Evangelizing in Difficult Times
By Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
President, Paulist Evangelization Ministries
Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David: such is my gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory (2 Timothy 2:8-9).
It’s pretty hard to think about evangelizing at this time in our life as Catholics.
We are being inundated by news of the most terrible and scandalous behavior. This horror continues to rip open old wounds that many mistakenly believed had mostly healed. With the extensive Grand Jury report out of Pennsylvania, the resignation of one of America’s top Cardinals, and, most recently, an attack on the integrity of Pope Francis himself, how do we get beyond this horror to proclaim God’s Good News?
This, after all, is the central mission of the Church—to bring Good News to all sectors of society—as we have been noting since Pope Paul VI promulgated On Evangelization in the Modern World in 1975. To help people encounter Jesus Christ, with all the joy that Christ uniquely brings to modern people, remains the central passion and purpose of the Church, as Pope Francis clearly affirmed in The Joy of the Gospel (2013).
Yet how do we feel joy in these difficult days? How do we experience joy powerfully enough to invite and welcome people into our household of faith? How do we evangelize while acknowledging so many hurting victims and so many dismayed and scandalized Catholics?
Before anything else, we must acknowledge the pain and suffering of victims. The joy we believe in cannot come at the expense of ignoring them. Joy flows from a commitment to truth and justice, and we must always advocate for the lowly, most especially those who have been harmed by those who represent the Church. As evangelizers, we must take note of their open wounds but also never forget that we are called to proclaim the one true salve for their wounds: Jesus Christ.
This is why we continue to share the central message of disciples committed to Jesus Christ. As The Joy of the Gospel puts it: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’” (no. 3). The invitation is to encounter a Christ both suffering and raised.
As believers, we cling together against the evil about us and, sometimes, in our very midst. We believe that Christ has conquered evil and all its forces; we reaffirm this every time we renew our baptismal promises, as we renounce Satan and all of evil’s promptings. As we worship, we join the legions in heaven whom we read about in the Book of Revelation: they sing their praise as evil is purged from existence. Seals are broken open, trumpets blast until, at last, the New Heaven and New Earth appear (Revelation 21). God’s new world comes about through repentance, conversion, and the ongoing gift of grace.
What has kept the Church together all these twenty-plus centuries, and what keeps the Church together now, is the experience we have of the presence of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. This experience—a saving experience—happens when we come together as Church, receiving the sacraments that mark us as members of the Kingdom and hearing a Word that slowly liberates us from the various slaveries of our lives. The Church is not a criminal conspiracy despite the actions of its members throughout centuries that might make it look that way. The Church is a community of those experiencing salvation through Jesus in the gradual transformation of lives through Christ’s grace.
We evangelize because we carry this promise of victory and glory to a world that feels, even at its best, beaten up. We evangelize because we offer people a way to understand their personal experience through the lens of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We evangelize because we are the Church, the forefront of the Kingdom of God, leading in the proclamation of peace, justice, and mercy as we struggle to bring these long-sought values into reality. We evangelize because Christ has encountered us in our sin and begun the transformation of humankind through the gift of his Spirit.
We dare not take our eyes off of this central core of our proclamation and lived Catholic life. We dare not do this because the world, whether it realizes this or not, desperately needs this vision of hope engendered by the Kingdom of God. We dare not look away because we are the Sacrament through which God continues to work in the world—a Sacrament whose reality cannot be effaced even by the most scurrilous behavior of its members. To proclaim Christ is to proclaim the One who triumphs even in his brokenness and death.
Far too many have sinned and committed horrific, unspeakable crimes—the Church is full of the same humanity as every other institution—but many more have not. Some have violated their vows, but many more do not. We may have serious doubts, questions, and complaints, but we also have hope. Most importantly, we have the gift of Jesus—a gift given to us to be given to the world.
Indeed, we wish we could evangelize without opposition, whether from within or outside of the Church. We wish the beauty and mercy of our message could spill out unimpeded into the desert of human longing. We wish the clarion proclamation of God’s salvation in Jesus would not be muffled by the sins, crimes, errors, and blindness that so often attend our lives. But this is not our reality. Our reality is a Person given to us, both scarred by our sin and triumphant in resurrection, who continues to pour his Spirit upon us, despite the multiple ways we obscure God’s love. The reality of Christian mission has always been to walk trustingly in the midst of demons and darkness, knowing they ultimately are rendered powerless. The reality we have is Christ living in us, calling us in judgment, and calling us to redemption.
We feel far from joy at this point. We grieve with victims, pray for healing, and commit ourselves to a long journey of reconciliation. As we threaten to be overwhelmed by this torrent of scandal and pain, may we not neglect the only One who can calm the storm, the One whose Good News we are called to proclaim.