The Prodigal Son and the New Evangelization

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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: Sept. 11-12, 2010
Exod 32:7-11, 13-14; Ps 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32

There are so many in our world who have lost their way and are far from God. And how will we respond?

This is a question that is posed to several in our readings today. In the first reading it seems that the Lord is testing Moses by saying to him that he intends to destroy the People of Israel, there in the desert, for having turned to an idol—and to instead raise up Moses and make a great nation of him. And what will Moses say to that? And Moses certainly passes the test, because he does not say, “Oh yes, make a great nation of me.” No, he says: show mercy and compassion to your people, even though they have done this thing. Moses passed the test of how he responded to his people being lost.

When we come to the Gospel, we find that the Pharisees and the scribes were objecting to Jesus being in contact with those who were lost. The Pharisees and the scribes did not pass that test. And our Lord proceeded to tell three parables in an effort to move their hearts, and ours, so that we might love the lost as deeply and strongly as our Lord himself loves them.

Just several weeks from now, we will hear our Lord say in the Gospel of Luke: “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” [Luke 19:10] For Jesus knew that the whole world was lost and very much in need of a Savior. And so he lowered himself to become incarnate as man, and then lowered himself still further to a death on the cross—so much did he want to seek and to save those who were lost. And this same mission, this same mandate, he has given to his mystical Body, his Bride, the Church—to each one of us—as he said, just as he was about to ascend into heaven: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” [Mark 16:15]

And for 2000 years the Church has done just this. We call it “evangelization”—which comes from that original Greek word for Gospel, which is euangelion, which then became the Latin evangelium. And evangelization is simply to bring the evangelium, Jesus and his Good News, his Gospel, to the lost—to people who need to be found, and to be drawn back to his heart. To bring the Gospel to the lost is the mission of evangelization.

And this has involved, through all of these centuries, courageous Catholics traveling to lands they have never seen, to people they have never met, to learn languages that they don’t know yet. This parish, St. Mary’s of Piscataway, dates its earliest beginnings to 1640, when the chief of the Piscataway tribe was baptized, along with his family and many of his tribe, by Father Andrew White—who had come to the wilds of Maryland on the Ark and the Dove only 6 years earlier. Our parish is heir in this way to Fr. White’s love and courage in evangelization. And indeed every people—whichever each of us may be descended from—at some time they, or even we ourselves personally, heard that Gospel message for the first time because someone had the courage and the love to come and bring it to us or to our ancestors.

Now this word “evangelization” might ring a little strangely in some people’s ears today. They might think: it doesn’t like a very Catholic thing to do; or at least, it’s not one of those things that we do since the Second Vatican Council. Well, anyone who thinks something like that needs to realize that the truth is quite to the contrary! The Second Vatican Council, in its very first document, laid out the four main goals that it was seeking to achieve; and one of those goals was to evangelize the world more effectively! [Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1] And in that Council’s document on the Church, it said that not only was evangelization a solemn mandate upon the whole Church; but that every disciple of Christ—every single disciple of Christ—has that obligation, according to his or her state of life. [Lumen Gentium, 17]

Now in the United States and much of the Western world today, our obligation to evangelize takes on a special form: what Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have called “the New Evangelization.” And just 3 days ago, on Thursday, Archbishop Wuerl released a Pastoral Letter on the New Evangelization. [Links to English PDF, English FlipBook, Spanish PDF, Spanish FlipBook]

So what is it that’s new about the New Evangelization—if we have been carrying out evangelization all these centuries? Well, the difference is that, whereas evangelization has so often involved proclaiming the Gospel to people who have never heard of Jesus before—the New Evangelization involves proclaiming him to people who have heard of him before, but who now “have drifted away from the practice of the faith.” As Pope Benedict said, they live

in the countries where the first proclamation of the faith has already resonated and where churches [already] exist but [now] are experiencing the progressive secularization of society and a sort of “eclipse of the sense of God”

The number of the “lost sons and daughters” today is very high. A recent Pew Forum showed that “approximately 1/3 of their survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic.” Or to view that from a different angle: if we look at all Americans, 10% are former Catholics. That’s a lot of lost sons and daughters! But, honestly, that doesn’t surprise us, does it? Because we already know that something like that is true, just from our experience. As Archbishop Wuerl writes, “All of us … in every walk of life … know those who have drifted away from the practice of the faith.” Like the younger son in Jesus’ third parable today, they started out in the Father’s house; but somehow they have gotten lost, and they are now far from home.

We heard three parables from Jesus today, all involving something that was lost and needed to be found: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Now, in the first one, the shepherd searches for the lost sheep, and finds it, and brings it home with great joy. In the second, a woman searches carefully for the lost coin, and finds it, and calls her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. And in the third, the younger son loses his way, and who searches for him? No one. No one searches for the younger son in the third parable. Now, thankfully, Jesus says in the story that he came to his senses as he was suffering from poverty, starvation, and a humiliating job, and he found his own way back home. But we may well ask: why didn’t someone search for him? Why didn’t his older brother go out to find him, and to remind him of how good things were in the father’s house, and to assure him of the warm and loving welcome that the father would give him if he would only return back home? Why didn’t the older brother go to search for the lost son?

Although the older brother did not do this in Jesus’ parable, we can. Archbishop Wuerl writes in his letter:

We can help people we know, neighbors, coworkers, even, in some cases, family members, [to] hear the good news all over again, this time [as if] for the first time.

He says we can repropose—this word that Pope Benedict has used—we can “repropose [to them] the perennial truth of Christ’s Gospel.” And in this way, the archbishop tells us, we can

stir up again and rekindle, in the midst of their daily life and [their own] situation, a new awareness [of Jesus; a new] familiarity with Jesus. [We can] adapt our approach so as to attract [them] and urge [them] to find again [that] uncomplicated, genuine and tangible treasure of friendship with Jesus.

And that is the second new thing about the New Evangelization. Because, if the first new thing is that those who need to hear the message are different, then that means that the methods we need to use may be different, than if we were bringing the Good News to people who had never heard of Jesus before.

So what kinds of methods might we use? How is it, in our daily lives, that we can go about “reproposing” the Gospel to our lost brothers and sisters? To give some examples of how this may look, Archbishop Wuerl writes:

At the individual level this action may be through a deepening of our own personal faith as well as outreach to others:

  • [having] a direct conversation [with them] about Catholicism,
  • extending an invitation [to them to come] to Mass,
  • or providing simple witnesses such as

    • blessing ourselves before a meal in a restaurant,
    • offering to pray for someone in need,
    • keeping a devotional item—[perhaps something like a holy card or a small statue]—on our desk at work
    • or wearing a crucifix for others to see.

[bulleting mine]

Now Archbishop Wuerl in his pastoral letter also writes about ways in which the parish and the diocese can carry out the New Evangelization. And I won’t talk about those today: you can read the pastoral letter for yourself.

But let’s go back to a question I asked a moment ago: in Jesus’ parable, why didn’t the older brother go to seek out his lost younger brother, to invite him back home? Now of course we heard the answer. For by the end of the parable we find out the older brother doesn’t really know the father. Even though he has lived in the father’s house all these years, he doesn’t know the father’s love; he doesn’t know the father’s compassion; he doesn’t feel appreciated; he feels angry. He would never have wanted to find the younger brother; and, if he had, he wouldn’t have really had anything to say to him.

And that is why, in order to participate in Jesus’ mandate to seek and to save the lost, first, Archbishop Wuerl says we must deepen our own personal faith. We have to truly know the “Person, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There can be nothing fake about our proclamation of the message. We need to know him first; and then there can be a genuineness and a realness when we invite others to know him as well. We need to love him. We need to “rely first and always on Jesus.” We need to have a true “excitement of our experience of the Lord.”

And when our faith is deep and alive within us, then, the Archbishop tells us, the Holy Spirit “will provide us openings, [will] coax us to initiate the invitation … to speak about our Catholic faith … to reach out … with a smile and a friendly welcome.”

And so our Archbishop calls upon us, in a new way, to follow that invitation and call of our Lord to us, to engage in the New Evangelization, to reach out to those who are lost. Christ said, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” And he says to us: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.”

And what will come from this faithfulness on our part? We hear it in the words of that joyful father in Jesus’ parable: “We must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

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