Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 23/24, 2017
I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you as your bishop at a time of transformation, but also of grace and new possibilities in our Archdiocese of Hartford. The Church today talks a lot about evangelization. The word evangelization strikes many Catholics as a protestant word, but the truth is that every baptized person is called to be an evangelizer.
Evangelization comes from the Greek and Latin word for Gospel. Evangelization simply means that as believers we live in such a way that people will see that the practice of our faith is important to us, that it makes a positive difference in our lives, that it guides us through life’s deepest questions and aspirations. And in this way, through us, through our faith, other people are drawn to Christ, to His Gospel, to His Body and Bride, the Church.
Does your life and mine do this for other people? Do we really care? Do we feel any responsibility for bringing people Christ and His Church? We all know that this is not an easy time for religion and the practice of the faith. New England is now one of the most secular regions in the country. Research indicates that Hartford—New Haven has the distinction of being 6th among the 10 most post-Christian cities in America.
There is a troubling rise everywhere in the “nones,” that is to say young people in particular, who when asked about their religion, simply answer “none.” In our Archdiocese alone, over the last half-century, there has been a 27% decrease in the Catholic population and a 69% drop in average Sunday Mass attendance.
The good news is that this decline is not happening everywhere in our country. Far from it. And by the grace of the Holy Spirit many good initiatives are arising to meet the challenges we face. In July, with 25 invited laity, religious and clergy of our Archdiocese, I attended a National Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando. We left encouraged, and eager to do something here in our Archdiocese to reinvigorate Catholic life and the practice of the faith.
One of the rallying cries of evangelization is “from maintenance to mission.” Instead of trying to maintain the leaky ship afloat near the safety of the shore, we need to do what Pope St. John Paul urged at the millennium.
Quoting our Lord in the Gospel of Luke, the late great Pope said, in Latin, “duc in altum,” that is, “put out in the deep.” When the Apostles ventured out they saw their fishing nets go from practically empty to overflowing. “From maintenance to mission,” we too have to quit hugging the shore and be bold like the Apostles. We too have to go out with faith to make a catch for Christ from among those who say that they were “raised Catholic” (I hear that a lot) but do not practice. Or young people who say “none” when asked about religion. Or the many people who are living empty lives amid material things and are hurting badly for lack of real communion with Christ in the family of faith.
The catch phrase these days is, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” But that’s what the devil says and he’s right about that. Christ is the only answer to life, and his saving grace is to be found in the family of faith that is His Church.
I am happy to say that some boats in the Archdiocese are already venturing out further into the deep from our comfortable shores. An example: during the past few months, many of our Hispanic parishioners have been taking part in what is called Encuentro, a nation-wide evangelizing initiative of the U.S. Bishops. After having learned something about evangelization and after gaining confidence, parishioners in New Britain reached out to people they encounter casually in daily life. Conversation with the young man at the carwash, the housewife at the laundromat, and the cashier at the grocery store eventually led to conversation about their personal and family concerns and their practice of the faith. And what is the result: an invitation to these individuals to come to Church. These courageous parishioners then experienced the joy of meeting the newcomers at the church door and welcoming them to Sunday Mass.
If there is a lesson to be learned here it is the importance of another great theme of the Orlando convocation; namely, the importance of welcoming people to our parish communities—not just a passing hello and a smile, but a welcome that draws newcomers into the life of the parish, not as outsiders who may rock the boat, but as potential active full members who can move the boat forward. And it is sad but necessary to say that welcoming in the name of Christ cannot be tainted by prejudices based on race or ethnicity, especially in communities where changing demographics present a whole new reality with new needs, obligations and opportunities for living the Gospel.
With the reconfiguration of parishes in our Archdiocese, a warm welcome also applies to former parishioners of parishes now closed or merged. If a new parish with a new name comes together with everyone as equals—no winners and losers—then new energy, creativity and growth is possible. I am happy to say that I have heard and read about many places where this is happening, thanks be to God. But some parishes have a way to go to reach a happy outcome, and we all need to work and pray for that.
What Jesus said to the first Apostles applies to all believers until the end of time: “you are my witnesses.” That is why at the end of every Mass we are told to “go,” not because Mass is over—that’s obvious—but because if we have really understood God’s Word and the Holy Eucharist, we will leave Mass with what Pope Francis calls “the joy of the Gospel,” a joy that is meant to be shared.
Isn’t it enough to do works of charity, you may ask, to help the needy? That is essential, but I ask you, “Who is more needy, the person without material things or the person without real religious faith? Do we think we truly love our neighbor only by giving people food, clothing and shelter for this world, without also sharing with them in some personal, appropriate and meaningful way our faith in Christ, for the sake of their salvation and the world to come?”
We are the workers in the vineyard of today’s Gospel. And there’s no point looking over our shoulder and making resentful comparisons with others, grumbling, as the Gospel says, and complaining about how things are, and why God doesn’t do something about it. As a bishop I would have plenty of reasons to ask God that question these days! But “my thoughts are not your thoughts nor are your ways my ways,” God says through the Prophet Isaiah.
We all need to imitate St. Paul in our second reading, who even though he was eager to get to Heaven himself, did not refuse to keep working here on earth “in season and out of season” amid many trials and tribulations, for the salvation of others. Because of what he and other evangelizers did over the centuries, you and I are Catholics today, so that we and succeeding generations might know the joy of the Gospel.
It is a joy, Pope Francis says, that “fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus, of those who accept His offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. For with Christ joy is constantly born anew.”