I've spoken lately about how the Word of God can hit you over the head, making it impossible to ignore a message. It can be painful.
But sometimes God, like a good teacher, makes sure I'm listening just by repeating himself. That happened last week..
Friday was the feast of St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist. It was no surprise that the first reading at Mass was from the Letter to the Ephesians, where St. Paul writes “The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...”
But before the day was out, the scripture readings in the breviary repeated the same text two more times, at which point I began to think the Lord was trying to tell me something. Whether he was or wasn't, the triple dose of Ephesians 4 sure made it easy to preach today, the Sunday when we bless the women and men who teach the faith as catechists in our parish.
“The gifts Christ gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...” That tells us two key things about our catechists: first, that they are a gift, and second, that they have a purpose.
Usually, when we speak about God's gifts, we're speaking of the graces he gives us. We all know that when God calls someone to a particular work, he grants the grace or gifts they need.
But in the passage we’re discussing, St. Paul is calling people ‘gifts’. Another translation says “he gave some as apostles, some prophets” and so on. Our teachers and evangelists are a gift from God.
The purpose of their calling also comes from God. It is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ...”
The meaning of that is lost if we think Paul is talking about the saints in heaven, who certainly don't need to be equipped for ministry or anything else, for that matter.
Again, another translation explains things. In this context, the word “saints” means holy ones—simply the members of the Church. All the baptized need to be prepared for service, for ministry, and every service has the same goal, building up the body of Christ.
But even though every one of us needs to be taught and equipped, there is one group of saints, of holy ones, that needs special attention: our children. Although our catechists serve many adults, particularly through R.C.I.A. and Bible studies, the majority of them labour in the parish religious education program, the liturgy of the word for children program, and in our schools. (We will commission the school teachers at a school Mass during the week.)
These dedicated volunteers welcome our children as they would welcome Christ himself. In today's Gospel, as elsewhere, Jesus shows how much he loves children. He identifies himself with the child whom he takes in his arms and he calls his disciples to treat little ones as they would treat the Lord himself.
(No wonder that on another occasion Jesus says that anyone who harms a child would be better off tied to a rock and dropped into the ocean. Sadly, we have all too many opportunities lately to reflect on those words.)
Delighted as I am to acknowledge our catechists today, I want to speak briefly about two other groups as well.
The first is evangelists. We’re comfortable finding pastors and teachers on Paul's list of servants of Christ's Church. We know what a pastor does and what a teacher does.
But evangelists? We don’t expect to find one of those in the next pew. Not so many years ago, all the evangelists were priests, some specially gifted ones like Fulton Sheen. One of the most wonderful blessings that’s come to the Church in recent decades are lay evangelists, men and women who are exactly the people St. Paul is talking about. I hope before long there will be a special blessing to commission evangelists. But today we will include them alongside our catechists as they prepare for the launch of Alpha—our parish’s number one evangelization effort—in less than two weeks.
The second group, of course, is parents. They don't need to be commissioned to the work of preparing their children to serve Christ and his Church. They've already taken their children in their arms, welcoming them as God's gift.
What parents may not have thought about is how their generosity is blessed by Jesus in today's Gospel. We all recall his promises of an eternal reward to anyone who visits prisoners or the sick, or who offer a cup of cold water in his name. Today Jesus extends the promise further, telling parents that they have welcomed not only a child but their Lord.
Parents should think carefully about that. Jesus says that whoever welcomes a child in his name, welcomes him. That promise is huge. But with the calling comes a responsibility. Welcoming children in the name of Christ—indeed, welcoming children as Christ—takes more than bundling them into your arms.
Among many other sacrifices, it requires prayer. Which is why I am going to conclude with a brief word about this Saturday's Seminar of Hope, subtitled “How to Pray for Your Sons and Daughters.”
The seminar, which runs from 9:00 to 4:30, is given by a man who is definitely one of those gifts St. Paul has listed for us; specifically, Vernon Robertson is an evangelist. He will reshape any parent or grandparent's understanding of praying for children, whether they are young or old, doing well or faring poorly. He will offer a clear path to embracing even the most troubled son or daughters in the name of Jesus.