By: Deacon Steve Olmstead
Last month I introduced Pope Francis’s book, Joy of the Gospel. The article focused on the Pope’s invitation to all Christians to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ. The joy of the Gospel comes first and foremost through a personal encounter with Jesus. Yet, as vital as this encounter is, it is not, this side of heaven, an end in itself.
Pope Francis maintains that an encounter with Jesus Christ is not meant solely for one’s personal salvation, but is intended to have far more reaching implications. Pope Francis writes, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’” It is this “new horizon” and “decisive direction” which Pope Francis develops throughout the Joy of the Gospel.
According to Pope Francis, this decisive direction takes us beyond ourselves and our self-absorption. It leads us towards a deepening relationship with Jesus and ushers us into a joyful willingness to be involved in the lives of others, especially those who are poor, lost, wounded, disoriented and without hope and meaningful direction. This decisive direction leads all Christians to an awakening of their baptismal identities as disciples of Jesus and calls each of us to a new evangelization marked by joy.
Pope Francis writes, “The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus; we no longer say we are ‘disciples’ and ‘missionaries,’ but rather that we are always ‘missionary disciples’… In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others.”
Fear is a major factor in our hesitation to get involved in the lives of others and share with them the meaning, forgiveness and purpose Jesus Christ and His Church have given to us. Thus, the Pope reminds us that we are called to cooperate with Jesus who leads us by His Spirit. The courage to share about our faith or pray with someone is first a work of God. We are called to a courageous cooperation with the Holy Spirit already at work. “We love because God first loved us.” We get involved with others, because God, in Jesus, deliberately chose to get involved with us – to the point of death, even death on a cross. As we prepare ourselves this Lent for the celebration of Jesus’ decisive direction toward us and the cross, may we be open to a deepening encounter with Jesus and embrace the gift and privilege of being missionary disciples.
This reminds me of a story about a man who approached a little league baseball game one afternoon. He asked a boy in the dugout what the score was. The boy responded, “Eighteen to nothing—we’re behind.” “Boy,” said the spectator, “I’ll bet you’re discouraged.” “Why should I be discouraged?” replied the boy, “We haven’t even gotten up to bat yet!”
In the Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis seeks to encourage, challenge, and with a joyful and decisive direction compel each of us to step up to the plate and start swinging!