Evangelization is Everybody’s Job

October 21, 2007

Readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading 1: Ex. 17:8–13
Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 121:1–2, 3–4, 5–6, 7–8
Reading 2: 2 Tim. 3:14–4:2
Gospel: Lk. 18:1–8
Link to Readings

By Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D.

Today marks the Church’s eighty-first observance of World Mission Sunday. On the Feast of Pentecost last May, Pope Benedict delivered his message for this celebration. The theme of World Mission Sunday this year is “All the Churches for all the world.”

This is not an ecumenical summons; it refers only to Catholic Churches. The Holy Father’s message “invites the local Churches of every continent to a shared awareness of the urgent need to re-launch missionary action in the face of the many serious challenges of our time.” That phrase, “local Churches” is commonly used in the Church to designate Catholic dioceses.

[You may recall that four months ago the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith re-stated the Church’s teaching that the term “Church” does not apply to the denominations growing out of the Reformation. They cannot be called “Churches” in the proper sense because, not having the apostolic succession, they cannot offer the Eucharist.]

The “Great Omission”

In his message for this Sunday, Pope Benedict reminds us that “missionary commitment remains the first service that the Church owes to humanity today. . . .” In the words of today’s Gospel, he recalls Jesus’ Great Commission, which, he says, still “ring[s] out as a universal call and a heartfelt appeal: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt. 18:19-20).

This is Our Lord’s call to evangelize, to bring others into the fullness of Christ’s truth.

If one judges from the small number of people we Catholics bring to Christ and His Church each year, the Great Commission seems to be our “Great Omission.” Many of our non-Catholic friends’ zeal for evangelization puts most of us Catholics to shame. We have much to learn and a great deal to do.

Hear again the command Jesus gave us in His Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:14, 16).

What’s the purpose of bringing others to give glory to God? That purpose is to bring them into the full light of Christ and of His Church. Only through the Church that Christ established can persons know Christ and respond to Him as He intends.

Lights in a Dark World

In connection with Our Lord’s command we have just heard, think about these other words of His: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (Jn. 12:46). “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn. 9:5).

Now, after His Ascension, Jesus is no longer here in His humanity. Now Jesus needs other lights to shine for Him in the darkness of the world. This is where you and I come in: We are called to be Christ’s lights shining in our dark world.

To think for a few moments about our responsibility to be Christ’s lights in a dark world, start with the fact that the purpose of the Church is to evangelize.

In his encyclical on evangelization (Evangelii nuntiandi, no. 1), Pope Paul VI made this clear statement: The Church “exists in order to evangelize. . . .” Years later, in his encyclical on the laity in the Church (Christifideles laici, no. 33), Pope John Paul II said the same in other words: “The entire witness of the Church . . . is concentrated and manifested in evangelization.”

We use the word “apostolate” to denote the Christian calling of each member of the Mystical Body. How do we carry out that apostolate? According to the Second Vatican Council, we exercise our apostolate when we “work at the evangelization and sanctification of men” ( Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. 2).

In other words, every activity of the Mystical Body that helps to spread the Kingdom of Christ “goes by the name of ‘apostolate’. . . .” In fact, Pope Paul VI declared that the fundamental objective of Vatican II was “to make the Church of the twentieth century ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the twentieth century” (Evangelii nuntiandi, no. 2).

A Missionary? Me?

Furthermore, the Church teaches us that evangelization is everybody’s job.

In this year’s World Mission Sunday message, Pope Benedict spoke of “the missionary call which the Lord never tires of addressing to every one of the baptized.” Again, he said, “Dear brothers and sisters, the missionary mandate entrusted by Christ to the Apostles truly involves us all.” Vatican II taught us that “the Church exercises . . . [its apostolate] through all its members.” Again, “. . . the noble obligation of working to bring all men through the world to hear and accept the divine message of salvation”—that obligation rests on all Christians (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, nos. 2, 3).

In his encyclical on the laity, Pope John Paul II recalled Our Lord’s parable about the owner of the vineyard who hired workers at various hours of the day. The Holy Father said that the owner’s call to the idle laborers—“you too go into the vineyard”—applies to each member of the Mystical Body. Citing the owner’s question of the idle laborers—“‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’” (Mt. 20:6)—John Paul said, “It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle.”

More specifically, the Church tells us that evangelization is primarily the task of the laity.

Hear again the teaching of Vatican II: “The laity . . . are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (Lumen Gentium, no. 33).

“You Gotta Know the Territory”

Why does the Church says the laity are primarily responsible for evangelization?

Here’s the reason, in an illustration I have used before in another connection. Recall the opening scene of the musical and motion picture called The Music Man. As a group of salesmen travel on a train across Iowa, they discuss how one becomes a successful salesman. On one requisite they all agree, in a rhythmical chant, “You gotta know the territory, gotta know the territory.”

The same principle holds in the work of evangelization: “You gotta know the territory.” Who knows the territory of the home, the community, the market place, the political arena, the professional world? Not the clergy, not the religious; it’s the laity who know the territory where the Gospel has to be taken.

“The laymen,” said Vatican II, “have countless opportunities for exercising the apostolate of evangelization and sanctification” ( Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. 6). And only the laymen have those countless opportunities. The clergy and religious are called to help
equip the laity for their task, but it is the laity who have to carry the evangelistic ball, so to speak.

Again we hear Our Lord’s words: “Let your light so shine before men. . . .” Never forget that the fruitfulness of anyone’s apostolate, whether clerical, or religious or lay, depends entirely on his or her union with Christ. It depends entirely on letting that union be continually nourished and deepened by prayer and the sacraments and meditation on God’s Word.

Speak the Truth

One more requirement in evangelization: As evangelists, we must live the faith, of course, but we must also proclaim it.

A common excuse for not actively witnessing to others about the faith goes like this: “I don’t talk about my faith; I just live it.” If we make this excuse, do we really understand what we’re saying? We’re actually saying we’re such marvelous Christians that anyone can just look at us and see Jesus Christ clearly exemplified. We’re saying that if anyone wants to know what it means to live a good Christian life, all he needs to do is look at us and
follow our example. Are you prepared honestly to make such statements?

Look at Jesus. On this earth He was perfectly united with the Father. He was Truth Incarnate. Did He go around incarnating the truth but never speaking it? Not at all! He constantly articulated the faith: teaching, reproaching, exhorting, sometimes condemning—but always speaking the truth.

Pope Paul VI said what he calls a “wordless witness” can radiate the spirit of Christ, but by itself it is not enough: “Even the finest witness [of life] will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified . . . and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus.”

Keep the Faith!

In conclusion. we must note this fact.

Vatican II used the strongest possible language to stress each member’s obligation to evangelize to the best of his or her ability and opportunity: “. . . a member [of the Church] who does not work at the growth of the body [of Christ] to the extent of his possibilities must be considered useless both to the Church and to himself” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, no. 2). What an indictment!

If you know anything about the Catholic Church and the Gospel, you can evangelize. You can tell others what Jesus Christ in His Church means to you.

Take heart from what Pope Paul VI has told us: The Holy Spirit “is the principal agent of evangelization” (Evangelii nuntiandi, no. 75). The Holy Spirit will help us to proclaim the Gospel by deed and word to those whom our lives touch. The Holy Spirit will work in those to whom we witness, that Christ’s truth may be understood and accepted. In that confidence, let us go forth to proclaim the Gospel!

You can never predict what the Holy Spirit may do with an enthusiastic witness to Christ and His Church. I know of a young woman whose faithful witness to an evangelical friend resulted in the conversion of two large families.

Not long ago I saw a sign on a bulletin board in the yard of a local Protestant church: “Keep the faith—but not to yourself!” Are you keeping the faith to yourself? Am I keeping the faith to myself?

Let your light shine! Turn up the wattage! Don’t make your light into a dinky little flashlight. Make it a powerful searchlight! And focus it on Jesus Christ and His Church.

Father Ray Ryland is CUF’s spiritual advisor.

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