A close friend calls you one evening from across the country. He can’t quite explain it; he feels compelled to go to church, despite his lifelong lack of interest or experience in matters of faith. Your mind races:
Will my friend find: – a liturgy alive with full and active participation? – preaching that reaches him? – others who reach out and recognize that he is new? – a personal invitation to engage in strong Christian community? – evidence of lives transformed by the Gospel, manifested in a lifestyle of service?
The Search for Evangelical Life
When a heart is stirred to search for a more meaningful relationship with God, it is a beautiful gift of the Holy Spirit. This type of experience is often referred to as an “evangelical awakening,” and every year it occurs in millions of Catholics. Maybe they begin to feel something is missing in their life; they are anxious or have become weary from carrying the burden of a particular sin. Maybe receiving the Eucharist or going to Confession stirs their heart in a new way. Or maybe they are just sitting in the pew at church and something strikes them and they find in themselves a fresh desire to know and follow God and to be filled with his love and peace.
The Evangelical Gap
Right now, these millions of Catholics are ready for a deeper, more meaningful life in Christ, and many of them will seek out the fellowship and spiritual nourishment they desire in other ecclesial communities. In the past, we as a Church have often attempted to stem this exodus by writing pamphlets warning against the dangers of fundamentalism. While fundamentalist forms of Christianity certainly leave much to be desired, merely issuing warnings has proven to be an inadequate pastoral response, as demonstrated by the millions who leave to find evangelical life year after year…outside of the Catholic Church.
A better response, rather, is to fill in this gap and address the healthy evangelical longings that often attract persons to such groups in the first place. In this way, these millions of Catholics will find what they are seeking within the Church.
The Need for Skilled Laborers
At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.
Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest” ~ Matthew 9:36-37
Consider those millions of Catholics who are ready for a deeper, more fulfilling life in Christ, but who do not really know how to articulate or fulfill the longings in their hearts. They are like those crowds that Jesus looked upon in his day, “like sheep without a shepherd.” Consider also how today’s Catholics, like the crowds flocking to hear Jesus’ words, are at the very same time an abundant harvest that could be brought in if only there were more workers! These people come to mass Sunday after Sunday because they know that there is something real and powerful there—they just need skilled laborers who can recognize their longings and provide the help they need to fulfill them.
Most anyone is capable of learning basic and effective evangelical methods of ministry: those who experience conversion can learn how to articulate their story and a loving invitation into Christ’s life (missionary proclamation). Those who are growing in discipleship can learn how to help others to grow in discipleship (initiatory catechesis). In fact, parishioners who have a recent experience of spiritual renewal will understand and often have a strong desire to help others who have not yet had this experience. Providing them with training enables them to do this in healthy, effective ways.
A community engaged in evangelizing, establishing, and equipping its members becomes a vibrant center of renewal. Together, its members grow in love and virtue, challenging, serving and praying for one another. They grow in love and knowledge of the Sacred Scriptures and cherish the privilege they have of partaking together of the Body and Blood of the Lord. The community is unified by a harmony of spirit and bond of love that is Christ himself. Such a community beckons to others to come and be a part of it, soon closing the evangelical gap.