In today’s Gospel Jesus offers words of consolation and encouragement to his disciples. He says to them: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul: rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs on your head are numbered. Fear not, therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows”.
These words, together with many other passages from the Scriptures, must have been of enormous comfort to our foremothers and forefathers who embarked on the perilous journeys to proclaim the Gospel and to establish the Church in an unknown and untested place. These were men and women of great courage, committed resolve and a sincere love of God and the message entrusted to them by Christ. They were, undoubtedly, saints and sinners, those who did good and those who sinned and made mistakes. A great tragedy of much of history is that we lose the personal stories and anecdotes that give life to historical facts. Today, we remember them all and give thanks to God for them, for without them we would not be here today. Whatever their weaknesses and the mistakes they made, the faith has spread to every corner of the countries of our region, and the faith is alive and growing. The history of the Catholic Church, tainted as it may be with intentional or unintentional collusion with colonialism and apartheid, discrimination and sex abuse cases, has nonetheless, through the strength of Christ, brought life and hope, not only to ourselves but to Southern Africa.
We embark on the bi-centennial celebration of the establishment of the Vicariate of the Cape of Good Hope, the official establishment of the Church, initially in Cape Town, but from this place spreading north, west and east. We have much to be grateful for. The first missionaries who arrived, primarily intent on ministering to Catholic colonialists and soldiers, soon took the Gospel to indigenous peoples, to the oppressed and indigent – the very peripheries that Pope Francis frequently talks of. To establish the Church and spread the faith, also meant to provide education, training and medical care and through much pain, anxiety and self-sacrifice many educational and medical facilities were established that developed and gave hope to millions over the course of these 200 years. In latter years, through circumstances – not least the decrease in vocations to priesthood and consecrated life – many of these facilities have had to close or be given over to government and other bodies. For those who may think of a past “golden age” this might seem as a sign of failure or a crisis in the sense of devastation. As sad as such closures may be, in many respects, it is more a crisis of new opportunities, of change, for we are a people of hope, knowing that Christ is with us until the end of days.
For, as important as such institutions are, and as important as the role they played and continue to play, as much as we need them, the truth is that institutions are both a blessing and a potential danger. They are a source of blessing as they have provided educational and health benefits to so many, they have established dedicated places of worship – they have changed lives for the better, and provided a means for evangelization. But they also demand time, maintenance, management, leading us away from the mission given to us by Jesus at the time of his Ascension, to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:9). They can lull us into a sense of comfort and satisfaction, perhaps even leading us into believing “this is the Church” – that institutions are the end rather than the means, and to devote all our energy to preserve them no matter what.
The biggest danger lies within ourselves if we develop an institutional attitude and begin to treat people in an institutionalized way. A characteristic of our times, most especially in large urban areas, is anonymity. Not only is there the loneliness of urban life that Pope Francis has spoken of frequently, but people are dealt with in a way that makes them feel stripped of personality and dignity. Whether it is automated responses to telephone enquiries, being boxed into a computer profile that prohibits you from, for example, receiving a bank loan or simply the disinterest we so often experience when seeking assistance, people are made to feel as a mere number, one among millions of others, who are obliged to “fit into” the system. The system is paramount, not the person. As the Holy Father has said, “We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power” (EG 52). And yet Christ reminds us that sparrows may be sold two for a penny, but we are more valuable to the extent that every hair on our head is counted. Christ transforms the hearts of people through a personal encounter, by his merciful and generous forgiveness, his tenderness in dealing with the broken, the humble and the poor. As we recall our mission to evangelize it is Christ whom we model ourselves on Christ who treated every person as a person, with humanity and kindness. It is intrinsic to our faith to value human life.
Remembering the past, we turn to the future. To paraphrase what Pope Francis said at the beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life, we look to the past with gratitude, we live the present with passion and we embrace the future with hope. We know that the task to evangelize is urgent and must be embraced with passion. In the words of the Holy Father, “Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers and sisters, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit”. The frontiers have changed – no longer do we need to travel on long and dangerous journeys to other continents and peoples, but we turn to our own brothers and sisters, perhaps tired in the faith, perhaps having abandoned the faith. Our proclamation of faith is not so much as to win converts, as to open hearts to Christ and his salvific message, to transform our society in the image of Christ. And so the new frontiers become the spheres of life that influence and shape our societies, that can either liberate and enhance human life or can limit and de-humanize people. Not only do we witness to Christ in the public square, but we Christianize the spheres of politics, economics, education – the very culture of our society. There is much good in all these spheres, but there is also much that is evil and that destroys. Certainly, the prophetic voice of the Church must be heard loudly as we oppose violence in all its many forms – the violence of blood-shedding, the violence of poverty and the structures that entrench poverty, violence against the environment, the culture of death, of greed and corruption. The prophetic voice is not a voice that seeks popularity from any quarter – it seeks only truth and that which can bring about goodness.
Yet, as much as that voice may be needed, it is insufficient for evangelization and transformation of hearts. The kindness and encouragement of mercy, healing and reconciliation is intrinsic to Christ. Blessed Oscar Romero put it this way: “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can”. As St Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, it is in “speaking the truth in love” that we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (Eph 4:15). Pope Francis repeatedly calls the Church to mercy – the very essence of the Gospel – and proclaimed last year the Year of Mercy. It is to the suffering that we must turn – in the words once again of Blessed Oscar Romero, “We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed at night with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways”.
But it is not only the physical poverty that calls to us, it is the cry of those in despair, in doubt and confusion, beset with anxiety or lack of purpose, those who are searching and seeking for truth. It is the cry of the lonely, the sick, the mentally challenged. It is the cry of humanity, thirsting for truth and for love.
We cannot treat people anonymously, or in a distant, cold and “institutionalized” manner. We cannot neglect to respond to the cries we hear because those calling are sinners or outcasts. The response we make is not from superiority or arrogance, from a triumphalistic Church. It is from humility that we offer the refreshing water we have received from Christ to those who are thirsty. The bread we offer to the poor man is not our bread, but bread we have received from Christ and which we share with him. Our evangelization is not from a certainty that we have all the answers and know what is right in every situation. We evangelize through sharing our own lives, our stories, our happinesses, struggles and weakness, for we are but fellow-pilgrims journeying together to the Promised Land. In Christ, the Church has the fullness of truth, but in our humanity we have only poverty. “If one has the answers to all the questions”, says Pope Francis, “that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble”. Our words of preaching are empty without the witness of our actions of compassion and mercy, and even our acknowledgment of uncertainty.
So, as we live the present with passion we also embrace the future with hope. We learn from the missionaries who brought the faith to the southern tip of Africa – the daunting task they faced did not deter them from setting out. It would be easy for us, as we face the myriad problems and uncertainties of our countries and the modern world, to find the task at hand too much, impossible and overwhelming. And yet, the evidence not only of the past but of the present, the evidence of a faith that is alive, of a growing and thriving Church, the evidence of the commitment, dedication and love of the modern day disciples, is ample testimony of the activity of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s abiding presence among his people. As for ourselves, we are to remain faithful always to Christ, not allowing ourselves, in the words of the First Reading, to be “seduced into error” by systems, structures, ideologies or cultures that do not belong to him. We do not preach ourselves, our ideologies, visions or thoughts. We preach only Christ and the fruitfulness of the mission, and our very salvation lies in our ability to be faithful to who Christ is and what he taught us. In the words of St Paul, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).