An Urgent Reminder for a Missionary Church
The Archbishop of Denver's powerful exhortation to his flock has relevance for all American Catholics as we rush toward the Great Jubilee Year
BY Charles Chaput OFM Cap.
January 18-24, 1998 Issue | Posted 1/18/98 at 2:00 PM
The shepherds of the Judean hills were rough and simple men. But perhaps only in their simplicity could they hear the message which drove them urgently toward Bethlehem. They received the words of the angel with joy—and without fear. They acted on the revelation of God with faith, and that faith led them to Mary and Joseph and the child. When they had found him, they understood, and they made known the message they had been told about this child. And all who heard them were amazed.
Today, in our lifetimes, we must hurry in the footsteps of these shepherds. We should beg God for the grace to be amazed and astonished as we draw close to the manger, because the truth of this child is beyond anything we could hope for, or expect. We should beg God for the grace to be simple and pure of heart, as they were; to radiate the excitement and joy of their discovery, as they did. Let us behold the Messiah. Let us adore him. Let us be overcome with amazement and go in haste to make known to the whole world all that has been revealed to us about this child.
Ponder what he has done for us. He frees us from the slavery of sin and the fear of death. He comforts us. He encourages us. He teaches us. He walks with us in our sufferings. He fills us with hope. He offers us life—eternal life— free, without charge or obligation. Far from violating our freedom, he restores it, dignifies it with his own incarnate holiness, and then adds immeasurably to it with his victory over death on our behalf, won by dying for our sins on the cross and then rising from the grave. He gives us his Spirit, who breathes new life into our hearts and enables us to love one another— even our enemies and persecutors—as he loves us.
Let us go over to Bethlehem to see this child. And then let us proclaim him to the world.
Stranger in a Strange Land
The beauty of these Gospel passages from Luke, announced at Midnight Mass and Christmas Mass at Dawn, fills me with joy and a tremendous trust in God's love for all of us. Each of us can say with Mary that, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Lk 1:49). I thank God every day, but on this Christmas Eve especially, that he sent his only son for me and for you, whom I treasure as my family in faith. It is easy to understand why God loves the people of northern Colorado, and the clergy and women and men religious who serve them. I arrived here in April as a “stranger in a strange land”; but you welcomed me as a brother, encouraged me, surrounded me with generosity, humor, good counsel and support, and took me into your hearts. Now you are also in my heart, and at the center of my daily thoughts, work and prayer. What a grace it is— unexpected; overwhelming at first; but now such a blessing for me—that God called me to be your servant.
A ‘Good Loneliness’ in Rome
Brothers and sisters, the weeks I spent in Rome this fall for the Holy Father's Special Assembly for America taught me a great deal. It was a time of “good loneliness.” In my eagerness to be back home in Colorado among you, I reflected often and deeply on how much good work has already been accomplished by the Church in northern Colorado, and how many outstanding people in our parishes work selflessly for the Gospel. I also thought and prayed about the very many things that remain to be done—and how pressingly we need to do them.
But in working with my brother bishops and the Holy Father, and in walking the streets of Rome, so rich in the witness of centuries of martyrs and saints, I came again and again to the simple truth that what we are called to accomplish first and foremost is not projects or plans or programs, but the preaching of Jesus Christ, in season and out of season. If we do that well, everything else will follow, for the Church Jesus founded on the first apostles is a missionary Church. Without each of us responding to Christ's call to be evangelizers, the Church loses her identity. Where the Church ceases to be missionary, she ceases to be herself.
Missionary, Not Executive
I return from Rome absolutely convinced that the Church must dedicate the fullness of her resources to a new evangelization (cf. Redemptoris Missio, 3). This means all my resources as archbishop, all the resources of the pastoral center and its staff, and the full commitment of our parishes, our schools and all the faithful. My task as bishop is not primarily to be a manager or an executive—though sound stewardship of our resources is obviously vital—but a pastor and a missionary. So too, the people, clergy and religious of our local Church share the missionary task Jesus gave us all, to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). If we love him, we must share him with others—compellingly, persuasively, with all our ingenuity and passion.
That is because the good news of Jesus Christ is decisive: Souls depend on it; all creation depends on it. Jesus alone, and no other, is the answer to humankind's longing for God. His Gospel must be announced, heard, received in faith and retold. It is meant for all people; in fact, evangelization is the sign of a living faith. It is never completed. And all of us—including bishops; and perhaps sometimes especially bishops—have an ongoing need to hear the Good News.
In Rome, many of my brother bishops voiced this same hunger to recover a radical missionary zeal within the Church. By “radical,” I mean oriented toward the root, for the times in which we live leave no room for the lukewarm. Zeal cannot be delegated. But it can be shared, and when shared, it multiplies like a spreading fire. This is God's will for his Church in every time and place, and especially today on the threshold of the third Christian millennium. This is God's will for me as archbishop, and God's will for all who are baptized. Radical missionary zeal is the fruit of conversion, a gift of the Holy Spirit. Let us take to heart the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Likewise, on the first Pentecost, Peter said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2:38).
Handbook: The Bible
This passionate missionary zeal must be at the core of our life in Christ. All of our pastoral plans and activities, every budget, every hiring decision, indeed every one of our institutional structures, must be reviewed and revised in light of this primary mission of the Church. Our handbook for mission effectiveness is not modern organizational theory, valuable as that may be. Rather, it is the Word of God.
If we sincerely wish to prepare the Church for the third millennium, we should turn first to the Acts of the Apostles. That is what we must become again.
As I write this pastoral letter, the Church has begun her second year of immediate preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, as outlined in the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II, As the Third Millennium Draws Near (Tertio Millennio Adveniente)….
Jubilee is not merely a calendar date. It is much more than that. It is a holy year of conversion, forgiveness and renewal rooted in Hebrew Scripture and celebrated by the Church throughout her history—but never more urgently or significantly than in 2000. Jubilee is the manifestation and celebration of joy which God pours into the hearts of those who believe the Good News and trust his promises. It is a joy to be shared by all people and with every nation. It is the joy which filled John the Baptist in the womb of his mother, Elizabeth; the joy of Mary's heart as she sang her Magnificat; the joy the shepherds experienced as they beheld the child in the manger and told everyone of the angel's message; the joy of Simeon as he encountered the child who fulfills God's promise of salvation. It is the joy of the man blind from birth who receives his sight from Jesus; the joy of Mary Magdalen meeting her Rabboni in the garden of the resurrection; and the joy of the travelers on the road to Emmaus who recognize the Risen Lord in the breaking of the bread.
Jubilee is Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and the Return of the Lord in Glory. Jubilee is Eucharist—the fullness of Word and sacrament, worship in Spirit and in truth….
It is my hope that in addition to pilgrimages and gatherings of Jubilee celebration [within the archdicoese], various lectures, seminars and courses of study on critical documents of Vatican II, the work of Pope John Paul II, and other materials relevant to the Jubilee will be made available to the general public.
But our Jubilee preparations will neither succeed nor fail at the archdiocesan level. They can only bear fruit if they are lived by our people, clergy and Religious at the parish level. Therefore, in whatever we do to answer the Holy Father's call—no matter how elaborate or simple—we must never misunderstand our Jubilee preparations as just another program or another pastoral burden. The new millennium should be a new encounter with the person of Jesus Christ; it is he whose birth it marks.
In that light, I ask pastors of the archdiocese to open their parishes to all which the Holy Spirit desires. New ecclesial movements and charisms are works of the Holy Spirit and signs of Jubilee; it is my hope that pastors will welcome these groups and movements so that our people, families and parishes may blaze with the fire of the new evangelization.
Radical missionary zeal is radical availability to the Holy Spirit. This is the foundation of Jubilee. This is the faith and witness of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the New Advent. She is the perfect disciple, the model of every virtue. She is our guide star to the Jubilee….
Excerpted from a pastoral letter issued Dec. 24, 1997, Vigil of the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord.
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