The Art of Evangelization

Some people you never forget. Nick is such a person. I met him at the adult confirmation class I taught years ago. He was in his mid-twenties. You couldn’t miss him! Years of intense body-building made his already stocky frame loom large in the parish hall. His language and mannerisms were equally as rugged. He quickly assured me that he was in this class “doing his time” so he could be the godparent of his sister’s baby.

Nick (not his real name) comes to my mind because his journey highlights the great privilege we, who are pastoral workers, have as collaborators in the Church’s mission of evangelization and catechesis. Allow me to tease out from Nick’s story a few considerations regarding the art of evangelization. “Doing his time” in this particular “course” for Confirmation would involve praying and studying the Sacred Scriptures. Nick, and his fellow Confirmation candidates, would undertake the study of the Sacraments and the Liturgy by breaking open the prayers of the Church and becoming more aware that the “masterworks of God” were indeed “powers that comes forth” from the Body of Christ, which are ever-living and life-giving. (CCC 1116). As part of this time of preparation and discernment, the adult Confirmation candidates would have an opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Adoration. Our time together would also examine the importance of Christian service.

Nick was expressive and honest. He told you like it was and rarely minced words doing so! One got the sense that if he “had to be here” he was “going to make the best of it”. He was inquisitive and always had a question!

I prepared the class for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After class that night Nick told me why he wouldn’t go to the Sacrament and why he couldn’t be forgiven. He shared that for many years he was involved in serious gang activity and he lost his way. It behooved me Rembrandt's Prodigal Sonto read with him the story of the prodigal son. I read the part about the father seeing the son coming from a distance. The father upon seeing the son sprinted toward him and threw his arms around him welcoming him home.   Nick’s exclamation of “that’s what I’m talking ‘bout!” chased away my own complacency of reading Scriptures as I realized he recognized himself in that prodigal son. And the night he received the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I will never forget it. Nick burst forth from the confessional, running over to me, picked me up, and swung me around as he cried (literally), “I am free, I am loved and I am forgiven!” Tears filled my eyes! Back in class, we picked up the Scriptures and we read the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15:16-17, “‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’  I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” He turned to the class and with that sense of freedom said “that’s us boys, the heavens are rejoicing!”

Nick discovered that his life story was caught up within the narratio of salvation history and just as the people of Israel wandered and strayed, God nonetheless continued to call them back to himself and to reveal His hesed. Hesed, such a rich word. meaning God’s rich mercy, steadfast love, compassion, and grace. Nick knew what it meant to wander from God and more importantly he now knew what it meant to be forgiven and welcomed home!

Nick allowed grace to help him discover that Jesus is the answer to the lasting happiness he longed for and the sacraments of the Church put him in touch with the living God. He discovered, what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would name as the essential content of evangelization, “the Kingdom of God is God and the Kingdom of God means: God exists. God is alive. God is present and acts in the world, in our—in my life.” (Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers, 12 December 2000)

The night of the last class, Nick told me that over the weeks we were meeting for class he “took a lot of grief” from his gym buddies wondering where he was on Wednesday nights. “After all, you gotta understand that each night you go to the gym and you focus on only one muscle group” he explained. Nick went on to say, “I told ‘em how it was…on Wednesday nights, I work the heart muscle.”

In that moment, I understood these words in Catechesis Tradendae“at the `heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.”  Nick, along the way, had met Jesus. His eyes were opened to Jesus’ presence and to his transforming and saving power. To me, Nick’s words were reminiscent of the words spoken by the Emmaus disciples, “were not our hearts burning within us” (cf. Luke 24: 33). I knew I was standing on holy ground as this man before me was sharing his own experience of God’s hesed toward him!

Nick discovered what Cardinal Ratzinger meant about “unum necessarium (one thing necessary) to man is God. Everything changes, whether God exists or not” (Address). Certainly something had changed in Nick’s heart. In Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI states, “the Gospel is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life” (SS 2). Nick experienced new life in the freedom of being forgiven.

As pastoral workers, in our teaching and in our works of justice and charity, we build up the Kingdom of God. Let us not forget that these important contributions (teaching, preaching, witness of life, and service) strengthen the Body of Christ and do indeed “exercise the heart muscle.” Together we can build a civilization of love. Pope Francis writes, “True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (Evangelii Gaudium 128).

Nick (who in his own words said he had a cold and hard heart) became a man transformed by Jesus’ summons to practice the virtue of tenderness. Pope Francis stated that tenderness “is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!” (Francis, Homily, 19 March 2013) Though Pope Francis’ words are spoken many years after Nick’s encounter with Christ, God taught Nick this reality. Nick was not afraid to testify to love and tenderness by proclaiming to his gym buddies that he exercised “the heart muscle” by strengthening the gifts of faith, hope and love and becoming a disciple of Christ.

Elements for the Art of Evangelization:

  1. Establish a personal dialogue with others: “when the other person speaks and shares his or her joys, hopes and concerns for loved ones, or so many other heartfelt needs”  (EG 128)
  2. Give a listening ear. (EG 128)
  3. “Bring up God’s word, perhaps by reading a Bible verse or relating a story…” (EG 128)
  4. “Always keeping in mind the fundamental message: the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship” (EG 128).
  5. Teach the art of living. “Human life cannot be realized by itself. Each man’s fundamental question is: How will this be realized—becoming man? How does one learn the art of living? Which is the path toward happiness?” (Ratzinger, Address).
  6. Point to Jesus. “At the beginning of his public life Jesus says: I have come to evangelize the poor (Luke 4:18); this means: I have the response to your fundamental question; I will show you the path of life, the path toward happiness—rather: I am that path.” (Ratzinger, Address)
  7. Cultivate the virtue of tenderness.
  8. Be agents of mercy. “God’s mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones (cf. Ez 37:1-14). … Let us be renewed by God’s mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy….” (Francis, Urbi et orbi, 2013)

Lisa Gulino is Director for the Office of Evangelization and Faith Formation in the DIocese of Providence and teaches ministry for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Let Us Bring the Oil of Mercy

When someone has been hurt – either by another person, or through his/her own mistakes – it’s natural to try to offer comfort. “Don’t pour salt in the wound” is a clichéd expression, but it points toward a temptation for many of us. In our insecurity, jealousy and weakness, it canSalt be all too easy to secretly (if somewhat unconsciously) delight in another’s “wounds.” An honest look inside our hearts will likely turn up moments when we’ve impulsively grasped that salt shaker and seasoned the wound of an enemy…or a friend. We may not have shaken that salt directly on the wounds; but perhaps we passed the shaker around our “private table” and shared it with anyone who’d take it. Inevitably, any satisfaction we feel at our superiority before the wounded is short-lived, and the salt ends up stinging us, too.

Once a sinful woman poured salt on Jesus’ not-yet-wounded feet when she washed them with her tears. While Jesus dines at the home of a Pharisee named Simon, a woman enters the house and prostrates herself before Him. She washes His feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, and then anoints them with ointment. Simon is appalled at the audacity of a public sinner – and a woman – bursting into his home and touching his guest. We have to wonder, though, if the Pharisee was upset over his perception that the Blessed Savior was being “assaulted”, or if the salt in the woman’s tears aggravated his own wounded pride.

You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. (Lk 7:45-46) Jesus chides Simon, not because He felt slighted as a guest, but because He desired Simon’s humble surrender to His love and mercy. Unlike the woman who burst in and, in an “unbecoming display”, crudely washed and anointed the Lord, Simon stubbornly clung to his status and his perceived knowledge of God and the Law. For Simon, legality, protocol and etiquette were essential to maintain. For the sinful woman, reaching out in desperate weakness and utter humility to seek the Lord’s mercy was as natural as taking a breath. Once she’d been convicted of whatever sins she’d been bound by, and convinced that Jesus offered mercy, no obstacle could keep her from receiving it. The salt in her tears and the perfumed ointment she liberally poured on Him prepared the Lord’s feet for the pilgrimage He would soon make toward His Passion and Crucifixion.

The second Sunday of Easter in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches commemorates the Holy Myrrh-Bearing Women. Like the woman who burst into Simon’s Myrrh Bearing Womenhouse, these women (who were His faithful followers) bathed Jesus’ path to Calvary with their tears. Although His hastily wrapped body could not be properly prepared for burial, the women knew they’d return to the tomb after the Sabbath. Then they would anoint the Lord with the sweet-smelling ointment that was their communication of mercy to Him. All four Evangelists tell what happened when the Holy Myrrh-Bearers made for the tomb to fulfill their duty. The accounts are similar, but the differences display the range of human emotion and the spiritual questions we all experience. Matthew and Luke tell us that when the women saw the empty tomb and heard the angel announce the Lord’s resurrection they were frightened – yet they ran to the Apostles and told them what they’d seen. Mark says the women were “seized with trembling and bewilderment,” and left the tomb without telling anyone what they witnessed. Finally, John has only Mary Magdalene – the woman from whom seven demons had been cast out – finding the empty tomb and immediately running to inform Peter and the other Apostles.

Each account of the women discovering the empty tomb should resonate in our hearts. Hopefully we seek Him out of love, but sometimes it’s out of sheer duty (fulfilling my Sunday “obligation,” or “following the rules” of the Church.) We look for the Lord in difficult times, to be rid of whatever “demons” haunt us, yet sometimes we feel like He’s not there, as if He’s vacated our lives just as surely as He did the tomb. We fear the unknown, what God might be calling us to do…or to endure. We stay quiet; quiet before God (slacking in our prayer life, forgetting Him in our everyday busyness), and quiet before others (focusing only on ourselves). Instead, we must go after the Lord like the Women, with an urgency that is not born of duty but of love. In our fear and woundedness, standing before the mystery of life and wondering how God is operative in it, we must seek Him.

The “salt” of our sins and our suffering are poured into the wounds of Jesus, and He freely accepts it. Pope Francis says Jesus retains His wounds in heaven as a means of absorbing our sins and transforming them into mercy and forgiveness. When we pour out the “salt” of our sins and whatever baggage we carry into Jesus’ wounds, we become myrrh-bearers too. Surrendering to God’s forgiveness and embracing His love “anoints” Jesus’ wounds and become our humble “mercy offering.” Jesus accepts our offering just as He accepted the anointing from the sinful woman. But in accepting our “mercy” He asks us to put down the salt shakers and become myrrh-bearers (love-bearers) to the world.

‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Mt. 25:40

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.