The Word of Life
by John Wijngaards, The Tablet 14 March 1987, pp. 275-276
A London vicar with a 40-soul Sunday congregation south of the Thames once confided to me his utter confusion about evangelism. “Here I am”, he said, “firmly convinced that I should proclaim the message in Clapham and Camberwell to thousands of people, but what can I do? Should I preach on street corners or knock on every door like the Jehovah’s Witnesses? The trouble is: I’m too respectable for that. “I don’t feel like talking religion to people unless they ask me to”
Our confusion about evangelisation arises not only from the maze of barriers in an urbanised world. It arises just as much from barriers in ourselves. In one corner of our mind we accept Jesus’ command to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature’’ (Mk. 16:15); in another we adhere to the unspoken law that religion is everyone’s private concern, not to be meddled with by outsiders. We do not dispute that Augustine of Canterbury and his companions did the right thing in making King Ethelbert of Kent a Christian. Yet we may well share the feelings of Thomas Jefferson who confessed at the end of his life: “I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed.”
Paul in Corinth had his moments of confusion too. How to present the teachings of the provincial Jesus to the cultured city-dwellers of Greece? What Jewish ideas should be retained, what Hellenistic values adopted? About one thing, however, he possessed an enviable certainty: his duty to preach. The Jews might demand miraculous signs, the Greeks want learning, but his message cut through it all; “1 preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and a folly to Gentiles’’ (1 Cor. 1:22). Paul could say: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:16). And “though 1 am under no obligation to any person, 1 made myself a slave to all that I might win the more” (1 Cor. 9:19). Win the more? Does that not smack of proselytism?
To understand our mixed-up motivations we should recall the various — often contradictory — trends in recent European history. We need to recognise how such trends have framed, and sometimes frozen, our interpretation of Scripture. And we might well fix our gaze on France. It is the country where ancient tradition and modern freedom have clashed in the most dramatic form. It is also the nation that has produced striking models of Christian consciousness, new and old.
We are just concluding a marvellous era of missionary work that began three centuries ago and that has resulted in Christian communities covering all continents. The zeal, the endurance, the efforts of the countless men and women who realised that mission were inspired by the same unqualified motivation found in Paul. John Eudes, speaking in 17th-century France, at the beginning of that epoch, could say: “Working to save souls is more sacred than the severest penance, more valuable than clothing and feeding the poor, more precious that profoundest prayer, more glorious than miracles, more meritorious than martyrdom itself.” This was not empty rhetoric. While these words were being spoken, Fr Isaac Jogues stood in Paris before Anne of Austria, Regent of France, pleading on behalf of his Canadian mission. He showed her the stumps of his fingers, mangled in night after night of Iroquois torture. “I carry on my body the marks of Jesus’’ (Gal. 6:17). He returned and was killed two years later by the Mohawks; reportedly for baptising a dying child in secret. “We need people who only seek God and the salvation of souls”, he had said, “who want the conversion of even one savage more than mastery over the whole of Europe”.
I pondered on his life when visiting his shrine at Ossernenon, north from Albany in present-day New York State. Here was a man who had preached Christ crucified, I thought; a monument of missionary zeal; a saint and martyr; a pioneer of the kind still required in traditional mission areas; but hardly a model for evangelisation in the West. He had spoken about mission to the court at Paris. Had he realised that the court itself needed to evangelised?
Another figure appeared before my mental eye: Jacques-Benigne Bossuet who, 15 years later, was called upon to preach Lenten homilies at the French court. To those present, the scene must have looked incongruous: King Louis XIV of France, epitome of royal grandeur, dressed in jewel-studded satin robes, comfortably reclining in his silk-padded and gilded fauteuil, surrounded by worldly courtiers and scheming courtesans, lending his ear to sermons on penance and sacrifice. Yet after three centuries we can still admire Bossuet’s sound teaching and outspoken admonitions. He castigated the abuse of power, the bribery, intrigue and ruthless ambition of France’s leaders. Occasionally he challenged the absolute monarch himself. Quoting Ezekiel 28:2 — “Although you are only a mortal man, you give yourself the airs of a God” — he warned: “Whenever a creature admires his own goodness, when he becomes blinded by his own power, when he takes pleasure in his own achievements, when, in short, he is immersed in his own imagined perfections, he acts as if he were God. The Almighty, however, throws down all the mighty of this earth. He struck down Herod, Nicanor and Antiochus . . . . Tremble before his majesty … ‘if you want to win eternal life”
This surely was preaching Christ crucified. “Proclaim the word, in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2). And yet, as I surveyed the politicians, noblemen, artists and intellectuals who made up Bossuet’s audience, I began to doubt his effectiveness. History was soon to prove that most would turn their back on the Church and embrace new radical ideologies that would fuel the French Revolution. Rather than the polished baroque eloquence of an established court preacher, what was needed was the witness of an unconventional prophet. Which made me remember another of his contemporaries, Blaise Pascal.
A mathematician and physicist of the first rank, Pascal distrusted conventional thinking. A spiritual conversion in 1654 during his “night of fire” convinced him that rational arguments for religion are sterile without a direct experience of Christ. “The God of the Christians is a God of love, who fills the heart and soul of those whom he possesses. He is a God who makes them inwardly aware of their misery and his infinite goodness; who unites himself with them in the depths of their soul; who fills it with humility, joy, trust and love; who makes them incapable of having any other priority but him.” Such an experience, he maintained, could not be taught. It can only be transmitted effectively by witness and example.
We are hampered most by our mental stereotypes. Evangelisation means selling a parcel of ready-made truths, we think, or persuading people to accept a new moral code. This is a narrow and distorted view. In Luke’s gospel Jesus tells us: “You shall be my witness” (Lk. 24:48). This has to be taken in an existential sense. We are to testify not to some doctrinal truths, but to the new life Jesus gives us; to the meaningful way we can relate to ourselves, to others and to God, through Jesus. Evangelisation means communicating our personal religious experience, our conviction and our commitment to trusted friends.
There is no room here for coercion, hard sell or manipulation. Rather, we reach out in a way that respects otherness and individual response. No one will object to this kind of sharing, even in our society with its relativist assumption that “my truth is my truth and your truth is your truth”. Nor is it reserved to professional preachers; its gift is as much, or more, a prerogative of lay women and lay men — like Pascal.
Another misconception equates evangelisation with recruiting people for baptism, enrolling them into the Church, confusing the process with a possible outcome. The Gospel once more shows us a different picture. Jesus orders his apostles to go and make disciples of all nations, teaching them “everything I told you” and offering baptism (Mt. 28:19-20). What is presupposed is that the making of disciples takes a long time and requires various stages. Jesus did not preach the coming of a Church; he announced the kingdom of God. He spoke in parables. He cured the sick and drove out evil spirits. As the instrument of his full plan, a select few who had been touched by his message were drawn into a supportive and flexible community. If this is how Jesus made disciples, we too have to do the same. Moreover, we have special reasons of our own to focus attention on God’s kingdom rather than on the Church.
As a Church we are somewhat in disarray. There are so many things that need sorting out: lack of unity among Christians, discrimination against women, antiquated pastoral structures, failure to give the laity their true position; to mention but a few. “Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first!”, Christ wants us (Mt. 7:5). The process of healing begun by Vatican II will demand a good deal more surgery and a century of convalescence. This, however, need not detain us. What matters, after all, is God’s action in the world.
Many people in Britain are actively seeking God, are looking for ways to relate to the ultimate mystery of existence. Why do our parishes and religious communities not open “prayer shops” where adherents of all creeds could drop in for advice and guidance, with no strings attached? Many people are deeply concerned about human rights, about peace and justice. There is a new awareness in our own time of brotherhood and solidarity with nations everywhere. Promoting such causes is surely what Jesus would have us do. We enter, and proclaim, the kingdom of God not by crying “Lord, Lord”, but by doing the will of the father (Mt. 7:21).
Did Jesus preach his parables on genuine love just to enlarge his following? Did he cure the blind and the lame as a ploy to recruit converts? Jesus was concerned about quality: about salt losing its saltiness and about lamps that fail to shed light. If there is quality, the Church as a city on a mountain cannot remain hidden (Mt. 5:14).
It is, perhaps, our lack of quality that should worry us most. “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you”, Jesus tells us in John’s gospel (Jn. 20:21). He was sent as the Word, the revelation of God’s love. This means that we too are sent to be a “word”, as he was. Are parents the living word to their children, taking the necessary time to discuss spiritual issues in depth? Are parish priests the word of life to their congregations, offering substantial and scriptural sermons? Are we all a “word” to each other, husbands and wives, teachers and pupils, friends and colleagues, neighbours or fellow travellers who are in trouble or in need.
Christ was a Word that became flesh. He allowed himself to be lifted on the cross for our sake, that sanctified we might know his father, might live for love and have abundant joy. Perhaps we could hallow this Lent by prayerfully reading the inspired message; so that with Paul we come to say: “I live my life of every day by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave his life for me” (Gal. 2:20). Will then the crucified Christ be just a decoration on our walls; or a liberating reality which we are happy to share with others?