What is “works” without “faith”? -MPM
-Bishop Anthony Fisher O.P., Bishop of Parramatta, Australia, World Youth Day 2011 Catechesis, Madrid
A recent English survey found many people had never heard of Moses or the Magi, thought miracles were magic and that the cross is a piece of jewellery. You probably know people like that. Many who still identify as Christian have little personal faith, don’t really know much about it, and live as practical atheists, that is, as if there were no god. Others, though baptized, no longer even identify with any religion.
While we’ve been away a census was held in my country. About a quarter of the people or more will probably have said ‘No religion’ or else just left the religion question blank. Things might be different in your country: they might even be worse.
Now, most of these no-religion and blank-religion people are not ‘pagans’ in the traditional sense: they are not people who’ve never heard of Christ or Christianity. Most of them were Christened. They grew up in nominally Christian families and may even have gone to Catholic schools. Their surrounding culture was ostensibly Christian or at least had a long Christian heritage. But now they inhabit a world without God.
As Pope Benedict has observed, secularism marginalizes God by promising a ‘paradise’ without Him. Yet experience suggests that a godless world is not a heaven but a hell: ‘filled with selfishness, broken families, hatred between individuals and nations, and a great deficit of love, joy and hope’ (Benedict XVI, Message for the 26th World Youth Day, 3). All too often our media, educational, cultural and political institutions conspire against the civilization of love and truth, of respect and communion, and against our best efforts to share our Faith with the world.
Sometimes we bring it on ourselves. Some aspects of our lives can be a real ‘turn off’ for others: Christian ‘faithful’ whose faith is lukewarm or angry or hypocritical; families that neglect to encourage the practice of the Faith in each other; schools that fail to present it fully or attractively; pastors whose terrible misconduct undermines people’s faith; parishes that are unwelcoming; liturgies that are uninspiring; injustices and uncharities that are ignored.
Rather than passing on the Faith we can actually inoculate people to it. You probably had vaccinations as a child or when first you travelled. They work by giving people small doses of dead or impotent examples of that to which they will build immunity. Sometimes I think we build up resistance to the Faith in people by injecting them with a weak or dying religion.
One example of this is what I call Watermelon Catholicism. What do I mean by that? I mean a sweet but watery and even seedy kind of religion, with plenty of green-and-red moralising about ecology and justice but with no goal of a deeper conversion of hearts, a richer relationship with God and His Church. As Edinburgh philosopher, John Haldane, has observed, this focus on important ethical, social or political issues can ultimately amount to no more than ‘mere echoes of notions acceptable to the secular world, and familiar because of it.’ (‘The Waiting Game’, The Tablet, 5 Feb 2005, p. 9) Watermelon Catholicism apes secular modernity and reduces faith to morality, morality to a few politically correct causes, devotion to quaint customs, and Catholic identity to good citizenship. But Evangelising Catholicism should challenge our culture and ourselves, always calling us to more and better – to the communion of saints with God in this life and the next.
The last few popes have talked a lot about evangelization. Not all Catholics are comfortable with that. The word can conjure up images of televangelists after your money, soap-boxers predicting with relish that most people are damned, or door-knockers with dire warnings about the evils of the Popish Church. The idea can seem intolerant of other religions, which after all are other people’s paths to God. Some years ago, a UK survey found that evangelists were regarded as ‘better than tax inspectors but worse than prostitutes’ (The Tablet, 26 Oct 2002, p. 37). But evangelization need not be so scary.
Put simply, evangelization means proclaiming the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. It seeks to bring people to faith through a personal encounter with Him. Before he died the Father of World Youth Day, Blessed John Paul II, said that the time had come to commit the Church’s energies to a new evangelization in previously Christian communities that are falling away from the Gospel in the face of secularization and other cultural change (Novo Millenio Ineunte 40; Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 113-4). The same might be said about formerly Christian institutions, families and individuals.
So concerned is our present Holy Father about the decline of faith in some places that he’s called for a Synod on the New Evangelization next year and established a permanent Vatican department to work on this. As a conversation starter the working document for the synod (‘lineamenta’) has already been published on the net. It reminds us that our proper concern to be tolerant must never blunt our ‘sense of boldness in proclaiming the Gospel’. We must grasp every opportunity to respond to people’s thirst for God. We must purify ourselves of fear, laziness, weariness or retreat into the self, embracing wholeheartedly our baptismal mission to communicate Christ to the world (Lineamenta for the Synod on the New Evangelization 5). Ask yourself: what is it that’s holding me back from proclaiming Christ crucified and Risen for all humanity?
So the new evangelisation is not just a job: it’s a whole ‘frame-of-mind’ (Lineamenta 6) or mind-set, a way of looking at God, ourselves and the world, of making sense of those things, and of understanding our own place and destiny. As we rediscover it for ourselves, we also help ‘weary and worn-out communities [to] rediscover the joy of the Christian experience’, to ‘find again the love they once had but lost’ (Lineamenta 6). So as the Lineamenta put so directly: “‘Being Christian’ and ‘being Church’ means being missionary; either one is or one is not. Loving one’s faith implies bearing witness to it, bringing it to others so they can participate in it. Lack of missionary zeal is lack of zeal for the Faith.’ (Lineamenta 10) If you imagine you can be a ‘spiritual’ Catholic without the ‘institutional’ Church or that you can be a Church-going Catholic without being missionary, you are not really a Catholic! But when Catholics are Church-connected and truly missionary they build up the Church as ‘the community of witnesses’, ‘the community of hope’, ‘the community of brotherly love’. Our world today needs that kind of testimony to Christ, that kind of communion with the saints, those kinds of reasons to believe, to hope and to love (cf. Lineamenta 17).
A young woman recently challenged me: I liked what you said about my generation being called to evangelise – but I’m not sure how. Her concern was a very practical one. Theologians and bishops can tell us a lot about the big picture, but what am I to do in my particular world? So in answer to her plea, here are my 10 commandments for the new evangelisation. Pope Paul once said ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’ (Paul VI, Address to the Council for the Laity, 2 October 1974) It’s a very important point. How often have you been impressed by someone’s personality or example more than any speeches they gave; conversely, how often have you been turned off by someone’s failure to practice what they preach. The Church evangelises by being real. No pretence, no tricks. We tell it like it is. We live what we tell.
Thus my first commandment for witnesses is St Augustine’s: Christian, become what you are. Be proud of being a Catholic, live your faith honestly, with obvious joy, not ashamed to speak up when you have the chance but more importantly speaking with those silent but powerful words that are the living a fully Christian life, a holy life. There’s nothing more seductive than that, nothing more likely to allure and persuade and convert others.
Yet as the old adage goes, nemo dat non quod habet: you can’t give what you ain’t got. If you’re going to have any good ideas, anything interesting to say to the world, you need inspiration. So commandment number 2: Get inspiration from the best places. Go to God in adoration and prayer. Go to the Word of God in the Scriptures and the living tradition of the Church, told in documents like the Youth Catechism for World Youth Day.
If after WYD you have a hunger for more, do a good course on your faith, read some good books, iPod the great apologists, Google and YouTube what will really enrich your faith. Today I am so very honored to speak to you only inches away from the relics of St Therese of Lisieux; above me are statues of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. Read the lives of the saints and develop a relationship with them: they’ve struggled with issues like yours and by God’s grace came out on top. Above all, develop a relationship with Jesus Christ through those most privileged encounters with Him in Confession and Holy Communion.
Third commandment: Be open to God’s call. Some of you here are being called, right now, to give your lives to Christ, full time, in the sacred ministry as priests or religious. ‘Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are,’ says the bishop to the newly ordained deacon. ‘Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you preach.’ That powerful charge sums up the evangelical purpose of clerical and religious life. If you have a nagging sense that you could be a herald of the Gospel, that that might be how you could do most for God and the world, that that might be what would make you most happy, have the courage to take the plunge and give ‘a vocation’ a go.
Fourthly: Let God lead you down new paths. Ask yourself: how will I be different when I go home from this big spiritual wow that is WYD? In what new ways will I contribute to the Church and the world, or with what new passion will I continue to contribute? As the Pope said yesterday, your parishes need you! So have a good look at the things they do and ask how your youthful energy, vision and creativity might help.
Fifth: Dare to be creative. What new thing might you try for God? After WYD in Cologne a young woman decided to start a thing called ‘Night Fever’. Young people now gather on a Saturday night once a month in inner-city churches across Germany and beyond, to adore Christ in Eucharistic exposition, with gentle chants and candles in the darkness; others roam the streets, pubs and nightclubs inviting people to come and spend a few minutes with the Lord. It works: many come.
A sixth commandment: Make ordinary life your first field of evangelization – family, fellow students, work colleagues, friends. The mission today is not so much to a foreign land as to the non-Catholics and nom-Catholics (nominal Catholics) right where you are. Make your life in those places into a Gospel where people may read of Christ.
Seventh: Take a genuine interest in people, when approaching them to raise matters of faith. They are not just numbers in some conversion competition, not just evangelical projects. They are people, searching for answers like you are. They are persons, unique images of God in our world. So listen to them, befriend them, find common ground with them. Only then will deep conversations begin.
My eighth commandment: Give personal testimony about how encounters with God have changed your life. As Pope Paul said, it’s witnesses contemporary people are interested in more than experts. Don’t just give arguments and scripture quotes, important as apologetics is. Let them see that it really matters to you, that faith is what makes you tick, makes you interesting, makes you happy.
Ninthly: Focus on the basic proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ. If you do that, you will then be able to range around the whole field of Christian faith and worship, morals and prayer, past history and future dreams, as the Catechism does.
And finally: Seek the support of wise friends, whether they are in a movement or youth group or wherever. It can be tough, lonely or emotionally exhausting at times, standing up for God in a culture, amongst people, maybe even friends and family, who don’t share your faith. So make sure you have a good support group.
There was once a lad named Tom who was big and slow and rather shy. His mates at Paris Uni called him ‘the Dumb Ox’ because he was so strong but taciturn. His teacher, whom they perversely called ‘Big Al’ because he was small, could tell that Tom had a lot of potential. ‘He might be quiet at the moment, but one day you’ll hear this ox bellow,’ Al said. So he taught him well, gave him every opportunity and made sure he got his chance to speak. And speak he did. He roared. They both became stars in what was then a new ecclesial movement devoted to a new evangelization: the Dominicans. They both more or less followed the 10 commandments of evangelization that I have outlined this morning.
The student ended up being the greatest theologian in history, St Thomas Aquinas; the teacher, Albert the Great, also was canonized in the end. Both inspired lots of other young people to take up the adventure of preaching the Gospel. By the time Thomas died they were calling him ‘light of the Church’ and painting a glowing sun on his chest in iconography to highlight his divine wisdom. Albert ended up patron saint of science and scientists. But he rightly thought young Tom was his greatest achievement. He’d encouraged young Tom to tell the world about Christ. Your generation must likewise support and encourage each other to be witnesses.
Will you be part of the great adventure that is witnessing to Christ in the 21st Century? I trust that by God’s grace you will.”
-Most Rev Anthony Fisher, O.P., Bishop of Parramatta, Australia