28 years ago today, a Cardinal from a far away land, a Cardinal named Karol Wojtyla, was elected Pope John Paul II, and proclaimed to the world: “Be not afraid. Be not afraid to open the doors to Christ.” And the rest they say is history.
But it is a history that began long before 1978, it begins millennia ago, it roots are found in this gospel passage we have just heard with Jesus sending those 72 disciples ahead of him – with nothing, no gold or silver or extra tunic; – with nothing but the gospel.. We see it expressed in today’s first reading when St. Paul passes the baton, as it were, to his disciple, Timothy, charging him in the name of Christ to proclaim the Word, to be persistent, to convince, to reprimand, and to encourage through all patience and teachings. He tells him to do this by being self-possessed in all circumstance, by putting up with hardship, by performing the work of an evangelist. He tells him simply: fulfill your ministry.
Quite a job description and quite a list of expectations! But before you express a sigh of relief thinking: better Timothy than me; let me be the one to remind you, as Bishop of this local Church, you are my “Timothies”. And, like St. Paul to Timothy, I exhort you: fulfill your ministry.
Your work, or better yet, your vocation as teachers, is a ministry – and it is one that has all the demands that Paul on Timothy – proclaim the Word, with persistence, convince, reprimand, encourage; it is a ministry that brings all the expectations that Paul had of Timothy – you will be self-possessed in all circumstance, you will put up with hardship, you will perform the work of an evangelist. Did I say that John Paul II began his pontificate with the words: Be not afraid?
Very important words to remember. In fact, some scripture scholars say that they have identified 365 verses in the Bible where God or one of his mensagers says to someone or the other: Be not afraid. A verse for everyday of the year.
Now, don’t think that by telling you “Be not afraid”, we don’t recognize the difficulty of the task, of this ministry, with which you have been entrusted. While hopefully, the schools of our Diocese of Orlando cannot be described as “blackboard jungles”, given the enormity of the challenges of Catholic education today, you could say that– as Jesus said of those 72 disciples – you are being sent as sheep among wolves. And what does Jesus give them as he sends them off – no money bag, no sack, no sandals – just the gospel message itself, and his trust. Jesus has a sense of urgency about him, in this gospel reading. It doesn’t seem as if he has all the time in the world. He must depend on the various talents of his followers; he must depend on their understanding and their resolve to get it right. (Perhaps if we were in charge of that first outing, the 72 would still be waiting to graduate?)
And, the task before us today is no less urgent. That is why 18 months ago, I convoked the first general synod of our Diocese with the theme, “Starting afresh from Christ”. The purpose of the synod was not just to develop new projects or new programs – but to initiate a pastoral revitalization of our parishes, schools and our diocesan institutions. The Synod was to help us to, more effectively and more coherently, in other words, more fruitfully, proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ and thus to fulfill our ministry. In Novo Millenio Ineunte, one of the basic guides for our Synod reflections, Pope John Paul II reminded us the program already exists – it is the gospel, the same gospel that those 72 carried to the towns and villages of Judea.
Last month Pope Benedict visited his homeland. Let me quote the Pope – and this quotation is not of the Pope quoted some Byzantine emperor. He said: I came to Germany, to Bavaria, to re-propose the eternal truths of the gospel as present day truths and strength, and to strengthen believers in their adherence to Christ, the Son of God who became man for our salvation.” The pope continues: “I am convinced, in the faith, that in Him, in his word, is found the way not only to attain eternal happiness, but also to build already a future worthy of man upon this earth”.
In other words, we are not saved by programs but by a person, namely Jesus Christ; and, he is the same, yesterday, today and forever. The hoped for fruit of our Synod – through the implementations of its many recommendations, including those related to Catholic education and Catholic schools- is to help all of us, priests, deacons, religious and members of Christ’s faithful, to become more Alive in Christ – so that we can be his witnesses, witnesses to hope, to a hope that because it is centered in Christ will not disappoint.
The crisis of our times can be described as a crisis of hope. Many people – in our communities, in our nation, in our world, are angry, many people are fearful, too many others are despairing. The social problems of our age betray this hopelessness – can we not say that drug abuse, promiscuity, divorce and the breakup of the family, abortion, are all symptomatic of a lost of hope. A person who would poison himself through drug abuse is someone who has no hope for himself. A mother would will kill the fruit of her womb has lost hope in the future – for children are the hope of the future. The exclusion of God promoted in the ideologies of the past century – whether of the collectivist bent of communism or of the individualist bent of consumerism – were hopeless. All point to a loss of the sense of transcendence – to the fact that we are call to something more than this life, that we were made for more than just to die. This what hope calls us to. Even the abuse and manipulation of religion as we see among the terrorist reveals the despair of a world that has forgotten its proper relationship to its Creator.
In yesterday’s gospel, which you all heard when you attended Mass this weekend, Jesus speaks of the dangers of an excessive attachment to money and material goods. The worship of mammon like all idolatry not only blasphemes God it also debases man – for it values the human person not for who he is, created in the image and likeness of God but for what he has or what he can do. There is a sinister inversion of values: faith, hope and charity are no longer placed in God but in money. The lesson that the world teaches our kids is simply: “Everything is possible for the one who has money.”
More than ever, the Church – and that means all of you who as teachers share in my ministry as much as Timothy shared in Paul’s ministry, as much as those 72 disciples shared in Jesus’ ministry– all of you, all of us, must teach the gospel faith: “Nothing is impossible for God,” says Scripture, and also: “Everything is possible for the one who believes”.
28 years later, “Be not afraid”, seems to be pretty good advice. And, last year, Pope Benedict XVI began his pontificate echoing these same words and, as seen in his recent visit to Poland just this past May, to this theme of John Paul II’s pontificate, he offers an additional Scriptural citation, that may well prove to be the theme of his own still young pontificate: “Be strong in faith”.
St. Paul tells Timothy: fulfill your ministry, and that charge is given to us today – as we try to live out the implications of our own baptismal call to holiness. A lot of trust is given to you as teachers – by parents, by your pastors, by this bishop – and by your Lord. You will not betray that trust if you remain “unafraid” and “strong in faith”. A compromised Catholicism, justified on grounds of expediency, ultimately proves ineffectual even on its own terms of success, Pope Benedict recently told the bishops of Austria. “Perhaps those who are responsible for the proclamation of the gospel”, he added in a not too subtle rebuke of his listeners, “ Perhaps, they are afraid that people may draw back if they speak too clearly. However, experience in general demonstrates that it is precisely the opposite that happens. Don’t deceive yourselves! Catholic teaching offered in an incomplete manner is a contradiction of itself and cannot be fruitful in the long term”.
28 years ago, John Paul II captured the imagination of the world, with his fearless confidence and he earned the love of young people because he trusted them despite the problems and weaknesses that characterize them in contemporary society. He was convinced that young people, whatever their possible ambiguities, have a profound longing for those genuine values which find their fullness in Christ.
And in Novo Millennio Ineunte, he reminded all of us who work with the young: “Is not Christ the secret of true freedom and profound joy of heart? Is not Christ the supreme friend and the teacher of all genuine friendship? If Christ is presented to young people as he really is, they experience him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept his message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the Cross.”He never hesitated to ask young people to make a radical choice of faith and life. And, if we are to answer the charge given to us: Fulfill your ministry, we cannot fail to do likewise. “Be not afraid!” “Be strong in faith.”