Evangelization: Back up your words with deeds

Father John A. Kiley

Startled by the imprisonment of St. John the Baptist, Jesus leaves behind the religiously top-heavy area around Jerusalem with its temple liturgies, periodic pilgrimages, priestly ministrations and pious commercialism. Instead, Jesus returns home to Galilee, to the northern region of his youth, an area rich with both Greek and Jewish tradition.

St. Matthew in this Sunday’s gospel passage, understands this transfer from the territory around the River Jordan to the territory around the Sea of Galilee to inaugurate the universal, that is, catholic, movement that will forever characterize the Christian Gospel. Jesus here begins in earnest his work of evangelization, his work of dispelling anguish, darkness and gloom and restoring hope, joy and merriment, to employ Isaiah the prophet’s descriptive words found in this Sunday’s first reading.

St. Matthew quotes further the magnanimous words of Isaiah, “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen.” Such eager evangelization continues as a mark of the true Church.

The Church’s work of evangelization was given pause recently when some words of Pope Francis were published. During a celebrated interview with an Italian journalist, Pope Francis interjected that proselytism was “solemn nonsense.” In a more authoritative situation, in the context of his recent apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” his Holiness knocks proselytism again by bluntly observing, “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction.”

Here, our present Holy Father is actually quoting his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who first offered these words to the bishops of South America on an apostolic visit in 2007. Pope Benedict said, “The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction:” just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.”

Happily recalling these words, Pope Francis instructs those reading his new exhortation, “We cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of these are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction.” The media, of course, ignored this last line when spoken by Pope Benedict but relished it when uttered by Pope Francis. This is just another case of the media loving in Pope Francis what it ignored in Pope Benedict, as Carl Anderson, the head of the Knights of Columbus, rightly noted.

In a particularly homey and characteristically down to earth assessment, Pope Francis compared proselytism to handing a prospective convert an encyclopedia containing 3,500 years of Judean-Christian truths. Such data might enrich the person’s head, but it rarely penetrates to the person’s heart, leaving the new Christian with a lot of information but very little inspiration. The sincere evangelist, which for Pope Francis includes every Catholic, must be intent on pondering our Pontiff’s considered words but also in reflecting in our own lives his affectionate gestures.

Accordingly, St. Paul, for his part, in the second reading this Sunday, warns against any attempt to reduce Christianity to simple ceremonies and mere facts: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning.” Jesus’ greatest sermon, his most effective work of evangelization, was not delivered along the seashore of Galilee but rather from the Cross, where his heart-felt love for sinners was most vivid, most intense, most passionate.

Pope Francis is fond of the words attributed to his patron, St. Francis of Assisi, in this regard who cleverly demanded, “Wherever you go, preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.” True evangelization is a lived message, backing up words with deeds.