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The Evangelizing Power of the Holy Spirit

[ Feature 1 Photo]
Illustration by Nicholas Markell


As we end the year designated the Year of the Holy Spirit by Pope John Paul II, the Spirit can teach us how to become better evangelizers of God's word.

By Martin Pable, O.F.M.Cap.

 Ways the Spirit Empowers Us

Strengthening Our Faith Through Evangelization

TO HELP CATHOLICS PREPARE FOR THE JUBILEE YEAR 2000, Pope John Paul II designated 1998 as the year to focus on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. In this article, I will attempt to sharpen the focus by exploring the role of the Holy Spirit in evangelization.

The subject of evangelization has been gathering momentum in recent years. In the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, where I reside, evangelization keeps appearing as a high priority at the parish level. There seems to be an awareness that our parishes have been preoccupied with internal matters such as liturgy, catechetics, council and committee structures, and the like; and that, meanwhile, we have neglected the sense of mission, of looking outward at the vast numbers of people whom we are not reaching.

Ten years ago George Gallup did his famous survey, "The Unchurched American." He found that 44 percent of Americans have no church affiliation—"spiritual loners," he called them. Among this throng were 27 percent of baptized Catholics who no longer practice their faith. When Gallup repeats his study, he will undoubtedly find an even higher percentage. The point is, people are no longer coming to us, and a lot of them are walking away. I don't think we can be complacent about that.

I always say, "If you owned a business and you were losing more than one fourth of your customers, you would do something." Jesus didn't tell his disciples to wait patiently till people asked to be told about the gospel. He said, " the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6); and later, "Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15).

While there is a good deal of interest in evangelization, I still find a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about it. When I help parishes get started, I need to spend time clarifying what evangelization is and is not. I try to present a holistic, gentle approach to which Catholics can relate.

But lately I've been realizing something else. What holds many Catholics back from involving themselves in evangelizing ministries is a certain sense of fear and inadequacy. "Who am I to share my faith with other people or talk to them about Jesus Christ?" "I don't know my faith well enough to be able to explain my beliefs." "I'm just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill believer myself; how can I have an impact on anyone else?"

When I reflect on this self-depreciating tendency among Catholics, I wonder if its root cause might be a lack of appreciation of the place of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

One of my life-changing spiritual experiences was studying the letter of Pope Paul VI, On Evangelization in the Modern World. In the final chapter of that letter, the pope talks about the role of the Holy Spirit in evangelization. The key sentence reads, "It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: It is he who impels each individual to proclaim the gospel, and it is he who...causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood."

The pope is making it clear that we do not have to depend on our own resources when we evangelize. We are not "the principal agents." We are the channels, the instruments the Spirit uses to touch the hearts of those we encounter. If we are convinced of that truth, it can undercut our anxiety and our sense of unworthiness or ineptitude. As Pope Paul says, we do need skills and techniques for evangelizing (and, I would add, these are not difficult to learn). But the most important factor is "the gentle action of the Spirit."

Ways the Spirit Empowers Us

If we dig a little deeper into the Scriptures, perhaps we can discover some further light on how the Holy Spirit empowers us to evangelize.

The Holy Spirit dwells within us. At the Last Supper Jesus made this magnificent promise to his followers: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you" (John 14:15-17).

What this clearly implies is that we already possess the Holy Spirit in the depths of our own being. We don't have to go looking or wondering. The Spirit is the greatest gift we have received from Jesus and his Father. It is given to us in our Baptism and deepened in our Confirmation. The Spirit dwells within us, both as our friend and as our source of spiritual energy. Jesus promised not to leave us as "orphans" (John 14:18) but to remain with us "always, until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).

So whenever we make any effort at all to evangelize—whether by word or example—we are never doing it alone. We are always being prompted and aided by the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit instructs us and guides us. Did you ever notice that Jesus did not leave the first disciples with any sort of "pastoral plan" for evangelizing the world? But what he did leave was another promise—that the Spirit would guide them. "The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name—he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you" (John 14:26).


The Spirit is the greatest gift we have received from Jesus and his Father.

That promise was fulfilled at Pentecost for the entire Church, but we see it enacted in the lives of Christians all through the Acts of the Apostles. Philip was told by the Spirit to run after the carriage of the Ethiopian man who was puzzling over a passage in Isaiah. We read, "Then Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this Scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him" (Acts 8:35). When Peter was asked to explain why he baptized Cornelius and his gentile friends, he simply replied that he had been instructed to do so by the Holy Spirit (Acts 11:12). The community at Antioch was instructed by the Holy Spirit to send Barnabas and Saul out on mission to the gentiles (Acts 13:1-3).

We have to wonder: How did the early Church spread so fast? There are very few mass conversions recounted in Acts. Rather, we can imagine ordinary Christian converts living out their faith in their homes, on their jobs, in the marketplace, and doing so with a sense of joy and warmth and inner peace. Their Jewish or gentile neighbors would say, "You've changed. What happened?" And the new Christian would say, "You're right. I've come to know Jesus Christ and I belong to a Christian community." And the neighbor would say, "Tell me more." Christians didn't carry around a pocket Bible or catechism. They would rely on the Holy Spirit to help them share their newfound faith with the seekers.

I don't think it's that different nowadays. There are vast numbers of spiritual seekers in our society, and they notice when we live our faith authentically. For the most part, they don't ask us doctrinal questions about the Trinity or the Incarnation. They ask us what gives meaning and direction to our lives; how we deal with sickness or the stresses of raising a family; why we spend our time helping others instead of pursuing the consumer life-style. The good news for us is that we can trust the Holy Spirit to guide us in our responses to them.

St. Peter put it so well when he said, "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence..." (1 Peter 3:15-16).

The Holy Spirit inspires love in our hearts. One of the wrong notions of evangelization is that we are now supposed to go around pressuring and convincing people to join the Catholic Church in order to be saved. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the first place, if people are already active, committed members of another faith, we are not to engage in "sheep stealing." That would be contrary to the basic law of charity as well as to the ecumenical spirit. We have enough to do just to reach the vast numbers of spiritually disconnected people who have no Church community.

Second, even with these "seekers" we do not wish to be heavy-handed or invasive. We want to be guided by Jesus' law of love in all our evangelizing efforts.

Once again, our reliance is on the gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul reminds us so beautifully that "...the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:5). Our own capacity to love is often limited and inconstant. When trying to reach out to seekers, we may be driven by an egocentric need to "make converts" or to manipulate people into belief. We may slip into resentment if they do not respond well. We may lose our patience with those who are struggling with doubts. It is the Holy Spirit who will heal us of those unloving tendencies.

Among "the fruits of the Spirit" St. Paul names love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and gentleness (Galatians 5:22). These are the spiritual attitudes we need for effective evangelization. When those fruits are operative within us, we are able to maintain a caring presence to people who bring their burdens to us. I always tell parishioners, "The first act of evangelization is not speaking but listening."

Spiritual seekers usually don't approach us with religious questions or concerns. They need to talk about their human problems—troubled children, sick family members, worries about their own health, job insecurity, financial struggles. We are called to listen reverently to their story without making judgments or dishing out easy-sounding advice. Rather, we try to hear the spiritual issues embedded in the human, and to gently invite them to look with new eyes.

For example, you could say, "It sounds as if you're carrying a heavy load right now. Do you ever think of turning to God for help?" Notice that we don't say, "You should turn to God in prayer." The question is reflective, not coercive.

Polls regularly show that some 95 percent of Americans believe in God and 75 percent say they pray, at least at times. So most of the time we will not be plunging them into unfamiliar territory. When asked with a loving attitude and after careful listening, such questions can tap into the spiritual longings of people who otherwise have no one to engage them at this level. But this will require one final gift of us.

The Holy Spirit gives us courage. I said before that many Catholics don't feel confident about their ability to evangelize. I surely can't blame them. Their priests and bishops, by and large, have not encouraged them or provided them with the skills to do so. But that is changing. The U.S. bishops recently published Go and Make Disciples: A National Pastoral Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States, a document rich with vision and with practical strategies for parish-based evangelization. And many dioceses now offer training courses for people who want to learn how to evangelize and share their faith in one-to-one situations.

As I said earlier, the skills and techniques can be taught. But the other crucial ingredient is courage—another gift of the Holy Spirit. To the fearful disciples gathered around him at the Ascension, Jesus made this encouraging promise: "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

We're all familiar with the transformation that took place in the apostles after Pentecost. There's no way to stop them from talking about Jesus. When Peter and John are warned not to speak any further about him, the two reply: "Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20).

Later, when the community was gathered for prayer, we are told that the whole place shook and "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness" (Acts 4:31). This "holy boldness" came to be characteristic of the Christian disciples as they continued to evangelize their society. The Letter to Timothy sums up the belief of the early community: "For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control" (2 Timothy 1:7).

Strengthening Our Faith Through Evangelization

It is no secret that today the evangelical Churches are growing at an incredible rate. One reason is that these Churches are mission-oriented. Evangelization is a top priority. If you join such a Church, you are expected to reach out and bring others to Christ. Their methods are often intrusive and heavy-handed, but we have to admire their evangelizing zeal. They have stolen our fire.

George Gallup once described the Catholic Church as "a sleeping giant." You have so much potential, he said. You are the largest Christian Church in this country. You have so many gifted people, so many fine institutions. But you're asleep. You're not having the spiritual impact on the society that you could have. I've always found that image disturbing and challenging. Could it be that the evangelical Churches have a stronger confidence in the gifts of the Holy Spirit than we do?


Could it be that the evangelical Churches have a stronger confidence in the gifts of the Holy Spirit than we do?

In his encyclical The Mission of the Redeemer, Pope John Paul II says that evangelization is the primary service that the Church can render to every individual and to all of humanity. Why? Because the world "has experienced marvelous achievements but...seems to have lost its sense of ultimate realities and of existence itself." In other words, it is an act of loving service on our part when we try to share with others our faith in Jesus Christ.

Moreover, he says, our own faith is strengthened when we give it away. I have seen this happen, both with individuals and with parishes. When they begin to evangelize they discover a new vitality, a deepening of their belief in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit, and a fresh appreciation of their Catholic faith. On the other hand, I fear that parishes that do not evangelize, that persist in a self-maintenance mentality, will not survive.

Toward the end of his ground-breaking letter on evangelization, Pope Paul VI noted that today's world, despite innumerable signs of disbelief, "is nevertheless searching for God in unexpected ways and painfully experiencing the need for him." That world, he said, is calling for evangelizers who can witness to a God whom the evangelists are familiar with "as if they could see the invisible."

But that kind of witness will not be possible without the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit. As Alan Schreck says so well in his book Hearts Aflame, "Without the Holy Spirit stirring the heart, the motivation to evangelize will be lacking. Only the Holy Spirit can give people a fervent desire, arising from within, to tell others about God and the beauty and truth of their faith."

May this Year of the Holy Spirit be a time of grace, when many of us catch the fire that Jesus came to light upon the earth.

Martin Pable, O.F.M.Cap., is a free-lance author from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he directs a wellness program for his order and an evangelization ministry in the archdiocese. He has written two books on spirituality for men, as well as many articles in the area of psychology and religion.


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