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home : bishop : columns

9/10/2015 9:00:00 AM
BISHOP'S COLUMN
Make Jesus number one
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER


In his remarkable book on evangelization, "Reclaim the Fire: A Parish Guide to Evangelization," Rev. Martin Pable hits the nail right on the head. He writes: "The purpose of the Church is not to increase its membership rolls. The purpose of the Church is to make known the person and message of Jesus Christ."

Doctrines, sacraments and rituals, he continues, no matter how correctly and beautifully delivered, will not of themselves capture the human heart or nourish its spiritual hungers -- not without Jesus as number one, the center of our life.

How else to explain an anecdotal -- but, sadly, common -- experience of Catholic parents telling of their young adult son who joined some other Christian group? When they asked him why, he responded, with utmost sincerity, "Because I had to leave the Catholic Church to find Jesus Christ."

As drastic and dramatic as this might seem, if Jesus is not a real person for you and me, and it does not show in how we live and love, people will find our religion disappointing.

Last month, I announced that our Diocese would soon have seven new episcopal vicars to help me and other parish leaders take better pastoral care of our parishes in the regions, or vicariates, they will oversee. I asked parish leaders to listen, pray and consult within their communities for the names of priests known for listening well and being close to their people.

This month, with your prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit, I will be discerning with those whose names have been offered me, so that, in a few weeks, the new vicars can be announced.

Did you happen to watch, last Saturday, the "virtual audience" of Pope Francis? If not, you can go to ABC News, visit our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/DioceseOfAlbany) or find a link to it on our diocesan website, www.rcda.org. There, you can see exactly what the new evangelization looks like. It's about witnessing to and hearing how Jesus changes lives -- and does He ever!

The true-life stories of the people whom Pope Francis encounters through the gift of the media will melt your heart. This can happen in every parish, if we follow our Holy Father's example. This is exactly what I hope to do throughout our Diocese with the help of our parish leaders and our new episcopal vicars.

Not only did Pope Francis listen to the struggles and faith journeys of a homeless man, an immigrant single mom and her two daughters, a young woman who suffered bullying because of a physical deformity, and others, he affirmed their personal faith and courage while offering them his own fatherly love and encouraging them not to walk alone, to find the presence of Jesus in the Church, a faith community to walk with other friends of Jesus, hand in hand.

It was stunning to see the pope say to the single mother -- using a secular media outlet -- how much he admired her courage in choosing not to kill her daughters in her womb, but to respect their lives and to bring them into the world. He asked the girl who had been bullied to sing a song for him, which she did with her beautiful voice.

Some of the folks Pope Francis engaged with asked him why he wanted to come to the United States and what he hoped to accomplish -- a question I am sure many of us would like to ask him, too.

Pope Francis made it very clear that the main reason is that he wants to be close to us. He wants us also to be close to one another, because that is how we encounter the loving and merciful presence of Jesus Himself.

This is why we "do" the new evangelization person to person, sharing our struggles and stories of faith, heart to heart. It can start right now, with the person nearest you or someone who is just a text or phone call away.

Without a doubt, we have the resources to do this throughout our Diocese. If you are able to watch the video, you'll notice that, fittingly enough, the people whom the pope speaks with are not encountering him alone, but in a community gathering -- in three churches in different parts of the country, in regions that the pope will not get to in his U.S. visit at the end of the month.

As you may be aware, I try to be present in a different region of our Diocese every week. With the help of our virtual media, our Pastoral Planning Office and our wonderful Information Technology staff, we are developing platforms and models whereby not only I, but other pastoral and spiritual leaders, can reach more and more communities where they are. The Church, in effect, can come to people.

At the same time -- and Pope Francis was very clear and direct on this point, as he is wont to be -- we can only grow in the faith and in our spiritual journey if we walk the walk together, hand in hand. The Church, after all, is people, centered in and built on Jesus Christ.

What Pope Francis wished most of all, especially for our young people, is that no one would walk alone. Find friends, he said, with whom you can share your struggles, your hopes and yearnings, and your encounters with Jesus.

It is one thing to be able to watch all this on TV or some other screen. It is quite another to be together with a dynamic faith family to hear God's Word, listen to stories of faith and pray for and with one another.

That is why we need gathering spaces in our homes and communities, in our churches and halls, which are filled with persons of all ages and walks of life. We need one another to learn about what Jesus does and is doing in our lives when we make Him number one!

"Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst" (Mt 18:20), Jesus said. Just like He showed up with the two disciples, passionately discussing -- maybe even arguing a little -- on the road to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35), He will come to each and every one of us when we honestly open our hearts and our deepest yearnings to Him through one another.

Jesus is with us. Reclaim the fire!

(Follow the Bishop at www.facebook.com/AlbanyBishopEd and on Twitter @AlbBishopEd.)





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