By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world
The shape and content of the Gospels is no accident. They are not transcripts capturing the chronological unfolding of Jesus’ daily life. Rather, they are theological narratives intended to bring religious meaning into focus. With this in mind, we should not take the last words of Jesus before the passion narrative in John’s Gospel as mere happenstance. Jesus’ final prayer during his public ministry is his concluding wish for those who follow him. Jesus prayed “that they may all be one. Just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you, that they may also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21).
In this prayer, Jesus’ desire for the unity of believers is clear, as is the outcome of this unity: the world’s belief. This unity is central to Christian credibility and our mission of evangelization. Today, an unfortunate tendency in American culture conflates unity with univocality (having only one meaning or interpretation), edging out the kind of unity in diversity that has been vital to the Church since its origin at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13).
In our own diocese, we have embarked on a yearlong journey to better integrate welcoming and belonging in our parish and school communities. How we go about discerning our actions matters a great deal.
Our intentional focus on welcoming and belonging is not about keeping things the way they are in a positive-maintaining-the-status-quo kind of way. We need to live deeply into questions that bring the state of things as they are into focus. Are we collectively prepared to come to terms with areas that we need to grow in? Are we ready to recognize the possibility that lack of growth on our part may hinder a child of God from becoming a member of the body of Christ? Is it possible, if we remain stuck in the status quo, that we inadvertently deny someone the opportunity to experience the grace of salvation in their daily life? Are we ready to admit this and then to reform ourselves?
The Czech priest Tomáš Halík used the metaphor of the day to describe the history of Christianity. He wrote in a 2015 essay that “in the West, a noonday crisis occurred as Christianity clashed with modernity, with secularization and a popular belief in ‘the death of God’ characteristic of this ongoing phase. This crisis will continue until such a time as it will be understood as an opportunity, a path to maturity, a turning-point moment, turning away from external structures to the very core of Christianity. Out of … [this] noonday crisis … members can seek the path to a deeper, more credible and mature form of church, theology and spirituality, its afternoon of Christianity.”
It is clear we need to emerge from our “noonday crisis” into the “afternoon of Christianity.” It has become equally as clear that focusing on welcoming and belonging is a mechanism to aid this move. In this, as in all things, our model is Jesus. His prayer for unity is instructive because the unity Jesus desires for us is the same unity Jesus shares with the Father. How this unity is expressed in John’s Gospel, however, is the ever present challenge: the unity of Jesus with the Father is borne of the cross. This is Jesus’ ascent to the Father.
We, too, need to share in this dying: dying to a desire to preserving things as they are, to whatever we hold onto that infringes upon the power of the Spirit, to our personal preferences that circumvent communal benefit. The first step might be admitting that we all tend to preserve things as they are, to hold on to something that infringes on the power of Spirit and that we allow our personal preferences to circumvent communal benefit. The second step is to surrender as Jesus did in the garden: “thy will be done.” The outcome will be, according to Jesus: the world’s belief.
(Patrick Schmadeke is director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)