How to Proclaim Christ Today
The Church must reach out in love and proclaim Christ to those who feel excluded by it. As Archbishop STEPHEN BRISLIN looks at the pioneering Church of South Africa, he explains how we might do so.
Our foremothers and forefathers who embarked on the perilous journeys to proclaim the Gospel and to establish the Church in South Africa—an unknown and untested place—were men and women of great courage, committed resolve and a sincere love of God and the message entrusted to them by Christ.
They were, undoubtedly, saints and sinners, those who did good and those who sinned and made mistakes. Whatever their weaknesses and the mistakes they made, the faith has spread to every corner of the countries of our region, and the faith is alive and growing.
The history of the Catholic Church — tainted as it may be with intentional or unintentional collusion with colonialism and apartheid, discrimination and sex abuse cases—has nonetheless, through the strength of Christ, brought life and hope, not only to ourselves but to Southern Africa.
The first missionaries who arrived, primarily intent on ministering to Catholic colonialists and soldiers, soon took the Gospel to indigenous peoples, to the oppressed and indigent—the very peripheries that Pope Francis frequently talks of.
To establish the Church and spread the faith also meant to provide education, training and medical care. Through much pain, anxiety and self-sacrifice, many educational and medical facilities were established that developed and gave hope to millions over the course of these 200 years.
In latter years, through circumstances — not least the decrease in vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life — many of these facilities have had to close or be given over to government and other bodies.
For those who may think of a past “golden age”, this might seem a sign of failure or a crisis in the sense of devastation. As sad as such closures may be, in many respects, it is more a crisis of new opportunities, of change, for we are a people of hope, knowing that Christ is with us until the end of days.
For, as important as such institutions are, and as important as the role they played and continue to play, as much as we need them, the truth is that institutions are both a blessing and a potential danger.
They are a source of blessing as they have provided educational and health benefits to so many, they have established dedicated places of worship — they have changed lives for the better and provided a means for evangelisation.
But they also demand time, maintenance, management, leading us away from the mission given to us by Jesus at the time of his Ascension, to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Mt 28:9).
They can lull us into a sense of comfort and satisfaction, perhaps even leading us into believing that “this is the Church” — that institutions are the end rather than the means, and to devote all our energy to preserve them, no matter what.
The biggest danger
The biggest danger lies within ourselves if we develop an institutional attitude and begin to treat people in an institutionalised way.
A characteristic of our times, most especially in large urban areas, is anonymity. Not only is there the loneliness of urban life that Pope Francis has spoken of frequently, but people are dealt with in a way that makes them feel stripped of personality and dignity.
Whether it is automated responses to telephone enquiries, being boxed into a computer profile that prohibits you from receiving a bank loan, or simply the disinterest we so often experience when seeking assistance — people are made to feel as a mere number, one among millions of others, who are obliged to “fit into” the system.
The system is paramount, not the person.
As the Holy Father has said: “We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power” (Evangelii Gaudium 52). And yet Christ reminds us that sparrows may be sold two for a penny but we are more valuable to the extent that every hair on our head is counted (Mt 10:26-31).
Christ transforms the hearts of people through a personal encounter, by his merciful and generous forgiveness, his tenderness in dealing with the broken, the humble and the poor.
As we recall our mission to evangelise, it is Christ whom we model ourselves on — Christ who treated every person as a person, with humanity and kindness. It is intrinsic to our faith to value human life.
Remembering the past, we turn to the future. We know that the task to evangelise is urgent and must be embraced with passion.
In the words of the Holy Father: “Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers and sisters, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit.”
The frontiers have changed. No longer do we need to travel on long and dangerous journeys to other continents and peoples, but we turn to our own brothers and sisters, perhaps tired in the faith, perhaps having abandoned the faith.
Open hearts to Christ
Our proclamation of faith is not so much as to win converts as it is to open hearts to Christ and his salvific message, to transform our society in the image of Christ.
And so the new frontiers become the spheres of life that influence and shape our societies, that can either liberate and enhance human life or can limit and dehumanise people.
Not only do we witness to Christ in the public square, but we Christianise the spheres of politics, economics, education—the very culture of our society. There is much good in all these spheres, but there is also much that is evil and that destroys.
Certainly, the prophetic voice of the Church must be heard loudly as we oppose violence in all its many forms: the violence of blood-shedding, the violence of poverty and the structures that entrench poverty, the violence against the environment, the culture of death, of greed and corruption.
The prophetic voice is not a voice that seeks popularity from any quarter—it seeks only truth and that which can bring about goodness.
Yet, as much as that voice may be needed, it is insufficient for evangelisation and transformation of hearts. The kindness and encouragement of mercy, healing and reconciliation is intrinsic to Christ.
Bl Oscar Romero, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador, put it this way: “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can.”
Pope Francis repeatedly calls the Church to mercy — the very essence of the Gospel — and proclaimed last year the Year of Mercy. It is to the suffering that we must turn.
In the words again of Archbishop Romero: “We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed at night with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways.”
The call of cries of despair
But it is not only the physical poverty that calls to us. It is the cry of those in despair, in doubt and confusion, beset with anxiety or lack of purpose, those who are searching and seeking for truth. It is the cry of the lonely, the sick, the mentally challenged. It is the cry of humanity, thirsting for truth and for love.
We cannot treat people anonymously, or in a distant, cold and “institutionalised” manner. We cannot neglect to respond to the cries we hear because those calling are sinners or outcasts.
The response we make is not from superiority or arrogance, from a triumphalistic Church. It is from humility that we offer the refreshing water we have received from Christ to those who are thirsty.
The bread we offer to the poor man is not our bread, but bread we have received from Christ and which we share with him. Our evangelisation is not from a certainty that we have all the answers and know what is right in every situation.
We evangelise through sharing our own lives, our stories, our happinesses, struggles and weakness, for we are but fellow-pilgrims journeying together to the Promised Land.
In Christ, the Church has the fullness of truth, but in our humanity we have only poverty.
“If one has the answers to all the questions, that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself”, says Pope Francis. “The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble”.
Our words of preaching are empty without the witness of our actions of compassion and mercy, and even our acknowledgment of uncertainty.
Proof that faith is alive
So, as we live the present with passion we also embrace the future with hope. We learn from the missionaries who brought the faith to the southern tip of Africa—the daunting task they faced did not deter them from setting out.
It would be easy for us, as we face the myriad problems and uncertainties of our countries and the modern world, to find the task at hand too much, impossible and overwhelming. And yet, the evidence not only of the past but also of the present, the evidence of a faith that is alive, of a growing and thriving Church, the evidence of the commitment, dedication and love of the modern day disciples, is ample testimony of the activity of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s abiding presence among his people.
As for ourselves, we are to remain faithful always to Christ, not allowing ourselves to be “seduced into error” by systems, structures, ideologies or cultures that do not belong to him.
We do not preach ourselves, our ideologies, visions or thoughts. We preach only Christ and the fruitfulness of the mission, and our very salvation lies in our ability to be faithful to who Christ is and what he taught us.
In the words of St Paul, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).
This is a slightly abbreviated and edited version of the homily preached by Archbishop Brislin at the opening Mass in Cape Town’s St Mary’s cathedral for the jubilee year of the bicentennial celebration of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa. Archbishop Brislin heads the archdiocese of Cape Town and is the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference.