“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses”
World Youth Day 2008, Third Catechesis
+Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap
I’d like to start today with a question. How many of you think of yourselves as a spiritual father or spiritual mother? Or to put it another way, how many of you can claim, by your actions, to have knowingly brought someone closer to Jesus Christ and the Church?
The reason I ask is simple. By our baptism, we have received the right and the obligation to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ -- that's what the word Gospel means, “good news” -- to every nation on earth.
But here’s the problem: Some Catholics, even young people like yourselves, live in a kind of a “Catholic ghetto.” It’s a way of life that could be commendable in terms of personal piety; but it’s shaped by an implicit acceptance that we Catholics are a besieged minority -- that we need to be well shielded to “survive” the surrounding world. But that’s the opposite of what God calls us to be as Christians. Let me explain.
At different points in my life as a priest and bishop, I thought that I’d heard every possible excuse Christians have for not to bringing their faith into the public square and not sharing it enthusiastically with others. But over the years, I’ve learned that human creativity, when it comes to making up alibis, is endless.
First, there are those Catholics who feel “almost ready” to evangelize.. Almost, but not quite. They’re typically looking for the “ultimate” Catholic training program and never stop preparing themselves because they’re never “quite there yet.” Sometimes they think they’re being humble because they “admit” that they’re “not ready.”
I always remind them about the passage in the first chapter of the Book of Jeremiah; the one where Jeremiah is called by God:
"Ah, Lord God!" I said, "I know not how to speak; I am too young." But the Lord answered me: Say not, "I am too young." To whomever I send you, you shall go; whatever I command you, you shall speak. Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord... For it is I this day who has made you a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land.”
So much for God thinking that any of us is “too young” to witness to Jesus Christ.
Then there are those Catholics who claim that they’re not “people persons.” They dislike religious discussions and conversations, so they argue that they can “evangelize” by just being good anonymous Christians and honest workers. There’s nothing wrong with living like this. It may indeed, at times, be a good form of evangelization. But if so, what do we do with this exhortation from St. Paul in his Second Letter to Timothy, which is really addressed to all baptized and confirmed Christians:
“Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine but, following their own desires and insatiable curiosity, will accumulate teachers and will stop listening to the truth and will be diverted to myths.”
Doesn't this describe exactly what’s happening in our own day? And isn't Paul’s exhortation, therefore, more urgent than ever?
I could go on and on about the excuses we make for not evangelizing. But let's go straight to the heart of the matter: We are, all of us, called to be Apostles. That’s our vocation. That’s our right and our duty. In a sense, evangelizing is in our Christian DNA from the moment we received the Holy Spirit in our Baptism and our Confirmation. We need to understand that those sacramental moments were our own Pentecost. We’ve not only been sent but, like the original Apostles, we’re empowered to preach the Good News, to become Apostles ourselves. Don't forget this: We have already had our own Pentecost.
The word "Apostle", comes from the Greek apostolos which means “one who is sent forth;” someone who is entrusted with a mission. It has a stronger sense than the word “messenger.” It actually means something closer to a “delegate.” An Apostle, therefore, is a delegate of Christ: not someone who speaks about a particular doctrine or delivers a message, but someone who gives testimony of something he or she has experienced.
The nature of the Apostles' mission is powerfully explained in Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mathew. I urge you to re-read that Gospel passage and make it the basis of an honest examination of conscience. But let me point out briefly what this chapter tells us about what an Apostle should look like today, which means what you and I should look like.
First, the Apostle is aware that his mission has been entrusted to him by Jesus Himself. Each of you has been summoned: "Then he summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits.”
Second, the Apostle is called to trust in God without preconditions, and especially without placing his trust in structures or methods. This is what Jesus tells us: “Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts; no sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick.”
Of course, good methods and structures can be helpful. What Jesus tells us is that we should not place our confidence primarily in them, but in the person of Jesus Christ. Just think, for example, about how effective Mother Teresa of Calcutta was in her apostolate and about how many vocations her congregation has attracted. All of this by rejecting the power of material goods and concentrating on and witnessing to the loving face of Our Lord.
Third, hardships and even persecution come with “the territory” of being an Apostle: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you in their synagogues, and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake as a witness before them and the pagans.”
We live in a world that sees suffering as a curse to be avoided at any price. But remember Jesus' warning that hardships, rejection and persecution by the world can’t be avoided. I’m sometimes amazed at the discouragement I find in otherwise motivated Catholics – and sometimes in myself -- when real obstacles and challenges make the Christian life difficult. These sufferings are precisely God's sign that his followers are doing the right thing. You and I should feel encouraged, not defeated, by the trials that inevitably come our way.
In his novel Lord of the World, the great British author and convert Robert Hugh Benson describes the Anti-Christ as someone who has invented a new “painless” world religion and even a new technique of prayer that takes only minutes and very little effort. Benson’s point is clear: If faith is painless and quick, just the way today's culture wants things to be, then it cannot be genuinely Christian. It comes from the devil.
Fourth, in this passage from Matthew, Jesus says that He will not fail in being with us to protect us: “When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say... do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul... Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Never lose your focus on this truth: Jesus is always there for you. After 38 years of ministry as a priest, I can assure you that Jesus never fails; He never fails.
Fifth: Jesus calls us to be very vocal, brave and explicit when we announce the Gospel; He also reminds us that we can't betray or hide the Gospel's radical demands: “What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops . . . Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mathew, as I said before, is a great start for a good examination of conscience. It also shows us that the worst enemy of the Apostle is fear. In fact, fear is one of the most underrated but most lethal dangers of our time, especially for your generation.
Pope John Paul II's amazing ministry -- after more than 25 years of papal leadership, many encyclicals, hundreds of apostolic visits, thousands of papal decisions and appointments, and founding the very first World Youth Day -- can be summarized in the words with which he opened his pontificate and which became his unofficial motto: Be not afraid.
Pope John Paul was a visionary, chosen by the Holy Spirit to respond to the particular challenges of our day. And one of those great challenges, all over our world, but especially inside our Church and among our young people, is a fear of offending the world. Young men and women do not respond to God's call to the priesthood, consecrated life or Christian marriage because they’re afraid of failure; they do not get involved in a more committed, generous and powerful proclamation of the Gospel because they’re afraid of being rejected by their peers or being laughed at as “Jesus freaks.”
John Paul gave us the antidote to this paralyzing disease: “Open wide the doors to Christ!” To open wide our lives to Christ means to let the Holy Spirit act in us, to bring us the grace we need to be courageous. Just look at the Bible’s description of Pentecost. The passage begins by telling us that the Apostles were hiding “for fear of the Jews.” It ends with an outpouring of courage and joyful preaching, understood in all imaginable languages. What a transformation! And that transformation is within our own reach, because we have already received the Holy Spirit. It’s only our fear that prevents God from unleashing all his power in our lives.
Being brave does not mean being blind to the dangers we face, or ignoring the pain of being mocked or attacked. Being “unafraid” does not mean pretending not to fear. Being brave means overcoming our fear with the strength of the Holy Spirit, just as St. Paul and all the great Christian missionaries did, because proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ is worth any cost.
During the opening of the Pauline Year, Pope Benedict said that for St. Paul, “the truth [of Jesus Christ] was too great to be sacrificed” for worldly success or personal comfort. His experience of Jesus was too great to ignore or explain away. “The truth [Paul] had experienced in the encounter with the Risen Christ [on the road to Damascus] very much deserved the struggle, the persecution, the suffering” that came with proclaiming the Gospel.
What most deeply motivated Paul, the Holy Father continued, “was the fact of being loved by Jesus Christ and the desire to transmit to others this love. Paul was someone capable of loving -- and all his laboring and suffering is explained only from this core.”
Pay attention to this reflection Pope Benedict made about St. Paul and suffering in our own Christian life: “The call to become the teacher [of] people is at the same time also intrinsically a call to suffering in the communion of Christ, who has redeemed us through his Passion. In a world where falsehood is so powerful, the truth is redeemed through suffering. Whoever wants to avoid and keep away suffering keeps away life itself and its greatness; he cannot be a servant of the truth and therefore a servant of the faith. There is no love without suffering, without the suffering of self-renunciation, transformation and purification of the self by the real truth. Wherever there is nothing worth suffering for, life itself loses its value.”
One of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is Courage, which we also call Fortitude. Courage is near the heart of the Christian life. It’s because of the virtue of Courage that we’re able to be brave, to be “not afraid” just as John Paul II was himself, and asked us to be.
Of course, Courage not only makes us “tough.” It’s a virtue that also makes us consistent, capable of long lasting efforts. And one of those efforts you need to pursue is seeking out faithful Catholic intellectual formation. Today’s challenges demand much more than good intentions and a devout personal life. So let me give you three words of wisdom Pope Benedict himself shared with a group of young Catholics during a recent visit to Northern Italy: formation, formation, formation.
The Holy Father was talking to committed young Catholics. He was assuming that they were already pious, devout and morally straight – and these qualities are vitally important. But they’re not enough. Each of you needs to cultivate a mature, faithful and thorough knowledge of Catholic teaching to respond to the many challenges you face today, and to prepare yourselves for whatever the future holds. You young Catholics will face issues I can’t even imagine.
I want to end with a brief reflection on John Paul II's last words, spoken on his death bed: "I have searched for you, and now you have come to me, and I thank you." He was talking to the multitude, especially young people, gathered in St. Peter's Square at the news of his final hours. At the very end of his life, after traveling the world in search of all his flock, especially his lost sheep, the flock was coming to him. What an extraordinary way to meet the end of your life. Reflect on the way you’d like to greet your own death, so that you’ll make the right choices in living your own life honestly and fully in the friendship of God.
I pray with all my heart that the Holy Spirit will awaken and unleash in you his joy and power, so that you may go out from this World Youth Day renewed, strengthened and encouraged to become apostles of Jesus Christ. Let’s ask this together in the name of our mother, the Virgin Mary, the woman who was never afraid, the woman who received the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation and then received Him again at Pentecost with the Apostles.
Dear Mother, make that miracle of God’s power and presence happen again -- now and always -- in the lives of our young people and in all of us. God bless you.