Our joy makes the Gospel attractive to others

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron

Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron

Editor’s Note: Over 20 issues, The Michigan Catholic is bringing you, in bite-sized chunks, Archbishop Vigneron’s pastoral letter, Unleash the Gospel. Below is the 16th of 20 excerpts, taken from the letter’s eighth guidepost, “Attraction.” To read the whole letter — or to catch up on sections you’ve missed — visit www.unleashthegospel.org.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).

Effective witness to Jesus has these attractive qualities: joy, hospitality and generous service to the poor and the marginalized.

The Joy of the Gospel

Unless we manifest to others the joy that is ours from having found the “pearl of great price” and from being sure of the Gospel’s invincible power, we will not attract others to listen to the good news. A parish of glum faces and grumpy attitudes will attract no one. Let our faces show our joy, which is not based on our changing circumstances but the unchanging presence of the risen Lord among us. Scripture commands us to rejoice, because we are capable of choosing joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). As Pope Francis stated:

“An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that ‘delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, … be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ.’”

The One Sheep

“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” (Lk 15:4). Jesus’ parables deeply challenge our human ways of thinking. How can it make sense to leave ninety-nine sheep vulnerable in the desert to go after just one lost one? Yet in his own ministry Jesus clearly made it a priority to reach the lost, those who were not in right relationship with God. He went out of his way to interact with people like Zacchaeus the tax collector and Mary Magdalene who had seven demons (Lk 8:2; 19:1-9). His whole mission was “to seek and save the lost” (Lk 19:10).

Christ’s primary mission must be ours as well. Yet it is easy to lose sight of that mission. Almost everything we do in parish life has been geared to ministering to the ninety-nine who are in the pews. So unleashing the Gospel in our local Church means learning how to make unchurched people a priority. To seek them, invite them, welcome them and accompany them on the way of discipleship is the business of every parishioner. The paradox is that when the attention of the whole flock turns outward to seek the lost, the ninety-nine grow exponentially in their own faith and commitment to Christ.

The Parish as a Place of Welcome

For evangelization to have its effect, we must ensure that our communities extend a warm welcome to everyone who walks through the door. This entails changing the way we envision the parish. It is natural to think of the parish as the place for those who belong; we are less accustomed to seeing it as the place for those who do not yet belong but are taking their first steps on the journey toward God.

Every parish should deliberate on how to welcome those who have never come to church, or who have not been there in years, and who may cross the threshold with some trepidation. Are we sometimes tempted to react to such people like the older brother in Luke 15, who responded to the homecoming of his prodigal brother with anger and judgmentalism? Are we sometimes indifferent? Or are we rather like the father, who warmly embraced his son and celebrated his homecoming with great joy? If a homeless person shows up at the parish, let us rejoice! If a teenager covered in tattoos and piercings walks in, let us be glad! Let us make our parishes places where everyone who attends Mass can also make friends, find mentors, and feel known, loved and supported. This will require the committed involvement of many parishioners, especially those who have a charism for hospitality or for accompaniment.

Many of those we evangelize will not be immediately ready for adult catechesis or the RCIA program. To bring an unchurched person directly into such programs is like throwing a non-swimmer into the deep end. An important part of welcoming the newly evangelized is therefore to ensure that every parish, insofar as possible, has a “shallow end” — an entry-level means of getting one’s feet wet in the journey of faith. This may include programs of initial proclamation of the Gospel, such as Alpha; it may also include social events where people can get to know others in a relaxed, non-threatening environment before making a commitment of faith.

Evangelical Charity

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Our service to the poor and marginalized needs to be a clear witness to Jesus our Lord, not mistaken for humanist philanthropy.

Catholics around the world and in our local Church have developed a remarkable network of charitable programs for health care, disaster relief, hunger alleviation, poverty reduction, refugee aid, family services, counseling, and help for people in every form of need. We must continue and intensify these works of service that manifest God’s love to those around us. In recent decades, however, there has been a tendency for Catholic charitable work to become separated from our primary calling to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is time to overcome that distinction. We need to ensure that in ministering to the material needs of others we are also responding to their spiritual thirst for God. Every Catholic charitable work must also be an authentic expression of Catholic faith. We must be unabashed to speak the name of Jesus and to invite every person to the fullness of life in him. The world needs the light that is in Christ alone.

To read more of the archbishop’s letter, or to catch up on sections you’ve missed, visit www.unleashthegospel.org.

Reflection question

Does my parish make unchurched people a priority? What can we do to better reach out to those who have not heard the Gospel?