Thursday, July 25, 2013

Evangelization, Discipleship, and the Evangelical Counsels

A Young Man Suffering from Drug Addiction Embraces Pope Francis
As World Youth Day is taking place in Rio, I cannot help but recall the homily that Blessed John Paul II delivered to the "young people of today" in 1979.  The Gospel that day was the account of the Rich Young Man, and Blessed John Paul II appealed to the young people of the world, "Do not go away sad!"  Blessed John Paul pleaded with young people that only in Christ are true life and joy found.  But that this way of Christ is demanding.  It requires that we say, "No" to self and "Yes" to Christ.  It demands that we say "No" to escape and "Yes" to love.  "But see what happens," said the Pope.  The young man who had begun with such enthusiasm and desire went away sad because he had many possessions.

Pope John Paul II's great mission was to inaugurate the New Evangelization.  As he appealed to young people to "Follow Christ," he did not shy away from the demands of the Gospel.  I think he saw in the exchange between Christ and the Rich Young Man the model of the New Evangelization.  There is a lesson in this Gospel for all of us who are setting out on the path of the New Evangelization.  It requires that we propose Christ and His Gospel in all of its fullness, not shying away from its demands.  In the case of the Rich Young Man, he chose to reject these demands.  Blessed John Paul II spoke with such sadness when he said, "And as can be deduced from the context, he refused to accept the call of Christ."  There will be times when the call of Christ will be rejected.  But, this should not dissuade us.  Christ invited that young man to eternal happiness through the path of self-denial and through adherence to Christ.

For all of us who exercise pastoral governance in the life of the Church, there is a temptation to sometimes cut the wealthy a break from the demands of the Gospel.  Sometimes the wealthy see their money as a means of substituting for true discipleship.  There are any number of good charities to which the wealthy can donate.  Most of those charities are not going to tell their donors that they must repent and be holy.  So, we can kind of walk on egg shells around the wealthy.  If we preach to them, perhaps they will give their donations instead to the local bird sanctuary.  It's a risky proposition.  Their money does so much good for so many causes.  If it looks like getting them to be disciples is unlikely, is it better to settle for the best we can get?

Jesus didn't think so.  He told the Rich Young Man precisely what he had to do to have eternal life.  The Rich Young Man went away.  The Gospel doesn't tell us that Jesus went after him and said, "Well, give away what you are comfortable giving and follow me insofar as you want."  Jesus let him leave.  His departure is tragic.  But, Jesus only has one offer to give.  The disciple follows him on Jesus' terms and not on his own terms.  The Rich Young Man's money could have helped the poor.  Had Jesus made him a more modest proposal, perhaps he would have said, "Yes."  But Jesus called him to total discipleship.

We all have something with which to negotiate our discipleship.  In a way, the three evangelical counsels--poverty, chastity, and obedience--are the remedy for our tendency to want to follow Christ on our own terms.  Each of us has an inclination to dictate the terms of our discipleship.  My possessions, my body, and my will are three means by which I reject God's total dominion over my life.  "Why should I be expected to tithe?"  "Why can't the Church be more accepting of pornography, masturbation, sex outside of the marriage between one man and one woman?"  "Why does the Church demand that I obey the commandments?"  If the Church would allow us the ability to buy our way out of some of the Gospel's demands,  permit just some illicit sexual activity, or provide us a pass on one or two of the commandments, then we'd be willing to go along.

When the Rich Young Man knelt before Jesus and asked him what he must do to have eternal life, before Jesus answered him, he looked at him with love.  The answer that Jesus gave to him arose from a profound love for that young man.  The answer required a great sacrifice.  It required the young man to be a disciple. He could not buy his way or influence his way to happiness.

Pope Francis is reminding all of us that the New Evangelization is linked to the Evangelical Counsels.  All of us are called to follow Christ--each according to his own state in life--along the path of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  Making this proposal will sometimes lead to rejection.  It will sometimes mean that a wealthy person may take his money and leave.  But, there is no other way for the New Evangelization to work.  We have forgotten that discipleship is something total and decisive.  It is not negotiated.  Of course, in the life of every disciple there are failures.  This is to be expected.  And Jesus is filled with mercy and tenderness for us in our weaknesses and betrayals.  But, the remedy for our failures is to return to Christ. It is not to renegotiate our terms of discipleship.

We cannot fake the New Evangelization.  We cannot create the New Evangelization.  The New Evangelization is not primarily about the externals.  It is about the heart. It is about discipleship.  It is about gazing intensely upon others with love and proposing to them the call to be disciples.  Pope Francis is, by his words and example, linking the New Evangelization to the Evangelical Counsels.  Those of us who wish to be instruments of the New Evangelization need to be men and women who live joyfully the Gospel call to poverty, chastity, and obedience.  At this particular moment in time, there is a broad movement afoot to link evangelization almost exclusively to structural and programmatic solutions.  All of us look around and see the broken parishes, dioceses, and institutions of the Church and desire to fix them.  But, the New Evangelization needs first to gaze upon the individual broken heart and to call that heart to discipleship.  The key problem is not broken parishes and broken institutions.  The key problem is with broken discipleship.

We, like that young man, might today come to Jesus and tell him all of the things we've done to turn things around.  We can list for him all of our admirable (and they are admirable) efforts.  When he looks at us with love, the answer he will give to us is the same answer he gave two thousand years ago: "Only one thing is lacking--go sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come and follow me."  What is lacking in our evangelization efforts is a call to give everything away--our possessions, our influence, our bodies, and our wills--and to follow Christ.  Pope Francis is leading his flock back to that conversation with Christ.

1 comment:

  1. "...there is a broad movement afoot to link evangelization almost exclusively to structural and programmatic solutions."

    Yes. The New E will only succeed through individual Catholics exercising their own unique gifts to spread the Gospel to other individual human beings. Catholics must overcome the habit of conflating "structural and programmatic solutions" with actual results. I believe it's doable, but it will take at least two generations in my opinion.