Personal Encounters With Jesus Christ
Time and time again in the Scriptures we see that the best evangelizers, the best witnesses, the best storytellers about Jesus are those who had a personal, transformative encounter with Him: the disciples on the way to Emmaus[ii]; the Samaritan woman at the well[iii]; the first apostles[iv]; and the Saints, ancient and modern. A personal encounter with Jesus changes everything and compels a person to accept the invitation to come and see! For this reason, the theme for the first stage of the diocesan pastoral plan is the personal encounter with Jesus Christ.
Stage One envisions a parish focused inward on those already coming through the doors, already celebrating Mass and other sacraments, already giving their time, talent, and treasure in support of the Church. Yes! Stage One is a focus on us, for one of the elements that distinguishes the New Evangelization from evangelization in general is this initial internal focus. What the Popes, beginning with Saint John Paul II and continuing now with Pope Francis, are concerned about is lukewarm faith. Pope Francis said it this way in a May, 2013 homily:
When the Church loses courage, the Church enters into a lukewarm atmosphere. The lukewarm Christians, a lukewarm faith, without courage … That hurts the Church so much, because this tepid atmosphere draws you inside, and problems arise among us; we no longer have the horizon, or courage to pray towards heaven, or the courage to proclaim the Gospel.[v]
This internal focus also concerns Catholics who have a relationship with the church but have not fallen in love with Jesus. Pope Francis reminded the youth participating in the Way of the Cross during World Youth Day celebrations that, The cross of Christ is an invitation for us to fall in love with Him and to then reach out and help our neighbors.[vi] The New Evangelization seeks first and foremost to offer to every Catholic who comes through the doors of the parish both the challenge and the opportunity to encounter the Risen Lord, personally, deeply, and profoundly.[vii] The New Evangelization seeks to offer those already identifying themselves as practicing Catholics opportunities to recognize Emmanuel, God-with-us, and to celebrate those encounters in various ways. The New Evangelization is first and foremost about us!
Thanks solely to this encounter or renewed encounter with Gods love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, Paragraph #8
We realize that for many Catholics, this thrust toward a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will seem very Protestant and will take them outside their comfort zones, comfort zones characterized by habits, practices, and activities. That is the very point! The New Evangelization seeks the kind of transformative encounters with the Risen Christ, who is still with us, alive in our midst, which will change everything! Jesus said He came to set the earth on fire and we are looking for that new fire.[viii] Until those already attached to the Church allow this fire to be lit in their spirits, it is not possible for them to go out and gather in the lost[ix], it is not possible for them to yearn for the lost to return with the passion of Jesus who wept over Jerusalem[x]. Until this fire blazes within, is it not possible for them to offer the very best the parish has to offer to everyone: seeker, inactive, alienated, or unchurched, knowing they might be entertaining the Lord Himself, as Abram and Sarai once discovered.[xi] The fruit of stage one: Genuine, transformed, impassioned disciples. Attention to this work does not stop even as the second stage unfolds.
[i] Dovetails with the US Bishops suggested parish/diocesan roadmap where the first stage focuses on faith.
[ii] Luke 24:13-35
[iii] John 4:4-42
[iv] Acts 9:1-19
[v] Pope: Lukewarm Christians hurt the Church. Vatican Radio website
[vi] Jesus Cross Invites us to be Smitten by His Love. Catholic News Service.
[vii] Disciples Called to Witness. Part I.
[viii] Luke 12:49
[ix] Matthew 15:24
[x] Luke 19:41-44
[xi] Genesis 18:1-14