Monday, March 31, 2014

Evangelization, One Blind Beggar at a Time

On Tuesday nights at the BU Catholic Center this semester we are watching Fr. Robert Barron's series on the New Evangelization and discussing it in small groups.  Last week, at the end of the evening, one of the students there mentioned how she was evangelized.  She said that a relative told her about the BU Catholic Center and so she stopped by one day.  She nervously came in and met somebody who spoke to her for over an hour. He just asked her questions about her school work, how life was going, and things like that.  She's now an active part of our Catholic community on campus.

That is a common theme at the Catholic Center.  I hear all the time things like, "I met this Junior and he invited me to the Catholic Center." That's how evangelization happens.  People experience the love of Christ through another.  The Gospels are filled with personal encounters between Jesus and individuals.  This past Sunday, we listened to the encounter between Jesus and the man born blind.  I have always loved this particular gospel because of the simplicity of the man's testimony.  Asked a hundred times to explain himself, he repeats over and over again the same story.  "Look, I was born blind.  I went to bed last night, blind.  Got up this morning, blind.  Went to my usual begging spot today, blind.  Met Jesus, not blind anymore."  His life changed because of a personal encounter with Christ.  Now, the fact is that his story did not seem to have a positive effect on too many. His lifelong neighbors are nervously saying, "Well, maybe that is him.  Or maybe it is just somebody who looks like him."  His parents are willing to back him, but only up to a point.  The religious officials are adamant that his healing is somehow an affront to God.  Instead of becoming the impetus of conversion for many, this man's healing seems only to harden the hearts of many.  But, that man's life was changed.  He was evangelized.  

On the other hand, a week ago we heard of the woman at the well who encountered Jesus.  After her personal encounter with Jesus, she went and evangelized many and many came to believe in Christ.  Is there anything that these two encounters and their varying results can teach us about evangelization?  I think there is.  Namely, evangelization is always personal and that big numbers should not be our primary concern.  St. John recorded both of these encounters even though each had vastly different responses from the crowds.  

I'm sure every priest can tell a story from his own ministry where he perhaps helped one person in a significant way and, as a result, many others surprisingly came to be members of the Church.  That's always awesome when it happens.  But, it has always taken me as a surprise.  Similarly, we probably can tell many more stories wherein we have spent enormous amounts of time evangelizing an individual and the end result was the individual's conversion, but no other crowds followed as a result.  Yet, none of us would ever think we've wasted our time.  We stand in awe at the profound movement of God in this person's life and are deeply grateful to have been an instrument.

Dioceses all over the United States are adopting strategies for evangelization and pastoral planning.  We ought to exercise an enormous amount of caution that we do not leave the personal and the human by the wayside in a rush to become successful.  What people need to discover in the Church is the love of Jesus Christ, a love that is transmitted through the gaze of another.  They need to encounter Jesus Christ personally.  Pastoral planning can often be presented like a corporate reorganization.  This type of approach can leave the laity feeling unloved and dismissed.  Instead of being an instrument of evangelization,  pastoral planning that sounds as though it is driven primarily by a corporate mentality can become an instrument of driving people away from the Church.  What are the metrics to judge whether a pastoral plan is succeeding?  One good metric might be to ask, "Is this plan helping people to encounter Jesus Christ in a more personal way and to be moved by his love?"  While pastoral planning may indeed have to take into account many practical and difficult realities, we shouldn't allow those concerns to override that of helping people to encounter the love of Jesus Christ.

What is the solution?  I think it is fidelity to the model of Jesus Christ.  He saw a man born blind, approached him, touched him, and healed him.  He saw a woman at a well and he began a dialogue with her.  Who in the world would ever propose these as efficient models for evangelization?  Why waste time with some blind beggar and a Samaritan woman?  Couldn't there have been a more efficient use of Jesus' valuable time?  And yet, this is our Lord's model.  The corporate model can sometimes make us blind to the woman at the well and the man born blind.  They can make us blind to the people and to their needs, and this blindness can spell disaster for true evangelization.

One of the great joys of serving at the BU Catholic Center is that I get to spend so much time with my congregation.  From morning until night, I get to be with them.  It is a beautiful gift to be able to live priesthood in their midst.  We are together in prayer, in conversation, at meals, and in a thousand other ways.  It is in being together that we are evangelized.  It is in being together that we encounter the personal love of Jesus Christ.  This being together in Christ is for me the joy of the Gospel.

One of the things I notice about the young men and women at the BU Catholic Center is how attentive they are to new people and how welcoming they are.  (I have to admit that they often do a much better job at noticing and reaching out to others than I do.)  When they reach out to others, invite others, and welcome others, they do so not like salespeople trying to build up membership in the Catholic Center, but rather as men and women who love the person in front of them.  This is truly attractive.  The person in front of them knows that they are loved.  This is evangelization.  It happens one blind beggar at a time, one woman at the well at a time, and one freshman visitor at a time.

Evangelization, it has to be personal.

1 comment:

  1. Great example. So true about how parishes/ministries can get caught up in strategies that obscure the reality that you can't have a pastoral plan for discipleship/evangelization, if it doesn't include actual individuals entering into personal relationships with others and sharing the Good News in the flesh. There's a pretty good book called "Simple Church" that can help those who struggle with how to plan without losing sight of discipleship:
    It's not written specifically for Catholic ministries, but there are good lessons that I think can create the space and process for personal evangelization.