Tuesday, December 6, 2011

No Risk, No Evangelization

When Blessed John Paul II came to Boston in 1979, the homily he preached at the Mass on Boston Common was based entirely on the Gospel of the Rich Young Man.  This particular gospel always moves me because it reveals man's capacity to act contrary to his own happiness in such a radical way.  In front of that young man--a young man who seemingly had a sincere desire to find true happiness--in front of that young man was Christ, the key to man's happiness.  The young man intuited this reality by the very fact that he came to Christ with this desire.  He came to Christ and sought happiness.  We are told that Jesus looked at him with love and then gave him a precise answer, "Follow me."

But, the young man's face fell.  He no longer looked at Christ.  And then, he went away sad.  This encounter between the young man and Christ is profoundly moving.  It reveals man's capacity to stand in front of the truth and to say, "No."  What strikes me about this gospel encounter is that the young man seemingly had everything necessary to embrace the truth.  He had the desire for happiness.  He had the gaze of Christ upon him.  He didn't have just some philosophical proposal in front of him. He had Christ.  And yet, he chose to go away.

I think of this as the Archdiocese of Boston ponders its future and considers various proposals for a pastoral plan.  At the very heart of this plan--as Cardinal Sean O'Malley said yesterday--must be Christ.  The Church must propose Christ anew to the people of today.  It must be an effective witness and sign of the presence of Christ.  It must communicate to the people of Boston today the invitation to follow Christ. 

Any pastoral plan ultimately has to engage the human person's freedom.  The best chance of being successful is to put Christ in front of man.  This means proposing Christianity in all of its fullness and beauty.  This means--to the best of our ability--to gaze upon others with the gaze of Christ and to propose to others the marvelous invitation to follow Christ.  And to do so tirelessly, generously, and joyfully.

But, there is a great humility taught by the gospel account of the Rich Young Man.  No matter how effective our witness, no matter how profound our love, no matter how authentic our teaching, ultimately the decision to follow Christ is a grace that can be accepted or rejected.  The failure of the Rich Young Man to follow Christ was not the result of a failure of method.  It was a failure of freedom. 

We ought always to ask ourselves how we can better evangelize.  This evangelization, however, must begin with us being obedient to the loving gaze of Christ.  It must begin with us being convinced of this gaze and transformed by this gaze.  The method of Christ was to gaze with love and to speak an invitation that requires a sacrifice on the part of man.  To follow Christ requires a sacrifice.  The Rich Young Man was unwilling to offer that sacrifice.  He chose his possessions and rejected Christ.  It is frightening to acknowledge this possibility.

Evangelization is not a membership drive.  It is to propose to man's freedom the gaze and invitation of Christ.  I hope that the Church grows by leaps and bounds.  I hope that the pastoral plan that is adopted makes us more agile and unimpeded in our efforts to make the Christian proposal to others.  But, no structures, programs, committees, or plans can eliminate the fact that evangelization ultimately risks everything on man's freedom.  Evangelization is not about building stronger parishes.  (That may be a secondary result).  Evangelization is about man and Christ's love for him.

In the life of the Church, I encounter the gaze of Christ and am convinced by it.  Evangelization is to make present in history the gaze of Christ and to propose Christ to others.   This always involves risking the startling possibility that man might say, "No."  And then, tomorrow--convinced all over again by the gaze of Christ that I encounter in the communion of the Church--to risk everything again.

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