Monday, March 5, 2012

The New Evangelization: Meeting Christ in the Sacraments

A couple of years ago, I got called to the Intensive Care Unit for a middle-aged paralyzed man, who was within hours of death.  His room was crowded with family and, when I entered, there was kind of an awkward moment of silence.  After speaking to the family for a bit, I spoke in the ear of the dying man and he opened his eyes.  He had placed over most of his face an oxygen mask that was going full blast so it made it difficult to hear.  I introduced myself and said kind of awkwardly, "I'm Father Barnes.  I was asked to come in to see you.  How can I be helpful to you?"  He asked to have his mask lifted up so he could be heard.  When his mask was removed, he said, "Father, I want to thank God for my life and to tell him I'm sorry for my sins."

Yesterday morning, between my two morning Masses, I was called to the Emergency Room.  When I entered, there was a mother standing beside her daughter.  The daughter, unconscious and connected to a trillion tubes and machines, was clearly in very grave condition.  I introduced myself and the mother said, "Father, my daughter is very sick and I was hoping she could receive this special Sacrament of the Sick to help her."

As I drove back to my church after the ER visit yesterday and went directly to offer the Sunday Mass, I was greatly struck by the simple and profound faith of that woman.  In the midst of so much amazing medical technology, she wanted some guy to show up, say some prayers, and put oil on her daughter's forehead and hands.  As we did so, the medical staff all paused.  Some prayed the words with us and some just bowed their heads.  Because I needed to get right back to Mass, the whole encounter probably lasted no more than ten minutes. 

Sometimes when I go to a hospital to attend to the dying, I'm a bit disappointed by what sometimes appears as a total lack of appreciation for the sacraments.  Those gathered around sometimes--even though they were baptized as Catholics--seem incapable of participating in the prayers and sometimes act as though it were merely some sort of ritualistic formality.  "They do it in the movies, so we might as well do it here too."  I've had family members read newspapers and talk away on their cell phone as I would anoint their dying loved one.

The gap between those two examples seems, in some way, to be why Pope Benedict XVI is calling for next year to be a Year of Faith, an opportunity to deepen knowledge about the substance and content of the Catholic Faith.  The New Evangelization, in many ways, is directed towards those who are nominally Catholic but, for whatever reason, have not been drawn in to the fullness of Catholic life.  It is perhaps directed towards those who are Catholic in some vague sense, but who do not have a personal friendship with Jesus Christ and who do not know the content of the Faith.  They might, for instance, if a nurse suggests that they call a priest for their dying grandmother, say "yes," but they might have not a clue why. 

The New Evangelization in some way must be directed toward those persons who have some remnant of Catholic culture but who have not been formed by the Faith.  The mother I mentioned above may well have very hard days ahead, but she is living those days in union with Christ.  Somewhere along the line, she was educated in the Faith.  She knew that the Sacrament that I would provide to her daughter was an encounter with the same Christ who healed others--physically and spiritually.  And, her public witness--much like the man I mentioned in the first paragraph--really touched me and built me up in my own faith.  The New Evangelization must in some way be about Catholics sharing the content of the Faith and the experience of the Faith. 

The Sacraments are the most powerful encounters with Christ.  Celebrating the Sacraments with dignity, joy, and solemnity and with solid catechesis would be a good place to begin this New Evangelization.  In the Sacraments we meet Christ in his Word, in his Church, in his mercy, in his healing, in his joy, in his, tenderness, in his priesthood, and most especially in his Body and Blood.  Drawing people to a more devout participation in the Sacraments and educating Catholics in what the Sacraments accomplish would be a great place to focus some of our efforts in the New Evangelization.  Baptism alone would be an awesome place to begin.  Yesterday, I baptized a beautiful little baby and it was so encouraging to see how everybody at the baptism knew what was happening.  They knew that the child had become part of the new creation of grace, received the forgiveness of sin, and had become a dwelling place of the Divine Life.  How awesome is that? 

I have found it helpful to read the works of Blessed Columba Marmion who was a great spiritual writer in the early 1900's.  In his writings, he focuses on the very basics of what happens in the soul as a result of grace and the Sacraments.  We Catholics sometimes forget the totally awesome--as in supernatural--life that we have been given.  Faith shouldn't be reduced to moralism.  Instead, we ought to focus upon the supernatural life we are given in Christ Jesus.

The more we live a sacramental life, the more Christ's image comes to perfection within us.  And the more that image comes to perfection within us, the more our heart is set afire to pursue him more.  There are always going to be men dying in Intensive Care Units and sorrowful mothers standing in Emergency Rooms watching over their gravely ill daughters.  The New Evangelization will not take those moments away.  The New Evangelization is about helping everyone in those situations (and every other situation) to live those moments differently.  The New Evangelization is about Jesus Christ and the new life that is discovered in him.  The New Evangelization is about the resurrection and the life of the world to come.  It's good news worth sharing.


  1. Father, which volume of B. Columba would you recommend for a layman to begin with?

  2. Christ, the Life of the Soul offers a systematic overview of the spiritual life, but some might consider it to burdensome. "Christ in His Mysteries," is less systematic, but follows Christ in the principal mysteries of his life, death, and resurrection. The chapters don't build on one another, so you can read them out of order.

  3. Thank you so much, Father. Blessed Columba is an author whose very name was unknown to me...for someone as interested in 19c Ireland, particularly surprising! And with your very warm recommendation, I intend to follow up the lead. Perhaps I'll let the good Lord decide, and see which volume I can secure first. I'll let you know how it goes. May our Lord bless you and all those under your care.