The first point of “Ecclesia in America,” John Paul’s message to us, is simple: “Rejoice!”
This word was chosen after a series of meetings and visits to America.
In some ways, it encapsulates the feelings of the late Holy Father for the American Church. John Paul II saw on our continent a history of Christian identity—of a people who continue to believe in God, to worship regularly, and to care for the poor in a spirit of Christian charity.
We should rejoice at the state of Christianity in America. In our land we worship freely, more than 90 percent of people share our belief in God, and the Church has an active presence in the fabric of American culture and society.
We have much to rejoice about. But John Paul II reflected that we also have much work to do.
American religious identity is a perplexing phenomenon. The overwhelming majority of Americans believe in God. Seventy-six percent of Americans profess to be Christians. Yet far fewer worship regularly in a Church or religious community. And, when presented with the basic tenets of Christianity, only a small percentage of Americans profess to believe them.
Around the year 1800, the German philosopher Georg Hegel said that “Christians waste on heaven the energies destined for earth.” By this, he meant that Christianity should only focus on the temporal needs of the world—on social justice, the needs of the poor or on the acquisition of wealth and power. Too many American Christians seem to have accepted Hegel’s admonishment—in many American churches today, the language of Christianity is used to espouse a materialist and consumerist philosophy.
Too many Christians in America have forgotten about eternity. This is the reason why Protestant theologian J.J. Packer has observed that Christianity in America is “3,000 miles wide, and only a half-inch deep.”
The key, said Blessed John Paul II, to a deeper faith among Americans, is the witness of Christians living as Christ lived, and proclaiming the kingdom of God. Our responsibility to our brothers and sisters, to our fellow Americans, is to share with them the encounter we have had with Jesus Christ. Each of us who have been touched by Christ—who have accepted his Word, and who follow after him—should witness to others what it means to truly encounter, in Jesus Christ, the Living God. Indeed, Pope Paul VI stated, in 1975, that “it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn.”
Evangelization is not always easy. Some of us feel unequipped or unprepared. Few of us know where to start. Many of us do not know what the people need to receive the Gospel.
In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI told the bishops of the United States that “What is needed ... at this time in the history of the Church in America, is a renewal of that apostolic zeal which inspires her shepherds actively to seek out the lost, to bind up those who have been wounded, and to bring strength to those who are languishing.”
The pope has called us to evangelization which finds, which frees, and which heals—evangelization rooted in love.
Soon we will have an opportunity to evangelize in our parishes in a very simple way. From Dec. 18 to Jan. 9 a group called Catholics Come Home will run a national television advertising campaign encouraging Catholics to return to worship at their parishes. In every city in America those who no longer practice our faith will be invited to encounter Jesus Christ in the Church. Some 250 million Americans will be invited to join us at Mass this Christmas season.
We can be evangelists by also inviting our friends to join us as we worship God. We can evangelize by welcoming those who “come home” to our parishes. And we can proclaim God’s kingdom by sharing with others the reasons why we worship—by sharing our encounter with the Living God. During this opportunity, provided by Catholics Come Home, let us commit ourselves to proclaiming God’s kingdom in our lives—with our witness and also with our words.
On Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the rose candle on the Advent wreath. This is the “Gaudete” candle. The “Rejoice!” candle. This week is the Church’s week of rejoicing in the impending arrival of Jesus Christ. Let us rejoice together. And let us invite others to know the great joy that fills us with a spirit of rejoicing.
Reprinted with permission from the Denver Catholic Register.
The Most Rev. James D. Conley served as the auxiliary Bishop for the Denver Archdiocese from April of 2008 until November of 2012, and during this time also served as Apostolic Administrator for Denver from September 2011 until July 2012. Bishop Conley is currently the Bishop of the Lincoln diocese.