I preached a short homily at St. Anthony’s 5 o’clock Mass yesterday, and it seemed to go over extremely well. So what did I do? I turned it into a longer homily overnight!
I should have known better, because this Sunday’s Gospel reminds preachers that sometimes fewer words are better. Look how Jesus boiled down the message for the first missionaries: “The kingdom of God has come near you.”
What, do you suppose, was Our Lord’s reason for giving the first missionaries so few words with which to proclaim the Good News?
If it was to inspire his priests to do the same, he wasn’t very successful! Not long after my ordination I heard the story of a man who slipped out the side door during the homily (not one of mine!). He found another parishioner already sitting on the steps who asked him “Has Father finished yet?”
“Yes,” said the man who’d just escaped, “long ago. But he hasn’t stopped.”
Surely the reason Jesus gave the disciples such a simple script is that he had more confidence in work than in words. He told them to heal and to help; that would give their words meaning and force.
Even though miracles aren’t central today to the Church’s missionary work, not that much has changed since Jesus sent out those seventy missionaries. Works, not words, still make converts, nine times out of ten. The charity, compassion and community of our parish preach the kingdom better than all my homilies. The three members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society who spoke after the Masses last Sunday showed us today’s Gospel in living colour.
If actions spoke louder than words in Jesus’ time, how much more is this true today. In his apostolic letter on evangelization, Pope Paul VI wrote that modern man is fed up with talk, often tired of listening, and even impervious to words. He noted the view of many psychologists and sociologists who say that we have passed beyond a culture of words and now live in a culture of images.*
He added that “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” [Evangelii nuntiandi, 67]
In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah paints a picture of Jerusalem as a universal mother, nourishing and nurturing her children, comforting and consoling all who love her. Scripture and tradition treat Jerusalem not only as an image of heaven but of the Church on earth. But how can the Church, wounded and weak as she is, perform this maternal task without the help of Christians who are willing to labour in the fields?
Last Sunday we heard Jesus say “follow me.” Perhaps we said “Okay, Lord—but where and how?” This Sunday we have the answer: wherever and whenever a person of peace invites you in. Wherever and whenever a person welcomes a gentle conversation about faith or the good life.
Jesus says “follow me” to the bedside of the sick, bringing a message of hope. If you are called to bring physical healing, all the better, but bring first the message that illness draws us closer to Christ, not apart from him.
When I was a young boy, a missionary was a brave soul laboring in Asia or Africa, or perhaps the far north. He or she needed courage, and a strong constitution, along with the ability to adapt to another culture and climate. If you lacked one of those essentials—or if you were, say, older than 25 or so—you could forget about it. You weren’t called.
Today we are all called: young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak, brilliant and average. We’re called first by baptism. Every baptized person has a share in the Christ’s mission—the Church’s mission—of proclaiming in work and word that the kingdom of God is near.
But that’s not all. We are also called by the times in which we live. Our call to mission doesn’t come only from the pages of the Bible—we “read” it also in the newspapers, in the “signs of the times.” The Church will recover her credibility at a time of scandal and weakness only if the laity rise up as an army of witnesses.
Again, prophetic words from Pope Paul underline the urgency of this. He wrote that the Church will evangelize the modern world “primarily by her conduct and by her life… in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus.” ** It seems obvious to me that the infidelity of some clergy has gravely handicapped the effective witness to the world of priests and religious at the present time. Does this mean the Church is hog-tied, unable to show forth her holiness?
Last Monday the Holy Father announced a new Vatican department to promote what’s called the new evangelization: it will not send missionaries to those few corners of the world that have not heard the Gospel. On the contrary, it will help renew the Christian faith in countries where it has grown cold, where the faith has been eclipsed by secularism.
The missionaries of the new evangelization will not mainly be priests and sisters but lay Christians. They’ll be men and women, young and old, who are convinced that a rich harvest is waiting if only enough workers will live their baptismal commitment fully in the world.
Some will be fulltime missionaries, like the young people of Catholic Christian Outreach. But most will be part-timers, Catholics who are ready to engage others in respectful dialogue, ready to evangelize the workplace, the classroom, the community center, the neighbourhood… even the parish.
They’ll be women and men a lot like you.
*“Modern man is sated by talk; he is obviously often tired of listening and, what is worse, impervious to words. We are also aware that many psychologists and sociologists express the view that modern man has passed beyond the civilization of the word, which is now ineffective and useless, and that today he lives in the civilization of the image.” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 42)
** “St. Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word. It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus- the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity.” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 41)