“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (Mk 16:15)
“I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what you are to do.” St Francis
When we speak of evangelization, the first thing to consider is that evangelization is not something done by us, it is done by God. This is an important point for us, as Christians, to be aware of. We do not evangelize – God does. Evangelization is not ours – it is God’s. “He is the vine, we are the branches” (John: 15). Let’s look at Scripture:
This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)
We see that evangelization does not come from the one who scatters the seeds, but from the seed itself. It is not the work of the sower, but of the seed. The seed grows into full fruit in and of itself, and all the while the sower does not even “know how.” In fact, the sower can even “go to sleep” and the seed will still produce fruit by itself. St. Paul, the great evangelizer of the Gentiles, expounded on this, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God caused the growth. Therefore, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who causes the growth” (1 Cor 3:6-7). This should come as a relief to us, as evangelization is too much of a burden for any of us to carry alone. How can any one of us go out carrying the awesome charge of making disciples of nations? We cannot. But God can. In fact, Christian leadership is one of the few (if not the only) fields in which our leaders do not actually lead, they follow.
St. Paul also wrote of the image of the treasure contained in earthen vessels (clay jars), “But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7). The treasure is a metaphor for God, while earthen vessels symbolize us as delicate and fragile instruments which God uses to carry himself. I have seen many ancient Roman and Greek terracotta oil lamps in museums throughout Italy. Most of them are indeed broken and fragmented; yet, at some time in the past, they carried precious oil which illuminated the darkness. God uses us weak instruments to carry the beauty that is him.
As instruments of evangelization, we can never know how God will use us. I have been part of numerous evangelization initiatives. One of the first things I learned was that God rarely “worked” as I believed he would. Often I thought a particular retreat or experience would influence particular people in a certain way. The “conversions” I anticipated in other people rarely took place, and they almost never transformed people the way I thought they would. On the other hand, often the person I least anticipated to be influenced by such an event was deeply moved. I realized early on that all we can do is set the process in motion and allow it to unfold as God wants. We can never out-maneuver or out-think God; we merely take the actions and leave the results to God.
So if we recognize that it is not we who evangelize, but God who works through us, then the question to consider is how God evangelizes through us. Let’s look at the experience of St. Francis. A friar once asked St. Francis of Assisi, “Why is the whole world running after you?” Francis responded by saying that people did not follow him because of his strength, beauty, greatness, noble birth or knowledge; rather, God chose him because he was a sinner. Therefore, people would see that his great gifts were not actually his, but were God’s. Obviously Francis was not the worst sinner, but he was once a sinner – like all of us. In this, people could see the greatness and glory of God, because his life was so dramatically different. In other words, people observed Francis’s holiness, which was not actually his, it was God’s. People saw God through him. They saw holiness.
And this is how we evangelize: God uses us when we imitate Christ in our holiness. The more we conform our lives, minds, hearts, wills, souls, and intellect to God, the more he can utilize us as his instruments. And we do this by walking our life journey and committing ourselves to him. Our experiences and encounters we have been talking about in the previous chapters lead us to achieve holiness; we become holy by walking with the Lord and encountering Jesus.
If there is one thing that we see repeatedly in the life of St. Francis it is that he had a series of personal encounters with Jesus Christ. When Francis met God, he did not do so in one particular moment – it was over a series of events. Francis met God in his dreams and desires, while praying in the caves and ruined churches, in giving away his possessions and becoming poor, in taking up a life of penance, in the leper and in serving the poor, in rebuilding ruined churches, in sacraments and in the ecclesial community, in his brothers in fraternity. Through all these experiences, Francis’s heart was changed. With a changed heart, he became an evangelist.
Similarly, once we have had an experience of God – an encounter with God –, we are evangelizers. Like Francis, our faith involves submission and surrender to God in his love and forgiveness. We walk the path of penance and poverty, we embrace the cross, we serve the marginalized, we participate in our Church and receive the sacraments, we take part in community and dialogue with others, and we pray. In our walk with him, at some point we change and begin to act differently. We hear more clearly the voice of the Holy Spirit who speaks to us and we see things differently. Our vision has changed and we see more like God. In fact, we have become more like God. We approach life, the world, and others as Jesus did.
So with a changed life, how do we respond to those around us, perhaps those who do not share our faith? There is a popular statement attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.” The story goes something like this: St. Francis once said to a novice, “Brother, let us go into Assisi and preach.” Together they went up into the city and quietly walked through the streets. But Francis never said a word to any of the bystanders on the streets, even though many looked on curiously at the strangely clad men. After they exited through the city gate and headed back down to the friary of St. Mary of the Angels, the novice was confused. “And what about preaching, brother Francis?” he asked. “It is done,” replied the Saint “when we witness to others the joy and beauty of our evangelical life in our simplicity, in addition to the care and concern we have shown for one another. Thus, our example is often the most eloquent kind of preaching. Remember this young friar: Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”
This last sentence is one of the most quoted phrases by St. Francis. It is found all over the internet, on t-shirts, even on bumper stickers. The only problem with it is that St. Francis never actually said it. The story never took place, as it never appears in any of the 13th century sources. Yet, St. Francis could have said it. And, in fact, he did make similar statements:
"All the brothers, however, should preach by their deeds." (The Earlier Rule: Chap XVII, 3)
"I also admonish and exhort these brothers that, in their preaching, their words be well chosen and chaste… in a discourse that is brief, because it was in few words that the Lord preached while on earth." (The Later Rule: Chap IX, 3)
In this, the spirit of Francis’s attitude toward evangelization is clear. We evangelize not only in what we say, but through the fullness of the Gospel in our lives. Francis believed that before announcing Christ, we should imitate Christ; before proclaiming the Gospel, we had to live the Gospel; before exhorting others to do penance, we should be a penitent. Certainly, St. Francis believed that it was important and necessary to speak the Gospel. Yet, Francis wanted to emphasize to his friars that their preaching and evangelization should first reflect what was in their hearts. His first biographer, Thomas of Celeno, writing just three years after Francis’s death, quotes Francis as saying, “The preacher must first draw from secret prayers what he will later pour out in holy sermons; he must first grow hot within before he speaks words that are in themselves cold.” This reflects Scripture, “the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart,” (Matt 15:18) and “For from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks. A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness” (Matt 12:34-35). When our hearts are on fire for the Lord, our faith is attractive to others. And others, too, change their hearts and follow. This is the experience of Francis.
It is believed that Francis spent the first few years after his conversion alone. Some believe that Francis never intended to start a religious order or even a community. He simply set out to follow God. Yet, his way of life was attractive to other people. We’ve mentioned Bernard da Quintavalle, the first follower of Francis. Bernard had surely known Francis before his conversion, since they were both merchants and their houses were in close proximity to one another. Surely he witnessed his transformation from carefree youth to penitent. Here is the story of Bernard’s conversion as told by the Little Flowers of St. Francis:
The first Brother was Bernard of Assisi, whose conversion took place in the following way. St. Francis was still dressed as a layman, although he had already renounced the world, and for a long time he had been going around Assisi looking contemptible and so mortified by penance that many people thought he was stupid, and he was laughed at and insulted by his relatives and strangers. Yet being nourished by the divine salt and firmly established in peace of soul by the Holy Spirit, he bore all the insults and scorn with great patience and with a joyful expression on his face, as if he were deaf and dumb. Now the Lord Bernard of Assisi, who was one of the richest and wisest noblemen in the whole city, whose judgment everyone respected, wisely began to think over St. Francis’ utter contempt for the world and his great patience when he was insulted and the fact that although he had been scorned and despised by everybody for two years, he always appeared more serene and patient. He began to think and to say to himself: “This Francis certainly must have great graces from God.” So inspired by the Lord, he invited St. Francis to have supper with him one evening. The Saint humbly accepted and ate supper with him that evening. But the Lord Bernard secretly wished and planned to put St. Francis’ holiness to a test, so he invited him to sleep in his house that night. And when St. Francis humbly agreed, the Lord Bernard had a bed prepared in his own room, in which a lamp was always kept burning at night. Now St. Francis, as soon as he entered the room, in order to conceal the divine graces which he had, immediately threw himself down on the bed, showing that he wished to sleep. But the Lord Bernard planned to watch him secretly during the night. And he too soon lay down, and he used such cunning that after he had rested in bed a while, he pretended to be sleeping soundly, and he began to snore loudly. Therefore St. Francis, who faithfully concealed the secrets of God, when he thought that the Lord Bernard was fast asleep, during the first part of the night, got out of bed and began to pray. Looking up to Heaven and raising his hands, he prayed with intense fervor and devotion, saying: “My God and my all.” And he sobbed out those words with so many tears and kept repeating them with such devout persistence that until Morning Lauds, he said nothing but “My God and my all.” Now the Lord Bernard saw the very inspiring actions of St. Francis by the light of the lamp burning there. And while he was attentively meditating on the words which the Saint was saying and carefully observing his devotion, he was touched by the Holy Sprit in the depths of his heart and felt inspired to change his life. Therefore when morning came, he called St. Francis and said to him: “Brother Francis, I have definitively resolved in my heart to leave the world and to follow you in whatever you order me to do.”
In this story, we see how it was the holiness of Francis that attracted Bernard to change his own life and become a follower.
As evangelists, we do not necessarily need specialized or formal training before setting out in our evangelical work; we are not professionals like doctors and lawyers. We evangelize by simply living the fullness of our Christian lives. It is true that certain people who are called to dialogue with non-believers or teach and preach the faith must be knowledgeable and competent in discussing religious matters including Scripture, dogmas, the Catechism, etc. Yet, more convincing than our verbal arguments and perhaps the most powerful instrument we have for evangelization gifts our transformed life. When people see us, they see God. Goodness tends to spread. Aren’t you attracted to people who are good, joyful, peaceful, and serene? When you encounter such a person, don’t you say to yourself, “I want what that person has”? Conversely, as we all know, there are some who have caused awful scandals through sins of commission and omission; this, in fact has the reverse effect of evangelization. Yet, there are many more who lead holy lives.
So being an evangelist is not what we do – it is something we become. Thus, our evangelization is not about doing; rather, it is about being. We evangelize by being who we are in word and example. With a converted heart, we evangelize even while not trying to do so. Our evangelization takes place where we are -- in our hearts, homes, parishes, movements, and schools. It takes place with friends, acquaintances, or strangers at the office, on the bus, in line at the grocery store. Ask yourself who influenced you the most in your Christian life. It may have been a parent or family member, a priest, a minister, or a friend. I can think of a few people who strongly impacted my relationship with God. I sensed in them that they had a deep relationship with God and that he was strongly present in their lives. One was the minister of the Protestant church in which I grew up as a child; another was a man I met in Italy (now a priest) who influenced me to become Catholic; a third was a woman who was my formation minister in my Secular Franciscan Order fraternity. The interesting thing is that none of these people probably ever knew how much they had inspired me, since I never told them. Further, they were not actively trying to “evangelize” me; they were just living their lives as Christians and doing what they believed God would have them do. Thus, we evangelize through our experience of God. When we live as authentic Christians, all people – believers and non-believers alike – see God in us. They see the goodness in us. We stand for something.
So now let’s look more specifically at what makes us more effective evangelists. We’ve said that we do it merely by being Christians. But as Christians, we are each called to something unique. We all have a particular calling which we must discover. We evangelize effectively when we are living out the specific purpose that God has called us to do. This is our vocation.
We discover our vocation when we follow the desires God has placed in our hearts. God uses our desires to move us to do his will. “It is God who, in his good will toward you, begets in you any measure of desire or achievement” (Phil 2:13). Obviously, we are not talking about desires of the flesh, but desires of the Spirit. Once our spiritual life is mature, we are able to distinguish between our worldly desires and those to which the Spirit is calling us: “I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want” (Gal 5:16-17).
Before Francis learned to discern the desires of the Spirit, he lusted after “earthly” things. He had desired to become a knight in order to receive greater social status, worldly honors, praises, and glory. Yet, when he was 25 years old, he received his charism of poverty. We’ve already spoken how Francis heard his life’s calling during the Gospel reading read at Mass in the church of St. Mary of the Angels: “Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick.” The words fired his heart and mind, and he responded by saying, “This is what I want. This is what I seek, and this is what I desire with all my heart.” (Bonaventure, Major Legend, 3). Francis had in his heart the desire to embrace total poverty as a rule of life. God used Francis’s desires to lead him to his vocation: poverty. Francis’s desires were revealed to him in prayer, where he listened within. Bonaventure said of Francis:
When the flame of heavenly desire intensified in him by the practice of frequent prayer, and already, out of his love for a heavenly home, he despised all earthly things as nothing; he realized that he had found a hidden treasure, and, like a wise merchant, planned to buy the pearl he had found by selling everything.
We, too, must follow our desires and live out what God is calling us to do. God will never call us to do something without first placing a desire in our heart. I have heard people say they were afraid to give their lives to God for fear that God would force them to do something they absolutely did not want to do like make them become a monk or send them far away on some foreign mission. If God wants us to go on a mission, or to become a priest or a nun, he will place the desire in our hearts. We will have a profound desire to do the thing he is calling us to do. If we do not have the desire to do it, it probably is not our calling.
The “major” vocations are to marriage, priesthood, or religious life. But even after we marry or take religious vows, desires don’t stop. When we continue to listen to God’s voice in our lives, we may hear a more specific calling – an avocation, if you will. An ordained priest might feel the desire to write; a professed sister may feel called to go abroad to the missions; a married couple may feel the desire to lead retreats. Mother Teresa joined the Sisters of Loreto Order when she was 18 years old. She went to India and began serving as a teacher in the school attached to the Loreto convent. Although she enjoyed teaching, the poverty she observed around her in the slums of Calcutta disturbed her. At that point, she began to go through a new phase of discernment. She fell into a kind of spiritual anxiety or dark night of the soul. In this, Teresa experienced a “call within the call.” She decided to leave the convent and dedicate herself to helping the poorest of the poor while living among them. This was her truest vocation.
When we become the thing God created us to be, we evangelize. We recently adopted a puppy for my daughter. One of the first things I noticed about our dog, Matilda, was her incredible sense of smell. Dogs sniff everything and everywhere. A dog relies on its sense of smell to interpret its world in much the same way that people depend on their sight. A bloodhound has 300 million scent receptors in its nose, while a human has only 5 million. That makes a dog’s sense of smell 60 times more powerful than ours. By sniffing, they know who or what was in the area. Because of their highly developed sense of smell, they can be trained to track, detect, and find things that humans cannot. Dogs sniff because that’s what they were created to do. Just the same, when birds fly in the air, or fish swim in the water, or animals run around in the woods, they are being the creatures that God created them to be. For this reason, Francis said the birds praise God when they fly.
Similarly, when we recognize what we were created to be and what our spiritual gifts are – our charisms –, we praise God and we evangelize. Have you ever seen the movie, Chariots of Fire? Remember the character, Eric Liddell, the devoted Scottish Christian? He was in somewhat of a quandary. On the one hand, he had a burning desire to go to the missions in China to evangelize; on the other hand, he was a very fast runner, and he desired to race in the Olympic Games – as long as he did not have to compete on Sunday. When he accidentally missed a prayer meeting due to running, his sister reprimanded him and accused him of no longer caring about God. Eric reassured her that he would eventually return to the missions, but he felt divinely inspired when running, and that not to run would dishonor God. He said (with a great Scottish accent), “I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Eric ran in the games, won, and then went off to the missions. In both of these circumstances, he was an evangelist – by being the person God made him to be.
If we have a beautiful singing voice, we sing for God; if we have an intellectual mind, we study, teach, and write for God; if we have a heart for the marginalized, we serve the poor. Paul wrote about our callings comparing our vocations to the different parts of the body:
For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them: if prophecy, in proportion to the faith; if ministry, in ministering; if one is a teacher, in teaching; if one exhorts, in exhortation; if one contributes, in generosity; if one is over others, with diligence; if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (Rom 12:4-8)
We must know what our gifts and charisms are; then we must do them. If we don’t know who we are and what our gifts are, we should discover them. There are many aids out there that can help us: spiritual direction. It should be said that conversely, when we believe we are or should be something other than we actually are, we do great damage to ourselves. One of the worst things we can do to ourselves is believe we are supposed to be something other than what God created us to be.
But when we live our lives for God and do what we are called to do and follow God’s plan in our lives, we have joy. This is one of the most poignant characteristics in the lives of believers and in those have encountered Jesus. When people observe us, they see joy. This is also one of the hallmarks of Franciscan spirituality. St. Francis said it was one of the surest weapons against the devil (Celano II: Chapter LXXXVIII).
We must evangelize with joy. We must be people of joy! “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy” (Psalm 47:1). “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). As people of the Risen Christ, we rejoice with a joy that comes from the Holy Spirit!
Pope Francis, in the first sentence of his Apostolic Exhortation, Gaudium Evangelii, wrote:
"The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy…"
Do you know people in church – perhaps people who come to Mass every day – who always have a sad look on their face? It is as if every Mass for them is a funeral Mass! Christians should not be people of sadness: we are not sad, we should not be discouraged! Our joy is not born of the things of the world, but it comes in having encountered Jesus Christ. It comes in the knowledge that our Lord is risen. It comes from our faith that he is always with us, even in difficult moments. It comes through hope even when we face problems and obstacles that seem insurmountable. It comes in our faith that we will never die. This is our joy, this is our hope, this is our faith. This is what we witness to the world.
The world around us longs for joy. St. Augustine once wrote, “To hear this word but mentioned, all stand aright and look to your hands, to see whether you might be able to offer something to them in their want” (Augustine, De ordine, I, 8, 24.). How many people do you know who are sad, angry, or bored? How many do you know who are searching for – longing for – authentic value in their lives? How many of them go looking in the wrong places? Or how many put their hope in the wrong people or material things in their search for happiness? So many people’s lives today are full of disorder. They want to convert. What they are so often searching for is true and authentic joy. Often joy is the only thing that non-believers will see in us. It is relatively easy to come up with arguments against this or that teaching or dogma of the Church. But it is very difficult to argue against our joy.
I once heard the story of an atheist who challenged a priest to a debate. The atheist told the priest that he could easily disprove any teaching of the Church. The priest agreed to the debate on one condition: that the atheist go out and find ten other atheists whose lives were happy, joyous, and free after discovering atheism, because the priest would bring 100 believers who were joyful since their lives had been healed through Christ from addictions, depressions, physical sicknesses, and all sorts of other ailments; further, he would bring another 100 joyful people who had received food, health care, counseling, legal advice, and other social services from the Church; he would bring yet another 100 grateful people who been educated by the Church; and so on and so on. The debate never took place.
You cannot argue with joy. Neither can you argue with love. There is an old refrain sung at summer camps which goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Once we have had an encounter with God, there is a response inside us -- a desire within our heart -- to move out of ourselves toward others. This desire, this impulse, this urge pushes us out towards others and ultimately to God. This is love.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. (1 John 4:7-11)
We who receive the love of God must give it away. We cannot keep God’s love to ourselves. We must give it away! Often on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, tour guides compare the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is a beautiful fresh water lake that is fed from the Jordan River. It is the main water source for all of Israel, and is full of fish and marine life. This is the same sea so often mentioned to in the Gospels. But there is another sea - the Dead Sea – which also receives water from the Jordan. Yet, the Dead Sea is different in that it contains no life. It has no outlet and as a result, the water is so salty that it cannot bear life; therefore it is considered “dead.” The reason the Sea of Galilee bears life is because it has an inflow and an outflow; it both receives and gives. The Dead Sea, however, only receives, but never gives; it is full of riches, but has no life. As Christians, we must be a channel, and never a shell.
St. Francis did not keep to himself what he received, and he constantly strove to serve those around him. For him, this consisted in loving those within his community; we have spoken about how Francis served those who were in the order. Yet, he did not limit his service toward only those within his community and church; he went out. For Francis this meant going out and serving the marginalized of his day: the leper. We spoke about this in a previous chapter. Serving the leper was the most challenging form of service for him, as the leper was the most despised person in his society. It was difficult for him to learn to love those who were not only different from him, but repulsive. But in time, “what had seemed bitter to [Francis] was turned into sweetness of soul and body” (Testament 2).
Neither can we remain comfortable, isolated, and limited to our own communities. Instead, we, too, must go out! Pope Francis has spoken about how we need to go outside of our own churches to the periphery.
In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth”. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel. (APOSTOLIC EXHORTATION - EVANGELII GAUDIUM Pope Francis, 20)
When we remain closed within our own comfort zones, we are not evangelizers. Who wants to enter an exclusive club whose members are only focused on themselves, a type of ecclesiastical narcissism, as referred to by Pope Francis? Instead, we go outside of ourselves to the fringes, to the margins, where people are sick and hurting, where people are sad and downcast, where people are longing for warmth, friendship, and companionship. There are so many people out there longing for authentic human contact. When we do this, we are instruments of God’s love. We are evangelists.
When we dialogue with people outside the faith, it is important for us to meet them where they are. This is how God had done with us. When we look back at our own faith journey, we see that most of us embraced the fullness of the faith piecemeal. Most conversions are like this. Very few are like St. Paul who, struck from his horse and blinded by Christ, fully received Jesus Christ all at once. For most of us, our conversions happen over a period of time in which we slowly change our beliefs, attitudes, actions, emotions, responses to life, values, etc. This is because God generally calls us toward him in stages and asks us to move just beyond the point where we are.
We should treat non-believers in a similar manner. When we dialogue with people who do not share our faith, we use discernment to get a feel for where they are in their beliefs. If they are far from the faith, we start with the basics; we might begin talking about the goodness of God or of love. When we are dealing with particularly difficult people, we look beyond their gruff manner and see the potential of the person underneath. Many non-believers are great at rationalizing, debating, and debunking. They are logical, reasonable, skeptical, and sometimes cynical. We do not fall into the trap of arguing with them. Often, atheists’ disbelief in God is really an issue or disagreement with religion, or at least their experience with the religion in their youth. Having had a bad experience as a child, they drifted away and embraced philosophies contrary to the faith. Yet, when they encounter a Christian who treats them with “gentleness and reverence” – one who is full of joy and love towards them, so many of their rational arguments disappear. Often the so-called “atheists” really want to have faith; they just haven’t found a reason to believe yet.
It is helpful not to start with what we are against – they know what the Church is against. Instead, we witness to what we are for. “He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor 5: 14-18). As our Christian life has matured, we are not for ourselves; we are for Jesus Christ. Our spirituality is about who we are for: Jesus Christ! When we live for God, our lives are positive forces that are for all that is good, virtuous, noble, merciful, joyous, loving, fraternal, orderly, peaceful, whole, and generous. People will attracted to our lives.
Practically all people – no matter what their background – can relate to goodness. Only after their hearts are softened can they begin to be open to the more challenging teachings of the Church. And that process takes place over a period of conversion. Instead, the announcement of salvation that comes from the love and goodness of God should come first. It should precede the tougher moral teachings that follow from such love. It is said that you cannot give a full steak dinner to a person who is starving; their stomach will not be able to handle it, and will reject it. Instead, initially they can only ingest a little bit of bread and water. In time, their bodies will be able to accept a full meal. Pope Francis has said:
We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. … Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. … The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow. … A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives.
It is important that we never make the mistake of believing that everyone should immediately have our same level of faith – especially when we consider that God is still moving us more fully towards him and we, too, are still in the process of conversion. Regardless of where others are, we treat all people with kindness. We do not judge, because we know that the other person is really no different than ourselves. We know that all are created in the image of God and for that reason alone we treat them with respect and courtesy. We never deny the teachings of the faith when asked. We do as St. Peter says, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:16). In this, we show love towards them, and we witness to God’s mercy, not his judgment. There are many people who have claim to have never been treated by a Christian in this way.
When we sense that people are more spiritually mature, we can bring up the more difficult issues. But our love and respect for the other person helps us to discern how to discuss them. In the end, we show love to all people, because love fulfills the highest call of the Gospel. Everything we have done in our Franciscan walk is meaningless if it is done without love. Without love, everything we can do, say, write or talk about is completely empty:
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-8)
The highest form of love is to give one’s life to another. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Giving our lives comes in many forms and does not necessarily mean that we physically die: we can give to the point that it hurts. Yet, when we sacrifice for others, to the point of laying down our own life, we witness to the faith in the highest way. This is martyrdom. The word martyr, comes from a Greek word, meaning witness. When we embrace the highest form of love – giving our own life – we are proclaiming to the world our love for Jesus Christ. Certainly the early Christians knew, as countless thousands were martyred during the age of the persecutions. Yet, as the 2nd-century Church Father Tertullian wrote, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Their sacrifices brought countless others to the faith. We must have martyrs once again if we want to evangelize! We must have witnesses for Christ! We must have people willing to lay down their lives for Christ. Until then, Christianity will continue to remain tired, worn, sluggish.
Francis desired to die as a martyr, and so did Clare. More recently, St. Maximillian Kolbe, a Franciscan who lived in the last century, gave his life in martyrdom. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Kolbe had provided shelter to 2,000 Jewish refugees in the friary where he served as guardian. For this, he was arrested and transferred to the Auschwitz concentration camp. When three prisoners escaped from the camp, the commander decided to punish those remaining and discourage further escape attempts by starving ten men to death. When one of the selected men cried out that he had a wife and children, St. Kolbe volunteered to take his place, which was permitted. In the prison cell, the saint celebrated Mass each day and sang hymns with the prisoners. He was always standing or kneeling in prayer. After two weeks of dehydration and starvation, Kolbe was the last to remain alive. The guards injected Kolbe’s arm with carbolic acid. It is said that St. Kolbe quietly offered his left arm and peacefully died. When we surrender ourselves, take up the cross, and identify with Christ – imitating Christ – we become like him. We share in his sacrifice and become part of Christ’s body. In martyrdom, we evangelize in the highest way.
Yet, martyrdom is never our final goal – our hope is in eternal life! The cross is not our final hope – heaven is! The best form of evangelization is by showing others Christ’s promise of salvation, resurrection, and eternal life. “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:16). Do you believe that you will never die? When is the last time you thought about heaven? Or are your thoughts focused on your lives here and now? Our experience here is a nanosecond compared to eternity. We must think about Heaven. And we must convey our belief in heaven to others.
Our faith is emphatic in its proclamation of everlasting life: “But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (1 Pet 3:13). “I write these things to you so that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 John 5:13). Can you be like the disciples who said, “we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us”? (1 John 1:2). If there is no everlasting life, all of what we do, who we are is nothing: “And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith” (1 Cor 15:14).
Our hope is in an everlasting life where “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain” (Rev 21:4). This is the deepest desire of the human heart: to have hope despite the sufferings of this life. Fear of death is the most primordial and instinctive fear all people carry within. I believe that it is at the root of all fear. Belief in everlasting life is the answer. All people want to believe in eternity; it is written in our heart. Especially those who have no faith. They want to believe! We must give them a reason to believe – we must give them our hope!
Heaven is not a construct of humanity. It is not an illusion or delusion we have created to assuage life’s difficulties as we trudge through to a final death. It is not a fairy tale we use to comfort our children as a place in the clouds where pudgy angels fly around playing golden harps and such. Nor is it just something existing only “within” us on this earth while we fight for justice and peace. Heaven and hope in a future afterlife is the promise of God. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (John 14:2-3).
So if we believe in heaven, how do we witness to it? It is one thing to believe in it, but how do we show others our hope? We do so primarily by showing others how the eternal God has worked in our life. Where the Holy Spirit is at work, eternity is present. We give witness to eternity through our faith, through our hope, through our charity. We witness to it each time we go to Mass, recite the Creed, and receive the sacraments, each time we pray to our eternal God, each time we profess the name of Jesus. We witness to eternity each time the Holy Spirit moves something within us during prayer; when he nudges us in a certain direction; when he gives us the insight of truth; when he reveals to us his will. We witness to eternity when we recover from an illness, when we receive a special grace or healing from a malady, when the dark night passes and consolation once again returns. We witness to eternity each time we acknowledge the beauty of God’s creation in the cosmos: a beautiful day, sunrise and sunset, the mountains, the stars. We witness to eternity when the first spring sunrays warm our hearts after a long winter and when the flowers blossom and new growth bursts forth in the grass and trees. We witness to heaven when we see the face of God in our brothers and sisters: a baby cradled in her mother’s arms, an elderly woman in a wheelchair pushed by her son, a man at work providing for his family. We know heaven is real when we witness our loved ones die in peace with the name of Jesus on their lips.
We refuse to believe that this world is all there is – that we arose by chance from nothingness and are drifting aimlessly to nowhere. No. Our faith and personal encounters with the eternal God make lack of faith impossible. We have seen too much, experienced too much, witnessed too much. “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). God has not withheld himself to us in secret; rather, he has revealed himself to us. It is impossible for us not to believe. “What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you” (1 John 1:3). Therefore, we proclaim our faith and hope in the risen Lord, and we await the glory of “what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).
So, let us go as the disciples on the road to Emmaus who “said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32). Let our hearts now be set on fire and consumed with desire to announce the Gospel and the reason for our hope, our faith, our life. Be not afraid to “go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15) to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) and be his “witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
1. Who influenced your Christian life the most? Was it your parents, someone else, or both? What was it about them that influenced you? Take a minute to write about the things they did or said that influenced you.
2. How do you think your Christian life has influenced others? Has anyone ever told you that you have made a difference in their life? How?
3. Francis said often that we preach through our deeds. Are you aware that the world is judging you by your actions, and not your intentions?
4. What are some concrete actions you can take to be more open about your faith?