Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Spirit of God always gets there first

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Today Pope Francis gave a stunning speech to around 8000 members, families of the Neocatechumenal Way (a million-strong Catholic movement focused on the Christian formation of adults), ahead of their departure for missions across the world. Before he gave them his blessing, he addressed them with words of advice, all of which I highly recommend. Instead of reflecting on his speech in full, I’d like to focus only on a single point he makes, which stopped me in my tracks as I read it, by its beauty, humility and post hoc obviousness :). Here is what Pope Francis presented as his second of (yes, you guessed it) three points1 of advice:
“[W]herever you may go, it would do you well to think that the Spirit of God always gets there ahead of us. The Lord always precedes us! ... Even in the most faraway places, even in the most diverse cultures, God scatters everywhere the seeds of his Word. From here, flows the necessity to give special attention to the cultural context in which you [...] will go to work: it consists of an environment often very different from the one from which you come. Many of you will have to work hard to learn the local language, sometimes it will be difficult, and this effort is appreciated. Even more important will be your commitment to “learn” the culture you will encounter, knowing how to recognize the need of the Gospel, which is present everywhere, but also that action that the Holy Spirit has accomplished in the life and in the history of every people.”
To make the most of the above, let’s also put Pope Francis’ closing remarks during the same address on the table:
“I encourage you to bring everywhere, even in the most de-Christianized environments, especially in the existential peripheries, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Evangelize with love, bring to everyone the love of God. Tell everyone you will meet on the streets of your mission that God loves man as he is, even with his limits, with his mistakes, with his sins. For this, he sent his Son, so that he could take our sins upon himself. Be messengers and witnesses of the infinite goodness and the inexhaustible mercy of the Father.”
What emerges here is a very powerful picture, to my mind, where Francis first points out a consequence of Christian faith that is often overlooked especially when thinking about non-Christian contexts, which is that God is already there even before the first Christian arrives to announce the Good News. A Christian sent to “the most de-Christianized environments” is not the one bringing God to a place from which He is absent! Instead, they need to realize not only that God is already there (to suggest anything else would be heresy), but also that God’s presence brings fruits. A Christian needs to recognize that God is present in a non-Christian culture, that “God scatters everywhere the seeds of his Word.”2 Their reverence for God’s Word then obligates them to recognize also the “action that the Holy Spirit has accomplished in the life and in the history of every people.” The Christian does not arrive as the exclusive bearer of God to a place from where He is lacking, but instead as a fellow recipient of God’s Word. What a different perspective this is from the caricature of proselytism!

The second moment in Pope Francis’ advice that struck me is guidance on the kerygma to be used by the missionaries, where the emphasizes that “God loves man as he is, even with his limits, with his mistakes, with his sins.” God’s love is not conditional, or requiring merit. It is not a “do X, Y and Z and you will become worthy.” Instead, the missionaries are to announce to the people they’ll find at the peripheries of de-Christianized environments that God loves them as they are.

Wow! The mindset Pope Francis offers here is a breath of fresh air.3

As I thought about the above, I realized that I’d be making a mistake though if I thought about Francis’ words as advice that these Neocatechumenal types needed to hear. His words are addressed to me too. I too am often in “de-Christianized environments,” with their own “culture” and I too need to recognize that in those environments too God is natively at work, that I too can look for traces of His presence and His action also in these non-Christian contexts. This does not absolve me from sharing my Christian faith, but it further underlines the fact that I am sharing it with equals - with brothers and sisters.

1 The first point emphasizes the importance of these missionaries being united with the local Churches in the places they are being sent to - a very important point! - and the third - also super important! - is his insisting on the need for missionaries being merciful towards each other and leaving everyone free to change their minds about following the Neocatechumenal Way. Both of these, which in fact mirror some of the criticisms leveled at the Neocatechumenal Way, would be worth reflecting on and I may well return to them in the future.
2 A clear reference to the Ad Gentes Vatican II decree, which makes the same point: “In order that they may be able to bear more fruitful witness to Christ, let [Christians] be joined to those men by esteem and love; let them acknowledge themselves to be members of the group of men among whom they live; let them share in cultural and social life by the various. undertakings and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions; let them gladly and reverently lay bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden among their fellows.” This, in turn is at least a 2nd century AD idea by Justin Martyr ...
3 And, no, I don’t mean to suggest this in contrast to what his predecessors have done. It is more a matter of emphasis and directness of language rather than a change in guidance or dogma. See also footnote 2 ...