The Acts of the Apostles is read each year during the Easter Season. Today’s first reading is taken from it and it began with these words: “The Word of God continued to spread and grow.” Very simply, these words describe the effectiveness of the Holy Spirit as He began to work within the Church from her very beginnings – in that upper room where the apostles and those gathered with them, in the presence of Mary, the Holy Spirit first came upon them in tongues of fire.
“The Word of God continued to spread and grow.” These words while situated within the context of a particular chapter and verse of a particular book of the New Testament –because of that same Holy Spirit – stretch across the centuries and across the continents to describe not only ancient history but also present reality. And as the Word of God continued to spread and grow, so did the Church. The Church of God continued to spread and grow – and continues to do so thanks to the Spirit filled work of Christ’s faithful. Today, once again, I thank you for all that you do in the various pastoral ministries represented here to assure the continued spreading and growth of the Church – in this place and at this time. As we hear the Word of God proclaimed, especially during this season of Easter, when in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear of how the gospel took root and flourished in its beginnings, we must see what we do in our witness to the gospel as being in continuity with those beginnings.
Realizing that what we do is in continuity with a long tradition, one that is ultimately guided and directed by the Holy Spirit, can help us maintain a healthy perspective as we in our turn today seek to respond to the Lord’s Great Commission to be his witnesses to the entire world. Without that perspective we risk perhaps forgetting that what we do – after all – is the Lord’s work, not our own.
Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est: “In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: ‘The love of Christ urges us on’ (2 Cor 5: 14). #35 Deus Caritas Est.
This humility is what must characterize the interior disposition of anyone, of everyone who is entrusted with any pastoral ministry in the Church. For without it, our ministry can stray in one wrong direction or another. We might for example give in to the temptation to take charge, in other words, to seize the reins from God’s hand, and instead of letting God do it his way – and our accepting to it God’s way -, we insist on doing it our way. Or we go to the other extreme and give in to a certain inertia in which we explain away our mediocre response to the challenges presented to us in our ministry by saying – it doesn’t make any difference anyway.
In your ministries, you often deal with people who for one reason of another are “not with the program”. Didn’t somebody say once that life is messy? And faced with the messiness of people’s lives, we can sometimes be tempted to sell the gospel short. But in doing so, we sell the people short. Jesus’ words in the gospel today are serious – and should be taken seriously. He did not come into the world to condemn anyone – he came to save all – but that salvation means accepting the word of the Father.
In the gospel, Jesus says: I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. So what I say, I say as the Father told me.”
As pastoral ministers, we can do no less. We don’t speak in our own name, we represent the Church – and while it is a popular mantra to say, “We are the Church”, it is not our Church, it is Christ’s Church. We will not grow the Church with a “false compassion”, nor with the Church spread by the preaching of a “cheap grace”.
Now, don’t misunderstand me – I did not say that your ministries, or any particular ministry represented here today, have strayed. I am just saying that without that humility that Pope Benedict spoke about we all can stray. We will most certainly stray. And so that we do not stray, Pope Benedict in that beautiful encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, offers as the only antidote: a living relationship with Christ – a relationship that is nurtured and strengthened in prayer.
When I made a cursillo in my seminary days, we were told: antes de hablar de Dios a los hombres, hay que hablar de los hombres a Dios. (I made my cursillo in Spanish). It translates: Before speaking about God to men, once must speak about men to God. Prayer can give us serenity even when dealing with the messiness of our lives – or the lives of the people we minister to. Prayer reminds us to “Let go and let God”. The diocese and the parish can offer you seminars and various types of trainings to help you with some of the “mechanics” of the pastoral ministries you are engaged in. And we all should strive to learn to do what we do better. All this is very necessary. But only prayer will offer you the “soul” of all pastoral ministries. Only prayer will keep you humble.
Without prayer, our apostolic works and ministries become just activism – not distinguishable from the good works that some secular organizations do. Without prayer, ministry loses its soul – and it becomes sterile incapable of “spreading and growing” the Church because without prayer it is no longer rooted in the Word.
For many years now, we have been grappling with the great challenge of our time – secularization. Again, Pope Benedict has given us a succinct definition of what secularization is. He calls it a “way of living and presenting the world ‘si Deus non daretur’, as if God did not exist. God is reduced to the private sphere –not an objective reality outside of ourselves and above ourselves, but only a sentiment.
Such a world is a dark, foreboding world – a world in which man exists only to die.
It is precisely to such a world that Christ came.
We heard in the gospel today:
Jesus cried out and said,
“Whoever believes in me believes not only in me
but also in the one who sent me,
and whoever sees me sees the one who sent me.
I came into the world as light,
so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.
The goal of all pastoral ministries is to make God present again in society, in the day to day life of the people we serve.
And of course, to do this, God must be present once in again in our lives. “Starting afresh from Christ” isn’t just a catchy title for our synod. It has to be the Spirit guided purpose of all that we do as Christ’s faithful so that as she has done from apostolic times the Church of God will continue “to spread and grow”.