January 31, 2024 at 8:47 a.m.

Talk about evangelization?

Evangelization is more about walking the talk, than talking the talk.
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

By Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

A friend of mine, a priest, not from this Diocese, once lamented to me that he was tiring of talking about evangelization. I could not totally agree with him in the past. Until now. He had been raised as a Baptist. He was familiar with a style of evangelization that some might call, pejoratively, “bible thumping.” It’s what is sometimes associated with tent-preaching revivalists and street-corner proselytes on soap boxes, a kind of “in your face,” or “do as I say” diatribe with a lone prophet (typically of doom) almost flailing to spill the light of truth on an errant majority. This exercise may well have its merits at times, but I wonder how effective it ever is just to tell people what they ought to believe or how they should behave. 

When I was in my late teens, I can recall a character who used to stand on one of the corners of Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. He was dressed somewhat like a Viking and, though motionless, was quite intimidating. I later learned he called himself “Moondog” and even recorded a ballad that narrated his saga. According to Karl Menninger, M.D., a renowned psychiatrist who wrote a book in the early seventies entitled, “Whatever Became of Sin?,” this street personage would abruptly startle a passerby, pointing to him or her with the sentence, “guilty!” As Dr. Menninger observed, most people would recoil at the apparent insult and retreat in embarrassment or even anger. A few, however, would react with a self-deprecatory sense of humor, “Well, he’s right, but how did he know?”

Perhaps evangelization, as it is sometimes parodied or critiqued, seems like telling people they are wrong and need to see the error of their ways. The odd thing is, however, as Mr. Moondog might have been onto, is that people usually know darn well when they are not doing what is right and are in need of reform. The problem is not knowing whether I need to abandon a bad habit, or start a new eating or exercise regimen, or get out of a bad relationship, but having the courage and the stamina to get on with it. The first day of a diet or at the gym is always the toughest. 

My friend who did not like the word “evangelization” was also on to something. He realized that evangelizing could not be just talk. Like the saying goes, it’s one thing to talk the talk, but another to walk the walk. Now we know Jesus gave his disciples the great commission to go out into the world and tell the good news (cf. Mt 28:18-20), it is where the command comes to make disciples, to evangelize or “go gospeling.” Gospel means good news as we know. He is quite serious about it, because it is what his mission on earth was and he wants us baptized to continue it. But how did Jesus himself “go gospeling”?

The best way to answer is to proclaim that Jesus himself IS the good news. His personal presence in the world as Emmanuel, “God with us” (Mt 1:23) IS the good news itself. It is in that sense that I often think a test as to whether or not we are evangelizing, or teaching as Jesus taught, is to ask ourselves, “am I good news or bad news?” Do I live in such a way as to bring out the best in others or do I tend to be more of a downer who diminishes others, whether in their presence or, worse, behind their backs? 

There is a difference, to be sure, between complaining and whining of which we are all aware. Constructive criticism, as most any of us will agree, can be very beneficial, especially when done with charity and true love, real fraternal concern. It is not easy and often takes great patience and gentleness. The scriptures even give us a formula, “the supreme rule of which is love,” as Pope Francis has taught in his catechesis on Gal 5:16-17, 25. As my friend seems to have intuited, evangelization, like fraternal charity, does not seem to work very well if all it involves is words and preaching. There must also be some commitment to walk with or accompany the other along the way.

Looking at the example of Jesus throughout his public ministry, we find few of his homilies or talks recorded. Even the “Sermon on the Mount” in the Gospel according to St. Matthew (Mt 5:3-12) is more of an exhortation or a “pep talk” than a lecture or diatribe. A key theme in that sermon — “you have heard it said, but I say to you” — is the centering of his message on himself, inviting his listeners to follow him, ultimately along the path that led to his total self-sacrifice on the cross, forgiving sinners, and healing others of what separates them from God and one another. As many theologians and commentators on the scriptures have pointed out, when we read that Jesus “taught” the crowds, it often means that he was healing them of various ailments, spiritual, physical and psychological, usually all three since they are all connected in human beings, incarnate spirits that we are.

The style of preaching and teaching most often used by Jesus was the parables, with which we are all familiar. Parables have a way of engaging others. Rather than “talk down” at people with lots of “you should’s” or “you’d better,” parables were more like invitations to think and reflect, even to be somewhat creative. Often the disciples of Christ would ask him what a parable “meant” and there are examples of further explanations or instructions that Jesus gave the twelve, in particular, when they asked. Yet is it not true that so many of the parables seem to contain messages that are almost without limit to their depth, like the ultimate parable, the sign of the cross itself, the depth and mystery of which “angels longed to look.”

Evangelization then, as Jesus taught us, is so much more than giving lectures and lessons. It is more of an exercise in persuasion by the kind of witness or example that moves others more by what they can see as authentic and feel in the depth of their being, than merely hear like a recording that goes in one ear and out the other. It is more than a mental game, an intellectual enterprise, interesting though that may be, but a powerful force that leads to change and conviction. It is one thing to hear “Jesus loves you” and quite another to know and accept in the depths of one’s being that he loves us enough to die for us, even if you or I were the only person in the world, as I was once told to my amazement and have come to believe at the very core of my being.

This conviction is so powerful that it has led the weak or “foolish things of this world” (1 Cor 1:27) to the point of becoming martyrs, which we admire in so many of the saints. Hopefully, we will not forget that the courage they may have found at the end of their lives is not something that they were born with, let alone earned along the way just by following the rules. It is possible in fact to follow all the rules and still miss the whole point about why there are rules. This is the struggle that Jesus often became entangled in with the teachers of the law, famously the Scribes and Pharisees, who knew and expounded upon every letter of the law, yet missed the very heart of the law which, ultimately, is revealed as love. We have many examples that Jesus cites in which the teachers of the law failed to be very much moved or changed by it, in short, to become holy.

Evangelization is more about walking the talk, than talking the talk. It is a verb more than a noun. Indeed, if it is a word at all, it is about “THE Word,” which is the person of Jesus himself, the Son of God incarnate who was and is in the world, still as present today as at the moment of his conception at the sublime moment of Mary’s fiat. Jesus gives us his real presence in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Holy Eucharist, in which we are guaranteed an encounter with him as real and as sanctifying as what changed the lives of the Apostles and those who were touched by the healing presence of Jesus of Nazareth while he walked in their midst. There is only one Jesus. The same Jesus whom the saints behold in the face is the same Jesus in the mystical body of the Church and in the sacrament of his Body and Blood which we celebrate at Holy Mass. This Jesus who lives in us and among us IS the evangelizing Presence that changes lives, if we are willing to accept him as “my Lord and my God,” and let him be the center of our lives. This Presence is perhaps nowhere more palpable than in the poorest of the poor and those the world often passes by as disabled or infirm. Take it from the Lord himself, who said, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40).

 @AlbanyDiocese


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