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 to 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:
- 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)
- Give a listening ear. (EG 128)
- “Bring up God’s word, perhaps by reading a Bible verse or relating a story…” (EG 128)
- “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).
- 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).
- 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)
- Cultivate the virtue of tenderness.
- 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.