By Patrick Schmadeke – Evangelization in the world today column
As we were walking into church on Sunday morning, our 5-year-old decided to watch Mass on the television from the comfy chairs in the atrium. Some such decisions come quickly and definitively from him these days, and so he did not warmly receive our insistence that we go all the way into the church. He was further exacerbated by walking up the aisle to sit three pews from the front — this way he can pay better attention.
Mass was about to begin and we were wondering, “How do we turn this around?” Just the day prior, we saw the Notre Dame football game on television. In short time, the weather shifted from sunshine to blizzard. The beauty of the snow-covered ground and the football players’ footprints in the snow impressed Matthew. The light bulb clicked for me.
I asked Matthew if he thought it was cooler to see the snowfall on television, or if it would have been cooler to be there in person, in the stands cheering on the Irish as the snow fell. The answer was clear to him: to be there in person! The same dynamic holds true for Mass. The light bulb clicked for him.
Reality is incarnational. It is the meaningful unfolding wherever we are. It is the meaningful unfolding interpersonally, when we are most present to others, ourselves and the Holy Spirit. What does this mean for evangelization?
On the level of presence to others, evangelization is grounded in relationship. To accompany others, to encounter them, to love them as they are and to accept however God might be calling them is basic to evangelization. Predetermined outcomes, formulaic responses and cookie-cutter approaches won’t cut it. Each person is made in the image of God. The divine imprint of God’s love on each person is irrevocable. Often, evangelization is about walking with others as they remember that love.
On the level of presence to ourselves, our fruitfulness in evangelization is grounded in personal authenticity. We must be our authentic selves and leave the space for others to be their authentic selves. We discover personal authenticity in giving ourselves over to others. There is such a thing as self-care. This is real and important. At the same time, self-gift is ultimately what leads to self-discovery. We must lose life to find it.
On the level of attentiveness to the presence of the Holy Spirit, we Catholics have not always been great at remembering the Holy Spirit. In depictions of God in sacred art, the Holy Spirit is often imaged as a small bird outsized by God the Father and God the Son. While I haven’t done an official tally, the Holy Spirit seems to be the least frequently depicted person of the Trinity. Similarly, in Catholic theological writings about God, the Holy Spirit often gets the shortest chapter. To curb this Catholic habit, a professor one semester would give “a thousand bonus points” to anyone who would mention the Holy Spirit in class discussion.
The Holy Spirit is “at work in every place and time.” We are not driving the bus of our lives and asking the Holy Spirit to come along for the ride. The inverse is true. The Holy Spirit is “Lord and giver of life.” The Spirit is continuously creating, vivifying and turning hearts of stone into hearts of flesh. The Holy Spirit works in each of us, often in the most unpredictable of ways. Our job is to get out of the way and let the Spirit lead. This happens in everyday encounters, from the mundane to the exquisite. Then again, there are no mundane encounters. As C.S. Lewis put it, “there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal … it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.”
In the world of evangelization, there are no mundane encounters. Evangelization is happening all around us. It is our mission. It is the mission of the Church. The stakes are high because in moments of encounter, the presence of God is in you and before you in the other.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)