In the Christmas Season, the Church celebrates the Epiphany of the Lord when the three wise men followed a star from the East. According to Sacred Scripture, “When [the wise men] saw the star which they had seen in the East went before them, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (Mt 2:10-11). Meeting Christ continues to be the cause of joy.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI focused on the Incarnate Logos as the cause of our joy, whereas Pope Francis focuses on joy as the fruit of that encounter. There is a constant narrative at work in the media that tries to create a radical discontinuity and rupture between Pope Francis and his beloved predecessor. Chapter Five of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The joy of the gospel”) reminds the faithful of the continuity at work as Pope Francis leads the Church from Benedict’s starting point.
In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Benedict XVI asserts: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and decisive direction” (1). Our missionary call flows from the communion which we as Christians have entered into through our “encounter” with Jesus Christ. This intimate communion began with Baptism, is deepened by Confirmation, and is realized in the Holy Eucharist. Pope Francis emphasizes that the Holy Spirit continues to nourish this initiation as we work in the vineyard of the Lord.
According to Pope Francis, “Spirit-filled evangelizers means evangelizers fearlessly open to the working of the Holy Spirit” (Evangelii Gaudium, 259). Pentecost filled the Apostles and the other followers of Jesus in the Upper Room with a new boldness (parrhesía) in proclaiming the Gospel. In that same Spirit (pun intended), disciples of Jesus Christ in our current age are called forth to bring the Good News to others. Pope Francis defines the Spirit-filled evangelizers as “evangelizers who pray and work” (Ibid, 262). Both contemplation and action are necessary parts of the Christian life, yet there has been a temptation to focus solely on the need for social justice or action without the foundation of genuine prayer. At the same time, there is a temptation to form one’s individual relationship with Christ without answering the call to love one’s neighbor. We need to be Christians “who pray and work.”
Pope Francis warns the faithful that “Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the Word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervor dies out.” The work of fruitful or meaningful evangelization cannot be carried out effectively without continual, consistent, and deep prayer. Francis continues, “The Church urgently needs the deep breath of prayer, and to my great joy groups devoted to prayer and intercession, the prayerful reading of God’s word and the perpetual adoration of the Eucharist are growing at every level of ecclesial life” (Evangelii Gaudium, 262). Every apostolate that serves the Church: Catholic schools, Catholic hospitals, Campus Ministry teams, pro-life groups, Catholic social outreach programs, marriages, and families should ask how it fulfills this need for the “deep breath of prayer.” We have neglected this fundamental aspect of Catholic identity and yet we wonder why the only thing that seems to differentiate some Catholic hospitals from secular hospitals is the mere presence of religious signs and symbols. All of these apostolates are in need of deep renewal, which can only come from deep prayer.
Individuals that work in the above-mentioned apostolates will be nourished in their Catholic identity first and foremost by the family. The family is the first school of prayer and virtue that must reclaim its mission and maintain its subsidiarity in the midst of a culture where the State constantly undermines the freedom of the family. Similar to King Herod in the story of the wise men, the State desires to be the only one worthy of total obedience (cf. Mt 2:1-12). The Church needs faithful marriages and families as “Herod” continues to slaughter more holy innocents (cf. Mt 2:16-18). Families are sources of renewal as they assist each member, especially the young, to enter into communion with Jesus.
Friendship with Jesus Christ should be the very foundation of our spiritual life. We must see Christ in the midst of every aspect of our personal apostolate. According to Francis:
A true missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is that we are handing on; we lack vigor and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody (Evangelii Gaudium, 266).
If our apostolates are bearing little or no fruit, we may need to examine whether or not we have neglected the relationship with our first love. We must never forget that we are sent on a mission to bear the love of Christ to others.
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Jesus Christ has loved us first; this is the fundamental truth that both Benedict and Francis have proclaimed tirelessly for all the faithful to hear. In light of this love, all Christians are called to a missionary vocation. We can no longer think of the Jesuits or the Franciscans as the only people called to missionary work. Francis exhorts the faithful to remember: “I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world. We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bring light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing…once we separate our work from our private lives, everything turns grey and we will always be seeking recognition or asserting our needs” (Evangelii Gaudium, 273). We are called to serve Christ by serving others, but we cannot do this well if we forget about the primacy of the Lord in the midst of our work.
The reform in the Church brought about by the mendicants, Franciscans and the Dominicans, was preceded by the renewal brought about by monasticism (especially the Benedictines).Mendicants and monks were nourished by the Holy Spirit emanating from the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. The style of their reforms differed, but they bore great fruit because they were nourished by deep prayer. Pope Francis gives us a great reminder that was consistently on the heart and mind of his predecessor, God loved us first. And we should constantly be reminded of this where the mission of the “New Evangelization” begins: at home with the family.