Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pastoral Plans, Evangelization, and the Tenderness of Bethlehem

In a few days time, we will find ourselves placed before the Christ Child.  There is something that draws us again and again to his manger.  In the shivering cold of the night, the infant God is enfolded in the tender embrace of the Blessed Virgin.  It is the tenderness and the warmth of this moment that draws us to Bethlehem.  Pope Francis, in many ways, has been a "Christmas Pope."  He is reminding all of us that in order to draw others to the Church, we must be a Christmas Church, a Church of tenderness.

In my own Archdiocese, the past year has been marked by the implementation of a new pastoral plan.  In many ways, the success of that plan will depend not upon its logistical implementation, its codification of policies and procedures, or upon its introduction of efficiencies.  It will be successful insofar as its starting point is an encounter with the tenderness of Christ and that it remains faithful to this starting point.  When we invite others to come to church, are we simply trying to stir up business or are we carrying within ourselves the warmth of the light that we ourselves have received from an encounter with Christ?  Is our starting point a plan or is our starting point a manger?  

There is always something quite maddening about God's starting points.  An efficient plan would not have begun in a cave in Bethlehem.  But, God makes the whole thing begin in this moment.  It's crazy! In many ways, in his preaching and in his actions, I think Pope Francis is leading the Church to the manger so that we can rediscover again the tenderness of God.  The transformation of dioceses, parishes, and individuals begins in the contemplation of the manger in Bethlehem.  

People are drawn towards the manger because, in the midst of the darkness of their lives, a light shines. They are drawn towards this tenderness because in front of this tenderness their heart leaps. Many of the people who fill our churches on Christmas Day are there because they are looking to encounter that tenderness which is missing from their lives.  Many of us can sometimes feel overwhelmed by our faults, our sins, our illnesses, the cruelty of others, the sorrows of life etc.  What the Church offers to us in these moments is not always an immediate solution to our difficulty.  But, she can offer to us the embrace of Christmas, the embrace that reveals to us the nearness of God to those who are heavily burdened.

As I reflect upon this past year in my own life, I see that what most caused my own heart to leap were those moments when others were for me a witness to the tenderness of Christ.  For me, these witnesses were my evangelists.  What caused my heart the most sorrow were those moments when the tenderness of the manger was obscured or set aside. The Canticle of Zachariah says, "through the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us."  If our goal is to draw others to Christ, this can only be done by being instruments of his "tender compassion."  Without this tenderness, the Church can quickly become just another organization or corporation.  This type of model promotes clericalism and cynicism.  A plan without a manger will always lack what is needed for true evangelization.  It is only when our plans begin from the experience of the manger and are faithful to that experience do they serve the work of evangelization.

Christmas affords all of us an opportunity to go to the manger and encounter the tender compassion of our God. It also affords us the opportunity to pause and compare our life to what we see in the manger. When people encounter us, are they encountering the tender compassion of our God?  What draws people to the manger is that they discover the Divinity in such a remarkably human way.  There is nothing quite so human as a mother and her baby.  If the shepherds had arrived in Bethlehem and found  a man in a business suit, sitting at a conference table in a skyscraper instead of a mother and child in a manger, it is doubtful that we'd all have miniature skyscrapers and conference tables set up on our front lawns each year.  My point is that the first announcement of Good News led people to a mother and child--a very tender and human scene.  This is how evangelization began.  There can be no other starting place.

Is my life a witness to God's tenderness?  Is the implementation of the pastoral plan a witness to God's tenderness?  Is our presbyterate a witness to God's tenderness?  Are our parishes a witness to God's tenderness?  Is my priestly example a witness to God's tenderness?  Are my homilies a witness to God's tenderness?  Are my daily interactions with others a witness to God's tenderness?  When someone arrives at my doorstep, at the chancery doorstep, or at the parish doorstep, do they find a scene that is tender and human or is it lacking in tenderness and humanity?

Christmas finds us all going back to the manger because we know that is what is true and good.  I've experienced instances in my life when the Church has appeared cold and inhuman, and instances when she stands like a warm and glowing manger inviting cold and weary travelers into her embrace.  In my life as a Christian and as a priest, there are undoubtedly times when I have been an inviting manger and times when I have been a cold fortress.  Christmas invites us all back to the manger to begin again.  I hope that we all do.  Evangelization depends upon it.

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