|Sunday Mass at Boston University|
I don't always follow through, but whenever I hear somebody speak highly of their priest, I try to send the priest a note or an email to tell him. In part, I do this because I have been blessed in my life to be surrounded by lay people who have always encouraged me. By encouraged, I do not mean, "flattered." Flattery is insincere and manipulative. I mean that these people build me up and strengthen me to be a better Christian and a better priest. So, I try to let other priests know that their people see the good work that they do and appreciate it.
Encouragement is not for the purpose of making someone feel good about himself. Encouragement is about strengthening the other so that he is better able to grow in the Christian life. I need encouragement. I appreciate encouragement. But, encouragement isn't simply about words. Encouragement comes also from the example of others.
When I see exhausted parents bringing their children to Mass, I'm encouraged. When I see a college kid going to confession, I'm encouraged. When I see an older couple helping each other into Mass, I'm encouraged. Today, I've been receiving emails from a few students and staff members as we prepare for the programming for the coming year. As I read through the emails and see the commitment and faith of these people, I'm encouraged. When I look out at Mass and see the people, I am encouraged. I need this encouragement.
Encouragement doesn't leave a person stagnant. It moves someone on towards the goal. When I witness the Faith of others, I am moved towards Christ. I often tell people in the confessional that the absolute worst thing is for them to grow discouraged. People are often on the verge of discouragement due to their own weakness or due to the weaknesses of others. In these instances, all of us need a good dose of encouragement.
In the Book of Revelation, in writing to the people of Sardis, St. John says, "Be watchful and strengthen what remains . . . " (Revelation 3:2). Like St. Paul, St. John the Evangelist was advising us to encourage one another. He is saying that people ought to take whatever remaining goodness there is and build upon it. Encourage it. Strengthen it lest it die. As I look around in the life of the Church, I think we need to become experts on encouraging one another.
Encouragement does not mean that at the end of every confirmation Mass a bishop should say to the people of every parish, "This is one of the best parishes in the entire diocese." That's not encouragement. It is flattery! Encouragement does not mean that--despite all evidence being contrary--people need to tell us priests after every Mass, "Father, that was a great homily." That isn't encouragement. Unless it is true, it's lying! Encouragement isn't looking at some program that is going poorly and saying, "This program is going wonderfully." That isn't encouragement. It's propaganda.
Encouragement is to strengthen what remains. A person can come into a confessional and really be filled with all sorts of vices and sins. How do we encourage that person? Well, the very fact that they still have a desire to move closer to God is a place to begin. Maybe that desire is all "that remains." So, we strengthen that desire. When a spouse is considering divorce, we need to identify in that person something that remains from his or her original love and strengthen it. There are young people thinking about vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. We need to encourage them and strengthen that desire. There are people who have left the Church but who have some residual attachments. We need to strengthen what remains.
When someone's way of praying or living out the Christian life does not match exactly to ours, let's not crush them. Instead, let's encourage them. As long as a person or a community is faithful to the Church, why not encourage them? Some people want to pray in Latin. If they are praying, why not encourage them? Some people want to pray in tongues. If they are praying, why not encourage them? Some people feed the poor and some pray outside of abortion clinics. Why not encourage them?
There are a lot of beautiful things that happen daily in the life of the Church. These things need to be strengthened and encouraged. Flattery and propaganda weaken the Church. But encouragement builds up the Church. When the example of others encourages us, let us encourage those persons in return by telling them. When somebody's words move us toward holiness, let us encourage them by thanking them. When somebody is growing weak, let us encourage him by strengthening what remains.
This mutual encouragement is not a program or some external command. When we love our brothers and sisters, our hearts move us to encourage them. Encouragement is not something forced or insincere. It is a movement of the heart. It is a way of life.
Without this mutual encouragement, exercised firstly by bishops and priests and then by the laity, we wind up crushing one another. St. Paul warned the Galatians about this when he wrote, "But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another" (Gal 5:15). A Church that is not filled with mutual encouragement becomes a Church of cannibals. In the Scriptures, the Devil is the one who prowls around seeking someone to devour. Christ and his apostles build up. We want to be disciples who build up and not lions who devour. Wherever there is goodness, we ought to encourage it and in so doing, we strengthen and build up the Body of Christ.
"Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, as indeed you do"(1Thess 5:11).