Sharing a precious gift

The Good News is a gift for all

“The Church exists in order to evangelise.” So wrote Pope Paul VI, almost 40 years ago. Occasionally, it can be hard to escape the impression that evangelisation is considered to be a kind of remedial work that must be undertaken with urgency, now that the Church has fallen on hard times. Evangelisation, however, is not the means of getting people into the Church; rather, the Church is the means of evangelisation.

A slightly more subtle misunderstanding is the idea that evangelisation – the New Evangelisation in particular – is an activity aimed at the ‘great unwashed’, at those who have carelessly slipped away from their Christian moorings. In this view, there is something inherently judgmental about the attempt to evangelise. Those who presume that people need to be evangelised are considered to be, well, presumptuous.

But here, again, Paul VI comes to our aid by reminding us that the Church “begins by being evangelised herself,” and that “she has a constant need of being evangelised.” What is at issue is not the passing of judgment, but the conviction that the good news of Christ is a gift for all, and that those who wish to share this gift need, themselves, to have received it first. If evangelisation is indeed “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread,” the first beggar needs to have found bread to begin with!

Not a lifebelt for a floundering Church; not a passing of judgment on many by a few; but the offering of a gift, an offering which is the essential task of the Church. These observations on evangelisation have a distinct relevance to the Church in Ireland: it’s hardly alarmist to suggest that we are floundering, and a preaching and teaching that leans too heavily on judgment has clearly failed. At this point in our collective pilgrimage, we urgently need to become clear regarding the nature and convinced regarding the necessity of evangelisation.

The conviction that evangelisation is the sharing of a gift requires a proper understanding of our faith. Christian faith is not a series of ethical prohibitions and demands; it is an encounter with Christ. Ethics and morality are downstream from this encounter. Christians do not learn Christ through obedience: it is Christ who teaches us how to live.


Who will proclaim the Word to us?

Fr Brendan Hoban’s recent, thought-provoking book on the shortage of priests in Ireland was entitled Who Will Break the Bread for Us? I think that an even more fundamental question is ‘Who will proclaim the Word to us?’ While it can be a bit clichéd to observe that the Irish Church is “more sacramentalised than evangelised”, like many a cliché, this one has a large grain of truth. If morality is a response to the encounter with Christ, the same is true of the sacraments: it is in the sacraments that we give living expression to our faith in the Christ whom we have encountered. Certainly, the encounter continues and deepens by means of the sacraments, but without real evangelisation, it is hard for the sacraments to be the living expression of a lively faith.

The weekly Eucharist has been abandoned by the majority of believers. Does one abandon what is felt and seen to be life-giving? I am not suggesting that as things stand, our Masses are uniformly arid and lifeless. But I would dare to suggest that in Ireland, we have placed a wrong emphasis on the Mass. For decades, we managed to delude ourselves that our spectacularly high rate of Mass attendance was a dependable measure of the strength of faith. This confidence has proven to be unfounded, and in many ways, Irish Catholicism has shown itself to be a broad but shallow lake. Shallow authoritarianism has substituted for depth of thought; shallow conformism has substituted for depth of conviction.


Where to from here?

Evangelisation is the bread and butter of the Church, but a more intensive effort at evangelisation, an evangelising Marshall Plan, is currently needed. The pastoral ramifications might be likened to the need to defend coastal areas against storms and tidal surges. The normal routine of a town or village does not consist of the construction of flood defenses, but a massive – and significantly disruptive – effort may be needed just so that the normal routine may continue. To borrow the language of another theological cliché, the Irish Church may need a significant shift in focus, from maintenance to mission.

Up to now, the main concern has been the maintenance of the sacramental life of the Church in Ireland. Could it be that the time has arrived for a disruptive diversion of resources, not so much to block the flood as to stanch the haemorrhage?