Tuesday, 4th Week of Easter
May 10, 2022
Saint John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
Saint John Paul II Shrine, Washington, D.C.
A Culture Impervious?
Years ago, I was discussing evangelization with a group of leaders in the Archdiocese. After I finished my remarks, I opened the floor for questions and comments. One individual stood up and said, “Evangelization is next to impossible in the culture we are living in.” I suggested that evangelizing in the Roman Empire was not exactly a piece of cake, but that individual remained convinced that our culture and those who are part of it are all but impervious to the Gospel and to the Redemption wrought by the Savior. In effect, he was suggesting that we move ‘from mission to maintenance’.
Thankfully, you, our graduates, do not see it that way. During your years of study, you have looked deeply into the wisdom of the Gospel— the truth, beauty, and goodness of God’s plan for marriage and family and the authentic dignity of the human person, revealed most fully in Christ Jesus. And, you have done this not simply to gain knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Rather, you have studied, reflected, and prayed so that you would be equipped to evangelize the culture in which we live by touching the minds and hearts of those you will encounter with the truth and love of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom of his Church. Better than most, you understand the roots of today’s cultural challenges, and you are well prepared to engage in the work of transforming the culture, not with ideology but with truth, and not with anger, but with love.
Today’s Scripture readings take us back to the origins our evangelizing mission. In the Gospel, Jesus’ words and works encounter lack of faith, hardness of heart, from the very people who saw themselves as custodians of right religion. This encounter is a paradigm of how challenging it can be to evangelize within the Church community, to evangelize ad intra. In the first reading, the disciples, amid persecution, bring the Gospel far and wide, bringing many to faith, not only Jews, but also Gentile converts, and this might serve as a paradigm for the Church’s mission of evangelizing ad extra. The Responsorial Psalm opens our eyes and hearts to the goal of our mission, viz., leading others to and arriving ourselves at the heavenly Jerusalem, the City of God, to which no earthly city compares.
Today’s Gospel does indeed set in sharp relief the challenges entailed in the Church’s mission of evangelization ad intra, among its own members. Walking about the Temple, Jesus attracted a small, and if I may say, unfriendly crowd. “Tell us plainly if you are the Messiah!” they demanded of him, and this in spite of the fact that Jesus had abundantly demonstrated by word and deed that he was indeed ‘both Messiah and Lord’. This demand came not from the Roman conquerors or from skeptical philosophers, but from Jesus’ co-religionists, some of whom were leaders and teachers. They put him on the spot, not because they wanted to know if he were the Messiah, but precisely because they did not believe he was the Messiah. Jesus’ reply to their demand says it all: “I told you and you do not believe.” As one commentator observes, “They [did] not believe because they [were] trying to understand Jesus on their terms, and not his terms. Faith is the necessary condition and key for understanding Jesus and his revelation.” With faith, we enter into a personal relationship with Jesus and become the sheep of his flock, those who hear his voice, those who are known and loved by Jesus, those who follow him (cf. John 10:26-27).
How we wish that all Catholics were thoroughly evangelized and catechized, and enjoyed a deep and personal relationship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Yet, we know that is often not the case, even among leaders of the Church. Diocesan planning processes, for example, can sometimes resemble business planning rather than graced initiatives, rooted in the Person of Christ, to renew the faith-life of Catholics – churched, unchurched, and somewhere in-between. Programs of evangelization sometimes hinge more on tactics, even gimmicks, rather than on the Spirit who opens our hearts to Christ who reveals us to ourselves. Preaching and catechesis have been “dumbed down”, providing recipients with the lightest of fare and leaving them spiritually hungry. Sometimes, a smugness born of ideology puts up barriers to the Church’s teaching. I recite this sad litany, not just to complain before a sympathetic audience, but rather to highlight the importance of your intellectual and spiritual formation in equipping you to help the people with whom and for whom you will minister to discover something of the infinite richness and beauty of Christ and the authentic holiness and mission of the Church.
Lingering over the Church’s mission of evangelization ad intra for a moment more: We read how the disciples preached the Gospel in Jewish synagogues as far away (from Jerusalem) as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. So too, during Jesus’ earthly life, many Jews came to believe in him and indeed, the Church in Jerusalem was made up mostly of Jewish converts. This should give us hope as we go about evangelizing ad intra. In spite of all the challenges that the Church continues to face from within and without, many Catholics are hungering to deepen their faith, to encounter Christ, and to live their vocation of marriage and family with generosity and love, many Catholics are deeply receptive to authentic evangelization and catechesis. They are neither loud nor strident but they are in our midst. They are seeking the Lord who, in the grace of the Spirit, has first sought them. Weary of the turmoil and corruption of the City of Man, they are looking for the joy and peace that can only be found in the City of God.
This afternoon’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles epitomizes the Church’s mission of evangelization ad extra, to the world at large, for it tells us how the Church’s evangelizing mission reached the Gentiles at Antioch. When the disciples proclaimed the Lord Jesus, urging the Gentiles to “repent and believe”, they responded with alacrity and in large numbers too. These were Greek converts and citizens of the Roman Empire. They had likely practiced the state religion, worshipping mythical gods. They were drawn out of the waters of the City of Man by the disciples’ preaching, the City that promised them a beatitude confined only to this world, and they became, even while here on earth, citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
Notice, that Paul and Barnabas met with these converts for a year, instructing them in the way of Christ Jesus, initiating them into the Church’s life. How we would like to have been there to hear their preaching and instruction, backed up by the witness of their lives as disciples of the Lord Jesus. We can well imagine how simple yet how profound their instruction was and how it soaked into the hearts of their hearers, ‘like the dewfall’. What a model for those of us charged now with evangelizing and catechizing.
The individual of whom I spoke at the beginning of this homily felt, as many feel, that the culture of which we are a part is a hopeless affair. At times, we might be tempted to agree! We have only to think of the cancel culture or the current furor over Dobbs. Recent years have brought an unmistakable hardening against religious faith and incursions against religious liberty, “the polite persecution of the West.” Without feeling sorry for ourselves, we need to acknowledge that the Catholic Church is most often in the crosshairs of the ambient culture, not because we are looking for a fight but because of what the Church stands for, and because the Church is perceived as a massive barrier against so-called “progress”.
While many say that the soil of our culture is too rocky for the seed of God’s Word, let us go forth and till that soil, confident in the power of the Word, confident in that love which is ‘stronger than sin and more powerful than death,’ undaunted by persecution and rejoicing when we suffer for the Name. Let us also be confident that the Holy Spirit still acts in the hearts of many, moving them, if gradually, toward faith, helping them ‘read the signs of the times’, allowing them to discover, through our teaching and witness, ‘the One who is the answer to the question that each human life poses’, the One who breaks through illusions of natural beatitude and brings us, together with his beloved Bride, the Church, to the joy of heaven. And let me go one step further, in the spirit of St. John Paul II: As you know so well, in every culture, even ours, there are openings for the Gospel, certain points of entry, some expanse of common ground however small it may be, deficiencies that cry out for remedy, a restlessness that cries out for more. Our task is not merely to win over individuals for Christ and the Church but to plant the seed of the Gospel in the heart of the culture so as to transform it from within…and for this task, the task of building ‘a civilization of truth and love’, the Institute has prepared you well.
One final note, and this from the missionary Pope for whom the Institute is named: St. John Paul II taught that the missio ad intra et ad extra are two sides of one coin, that we must engage in both aspects of the Church’s mission at the same time. Conversely, if we neglect one, we harm the other – so we have much work to do!
Patronage of Blessed Michael McGivney
As you go forth, allow me to commend you to the prayers of Bl. Michael McGivney, the parish priest who founded the Knights of Columbus, the patron of the Order. Father McGivney faced formidable obstacles from within and without as he ministered to parishioners at St. Mary’s in New Haven, as he engaged with the wider community of that New England city, and as he struggled to found and launch the Knights of Columbus. I am sure he is smiling upon you today as you propose to go forth and engage, in the circumstances of our day, in the Church’s mission of evangelization and catechesis, ad intra and ad extra. May God bless you, dear graduates, and keep you always in his love! Our Lady Star of Evangelization, pray for us! Blessed Michael, pray for us!