on the tenets of our faith. The words “it is in giving that we receive, in loving that we are loved”, remain as true as ever. It is the understanding that in order to gain life we must lose it; it is through sacrifice and humble service that we find purpose and meaning to life, always remembering that this journey can never be separated from our inner spiritual journey.
For us, as leaders of the Church in Southern Africa it must be our continual recommitment to harness our diversity and the multitude of charisms and, in unity, to strive to achieve the common task of spreading the Gospel, through proclamation and witness, Sacraments and service. It is to return to those things that have always stood Christians throughout the ages in good stead. To shake off the weariness that clings so easily, to abandon the insidious idols that creep in so silently and that distract us and drain us of energy. It is Christ and his Gospel that we serve and no other. Pope Francis points us to the road ahead: “We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace”.
These are the challenges that lie before us, the tasks that we must achieve together, always faithful to our vocation and mission. We gather for this triennial meeting to ensure that we are united, diverse in charism, yet one in our commitment to continue the spread of the Gospel and to proclaim the love and joy of the Good News. May God bless us and guide during our deliberations.
+Stephen Brislin 12 July 2017