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The Great Omission

Recently I saw a sign on a bulletin board in the yard of a local Protestant church. The message was this: “Keep the faith, but not to yourself!”

This reminded me of our Lord’s words, “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14, 16).

Too often we shorten the command-“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works”-and miss the whole purpose of letting your light shine-so that men may “give glory to your father who is in heaven.”

All around us people are stumbling in spiritual and moral darkness. Jesus calls us to shine our light-our love, our compassion, our eagerness to serve others-into that darkness. He wants our light to show the way to him for those in darkness. Remember his words: “I have come as light into the world, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness” (John 12:46).

Jesus also told us, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5). Now that he is in heaven, he means other lights to shine for him in the world’s darkness.

What are we talking about? Evangelization. We need to talk about it, because we Catholics aren’t very adept at evangelizing. We all know the Great Commission: “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). Judging from the small number of new members we bring into the Church each year, one would think that for us the Great Commission has become the Great Omission.

Make no mistake about it: Evangelization is serious business. First of all, the purpose for which the Catholic Church exists is evangelization. In his encyclical On Evangelization in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI made this fact clear. He spoke of the “joy and consolation” with which we heard these words from the 1974 Synod of Bishops: “‘We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.'” (14).

The Holy Father continued, “It is a task and mission which the vast and profound changes of present-day society make all the more urgent. Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of his death and glorious Resurrection.” Years later, in his encyclical on the laity, Pope John Paul II said the same in different words: “The entire witness of the Church is concentrated and manifested in evangelization” (The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, 33).

We commonly use the word “apostolate” as a general term for the calling of each member of Christ’s Mystical Body. In clear terms the Second Vatican Council told us how we must exercise our apostolate: by working at “the evangelization and sanctification of men” and by endeavoring “to have the gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order, going about it in a way that bears clear witness to Christ and helps forward the salvation of men” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 2).

Pope Paul VI declared that the objectives of the Second Vatican Council “are definitely summed up in this single one: to make the Church of the twentieth century ever better fitted for proclaiming the gospel to the people of the twentieth century” (On Evangelization in the Modern World, 2).

So the Church exists to evangelize. That’s our first fact.

The second is this: Evangelization is not merely the work of a few specialists-bishops, clergy religious, lay leaders. The Second Vatican Council taught us that “the Church exercises it [the apostolate] through all its members” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 2). Again, “On all Christians . . . rests the noble obligation of working to bring all men throughout the whole world to hear and accept the divine message of salvation” (ibid., 3).

In his encyclical on the laity Pope John Paul II recalled our Lord’s parable about the owner of the vineyard who hired workers at various hours of the day. The Holy Father said the laity “are those who form that part of the people of God which might be likened to the laborers in the vineyard mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel” (The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People, 1). Therefore, said the Pope, the owner’s call to the idle laborers-“You too go into the vineyard”-applies to each member of the Church. In the parable, the vineyard owner asked those hired last, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” (Matt. 20:6). John Paul II declared, ” It is not permissible for anyone to remain idle” (emphasis in the original).

Narrow the focus of evangelization even further. We must say, thirdly, that while it is the responsibility of the bishops, it is primarily the task of the laity. Primarily they-not the bishops-carry out that task. Hear again the teaching of Vatican II: “The laity . . . are given this special vocation: to make the Church present and fruitful in those places and circumstances where it is only through them that she can become the salt of the earth” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 33; emphasis added).

Why does the Church say that the laity must cooperate for the Church fulfill her mission of evangelizing the world? Recall the opening scene of Meredith Willson’s beloved musical and motion picture, The Music Man. On a moving train a carload of traveling salesmen are arguing about what it takes to be a successful salesman. One thing they agree on, as they chant in rhythm: “You gotta know the territory, gotta know the territory.”

Evangelizers have “gotta know the territory”: the territory of the home, the community, the market place, the political arena, the professional world. Who knows that territory? Not the clergy, not the religious. It’s the laity who know the territory where the gospel has to be taken. In its decree on the laity, Vatican II taught that it is the laity who have “countless opportunities for exercising the apostolate of evangelization and sanctification” (Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity, 6).

The task of the clergy and religious is to help equip the laity for this awesome responsibility. But the laity have to carry the evangelistic ball.

A fourth aspect of the evangelistic imperative is that we must first of all live the faith, but we must at the same time proclaim it.

Obviously, the fruitfulness of anyone’s apostolate, whether lay or religious or clerical, depends entirely on his or her union with Christ. It depends entirely on letting that union be continually nourished and deepened by prayer and the sacraments and meditation on God’s Word. Yet we must never make the mistake of saying-as some of us do-“I don’t talk about my faith; I just live it.”

If we make this excuse for not talking about our faith, what we’re actually saying is that we are such marvelous Christians that anyone can look at us and see Jesus Christ exemplified. We’re saying that if anyone wants to know what it means to live a faithful Christian life, let him look at us and follow our example. Who of us is prepared honestly to make such statements?

Look at the Lord Jesus. He was perfectly united with the Father. He was Truth incarnate. Did he restrict himself to nonverbal communication? Did he perform miracles, healing the sick and diseased, casting out demons, calming the troubled waters of the sea of Galilee, all the while saying nothing of the Father whom he was revealing? No. He constantly articulated the faith: teaching, exhorting, reproaching, sometimes condemning-but always teaching. No “wordless witness” for him!

Pope Paul VI said that a “wordless witness” can radiate the spirit of Christ, but by itself it is not enough. Even the best witness of life “will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified . . . and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus” (On Evangelization, 22).

Never forget our Lord Jesus’ solemn warning: “Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Luke 12:48). This applies with special force to us Catholics. We have been entrusted with the fullness of gospel truth. We have access to the full means of grace by which Christ intends to nourish his people. We follow Christ on his terms, not ours, as we respond to his teaching us through his Church. Therefore, we must take and act on our individual responsibilities to evangelize with utmost seriousness.

Vatican II could hardly have spoken more strongly about our obligation to evangelize. It declared, “A member [of the Church] who does not work at the growth of the body [of Christ] to the extent of his possibilities must be considered useless both to the Church and to himself” (Decree on the Laity, 2). “Useless”: useless to oneself, useless to the Church. Would that not also mean useless to Christ? What an indictment!

We must trust the Holy Spirit to enable us to carry out this responsibility. As Pope Paul VI has told us, the Holy Spirit “is the principal agent of evangelization” (On Evangelization, 75). The Holy Spirit will help us to proclaim the Gospel by deed and word to those whom our lives touch. The Holy Spirit will work in those to whom we witness, that Christ’s truth may be understood and accepted. 

In that confidence, let us all go forth to proclaim the gospel. Let your light shine! Don’t make your light into a reading lamp shining only on your own shoulders. Make it a powerful searchlight, focused on Jesus Christ and his Church.

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