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.
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, "Go...to 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"
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.
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."
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.
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).
we make any effort at all to evangelizewhether by word or
examplewe are never doing it alone. We are always being
prompted and aided by the Holy Spirit.
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 promisethat the Spirit would guide
them. "The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will
send in my namehe will teach you everything and remind you
of all that [I] told you" (John 14:26).
Spirit is the greatest gift we have received from Jesus and
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).
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.
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.
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.
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."
usually don't approach us with religious questions or concerns.
They need to talk about their human problemstroubled 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.
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.
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.
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 courageanother 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 witnesses...to
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).
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).
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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