By Edmund Adamus
As Catholics, what’s our ‘street cred’?
In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis discusses our credibility – specifically, how we are perceived by the unchurched and those with no faith.
Much depends, he says, on the ‘openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community.’ The Holy Father calls on the local parish to be the Church ‘living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters.’ Parishes have to prove ‘capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity.’ A parish must be, ‘really in contact with the homes and the lives of its people.’
Not ‘a useless structure out of touch with people’
Yet in order to ‘up our game' our parishes — which include our schools — must seek a fresh focus of thinking and energy on the absolute centrality of family life and its vitality. This in order to prevent what Pope Francis describes as the parish being ‘a useless structure out of touch with people.’
We all want and expect the parish to be a welcoming, loving and Christ-centred place of forgiveness. And our model for this Spirit must always be the quality of the relationships within our own four walls. Therefore, if as parish community we are to set out on a new and exciting journey of evangelisation to the wider community, we must first of all recognize that the parish in and of itself is ‘certainly not the only institution which evangelizes.’
The new evangelization begins with me and you and our unique personal relationship with the Lord. In Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Father lays out for us a very simple yet radical ‘spiritual programme’: he invites us all to “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” [i]
The Key to Joy
This is the key to the joy which the Good News has to offer to each and every one of us: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus”. [ii] This is what transforms our hearts and lives and helps us become true disciples. It is the joy of knowing that we are loved by Christ with a love which surpasses all understanding (Ephesians 4:19) and which alone can and does satisfy:
“Time and time again he bears us on his shoulders. No one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by this boundless and unfailing love. With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew.”[iii]
Pope Francis’s invitation to a personal encounter with the Lord is certainly not novel. It echoes in fact Christ’s own invitation to go to Him in order to find rest (Matthew 11:28), to deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and follow Him (Matthew 16:24), knowing that our sorrow will turn into joy (John 16:20).
St. John Paul II, too, passionately encouraged the world not to be afraid of Christ, since Christ alone knows what is in every man. Who can forget his words of his first homily as the Successor of St. Peter?
“Our time invites us, pushes us, obligates us to look to the Lord, and to plunge into a humble and devout meditation on the mystery of the supreme power of Christ himself. […] Do not be afraid! Open, open wide the doors to Christ! […] allow—I beg you, I implore with humility and confidence—allow Christ to speak. Christ alone has words of life, yes, of eternal life.”[iv]
Francis on Benedict
Pope Francis never tires of “repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’ “
The pope sees the Christian life as being based on knowing and experiencing personally God’s love, mercy and salvation offered to all through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only path that brings us to a joy that is ever new is the path of personal holiness, the path of true interior conversion of heart, the path of total commitment to the truth of the Gospel, the path of surrender, of willingly entering into and generously cultivating the personal relationship with Christ initially bestowed upon us in Baptism.
Only the one who has allowed Christ to touch deeply and transform one’s life wishes to ‘boast’ like St. Paul in nothing else except the Cross. Only the one who has experienced God’s mercy and who constantly and humbly asks for and depends on God’s grace can desire sincerely to reach out to others and to proclaim the goodness of the Lord with an ever-fervent faith and love.
Family – Primary Agent of Evangelisation
Ideally as Christians we first learn the reality of this unconditional love of God in the home — and by extension in our parish.
So it will be crucial to our future life as parishes to “favour reciprocal knowledge so that the parish community increasingly becomes a family of families, able to share with each other, not only the joys but the inevitable difficulties of initiating family life.” [v]
The poet Thomas Moore said; ‘the ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.'
So let us take deeply to heart the words of the great pope of the family, St. John Paul II, ‘no one is without a family in this world: the Church is a home and family for everyone, especially those who “labour and are heavy laden.”’
Whatever Happens at the Synod
Whatever the outcomes of the current synodal process on the family — in particular matrimony and spouses as the primary agents of evangelization — the bottom line for all of us is simple.
It’s best reflected in the synergy of two key teachings of the great pope of the family, John Paul II: “Jesus Christ, is the centre of the universe and of history” and “It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.” [vi]
Think about those two lines, especially this Lent. How does your family and especially how does your parish concretely support authentic Catholic marriage and family? Then — act!
Edmund Adamus is Director for Marriage & Family Life for the Archdiocese of Westminster, England. He has pioneered a number of successful marriage preparation, matrimonial enrichment and Catholic parenting resources imbued with St. John Paul II’s theology of the body.
[i] (EG, n3)
[ii] (EG, n1)
[iii] EG n7
[iv] (Redemptoris Hominis n1 1979)
[v] (Pope Benedict 2011)
[vi] (Christifidelis Laici n3) Feast of the Holy Family 1988