Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bishops and Priests Need to Be Men of the Encounter

"It is not creativity, however pastoral it may be, or meetings or planning that ensure our fruitfulness, even if these are greatly helpful.  But what assures our fruitfulness is our being faithful to Jesus, who says insistently: 'Abide in me and I in you.'"  With these words, Pope Francis addressed the bishops, priests, religious, novices, and seminarians at World Youth Day.  These words are yet another expression of Pope Francis' call to return to the "Encounter with Christ."  Detached from this daily encounter, pastoral planning becomes reorganization.  Detached from this daily encounter, evangelization becomes ideology.  Detached from this daily encounter, those of us in the clergy can become absorbed in a worldly and perverse pursuit of power and comfort.

While there is a noble movement taking place where bishops, priests, religious and laity are talking about evangelizing, Pope Francis seems to be making a course correction against an overly worldly approach to evangelization.  In a particular way, he seems to be setting his sites on the clergy.  Any true reform of the Church has always involved a reform of the clergy.  Setting out on a path of a "New Evangelization" without first--or at least simultaneously--focusing on a renewal of the episcopate and the clergy seems to be a path to nowhere.  Repeatedly, Pope Francis is calling for a renewal of those who exercise pastoral authority.

His recipe for renewal of the clergy (and thus, the whole Church) begins with a theology of encounter.  This is why he is reminding priests to return with greater attention to their own encounter with Christ.  "I believe that it is important to rekindle constantly an awareness of our divine vocation, which we often take for granted in the midst of our many responsibilities . . .This means returning to the source of our calling."  Throughout the Gospels, people met Christ, were touched by him, healed by him, fed by him, shown mercy by him, and loved by him.  To be effective evangelizers, the episcopate and the priests of the Church need to return to their own encounter with Christ, live out of this encounter, and bear witness to this encounter.  "I was blind but now I see."  "It is no longer I who live, but Christ."  When the priest or the bishop is close to his encounter with Christ, then he is an effective instrument of the New Evangelization.

If closeness to this encounter with Christ is the starting point of the New Evangelization, so also is a closeness to the people.  Bishops and priests can become so absorbed in our committees, documents, and plans that we no longer live near the people.  At World Youth Day, Pope Francis spoke repeatedly of the need for bishops and priests to be near the people.  It is in the communion of the Church that this encounter with Christ is lived and renewed.  In speaking about young people, the Pope said, "I ask this of you with all my heart!  In the confessional, in spiritual direction, in accompanying.  Let us find ways to spend time with them!" In a culture that is marked by what the pope calls "exclusion," he begs that we "be servants of communion and of the culture of encounter."  He even says, "I would like you to be almost obsessed by this."

This closeness is to be lived especially with those whom the Pope refers to as being on the outskirts.  This includes the poor, the elderly, the drug addict, those in need of mercy, and the people who already seem godless.  He asks that we accompany these people.  These words are definitely a challenge for me!  How often do I spend time with drug addicts or with those who have ceased practicing the Faith altogether?  How often do I seek out those who do not believe in God?  Am I looking for them?  Do I seek to find them and accompany them in their journey?  This closeness is not an attempt to impose our Faith on them, but rather to be close them and accompany them in the hope, of course, that this closeness will lead them to Christ.  In my experience as a priest, some of the most important work I've ever done has been with those who are unbelievers or those who do not practice the Faith.  I hope that some day they will.  But, until then, the best thing I can do is dialogue with them and accompany them as a companion on the road.  Despite knowing this from my personal experience, it is nonetheless tempting to remain hidden behind the walls of ecclesial structures.  The only way for priests and bishops to lead the Church in the New Evangelization is for us to know the world that we seek to evangelize.  The only way for us to evangelize is to come into contact with the world.

I already see this happening to me in my new assignment.  As I look over the calendar for the coming year, I realize that the Boston University Newman Center is a busy place and there seem to be events taking place most nights of the week.  I'm happy about that.  But, most of the students who will come here already know Christ and want to be here.  It would be easy to spend all of my time inside this building.  But, I want to meet those who do not come here.  I need to speak to them, listen to them, walk with them.  This is a challenge for me.  But, it is also a challenge for every priest and bishop.  If you want to know how busy a bishop or a priest is, just ask him!  He will tell you about all of the things he is doing (me included).  But, are we being close to people?  This is a key question, I think.

In the past decade, the Church in the United States has adopted many valuable tools from the world of business, public relations, and law, but we have grown very weak in the world of spiritual and human formation. In many of his talks--both at World Youth Day and in other places--Pope Francis speaks about what bishops and priests need to be like: simple, poor, merciful, not ambitious, close to the people, men who instill hope, and men who guard their people from dangers.  Before we can evangelize others, we have to be men who are moved to follow Christ, men who know how to repent, men who know the experience of mercy and who have felt the tenderness of Christ.

The New Evangelization depends upon a culture of encounter.  In order for this culture to be formed,
bishops and priests have to be men who live out of this encounter.  We have to be men who can joyfully share their own personal experience of the encounter with Christ; men who joyfully bear their share of the hardship of the Gospel.  At the heart of the New Evangelization--and thus, at the heart of our pastoral life--must be the encounter with Christ.  It is this encounter that keeps us new, hopeful, and zealous.  It is only this encounter that introduces something new into the world.  Unless we have something new to introduce into the world, we sound utterly boring and archaic to the world around us.  What atheist wants to spend time with me if I have nothing new to introduce into the

Pope Francis is reminding those of us who are priests and bishops that it is all about Jesus Christ.  Before we convince others of that, we ourselves need to be convinced--every day.

1 comment:

  1. Another thoughtful entry. Sometimes in Church I have heard that there are times when we need to separate ourselves from others for fear of losing one's faith. Many atheists I've encountered insist my faith be kept in the closet and won't even hear me out. Yet they feel the need to bash my religion whenever it suits them and complain when I try to defend Christ. How does one reconcile situations like these with the Pope's comments? I am interested in your opinion.