So, October has begun! It is the month of the Rosary, and so a time for us to renew our devotion and commitment to this powerful prayer, both personally and as families and parish. We have the Bishop visiting us on the third Sunday of the month, and so it’s a chance for us to prepare spiritually to welcome and support our “chief priest” in the Diocese and to listen to his message of encouragement and hope.
October is also the month of the Missions. This year in particular it has been deemed an “Extraordinary Mission Month” by Pope Francis. One hundred years ago, just after the end of the First World War, Pope Benedict XV asked the Church to make a major new push to bring the Gospel to the nations. In the light of the death and destruction, the conflict and division, caused by the War, the Pope believed that the preaching of the Gospel was the Church’s contribution to bring healing and reconciliation. And, in fact, there was a great revival in missionary activity as a result.
Pope Francis has given us four things to consider during this month, and you will find them in the bulletin. This week, I want to speak about the first of them. We will come to the others during the course of the month. The first proposal the Holy Father puts to us all is to seek “a personal encounter with Jesus Christ alive in the Church through the Eucharist, the Word and personal communal prayer.”
October is dotted with a number of saints with strong missionary connections. There is St. Therese, Patroness of the Mission, on October 1; St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, wanted himself to be a missionary to the Muslims and send his friars to the ends of the earth; St. Daniele Comboni, October 10, founder of the Verona Fathers, had as his motto “Africa or death.” Later in the month we have the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist, October 18, and the Apostles SS. Simon and Jude on October 28.
What made these and so many hundreds of thousands of others leave everything and risk everything to go far and wide on mission? Was it merely a conviction of the mind, as if they were motivated by the catechism? Was it a desire for power or money, as if to establish a rich and influential Church in foreign lands? On the contrary! Most of them met with abject poverty and ignorance, if not death. And even when the news of the missionary martyrs reached home, those preparing did not say, “I’m out of here”, but “I, too, want to go and give my life.”
So, what was it that gave them the power to face all the odds? It was the personal encounter with Christ that each of them had received as a gift of love. To put it in terms which may seem irreverent, but true and clear, they had each fallen in love with Christ. Their journeys far and wide came from that encounter, carried that encounter with them and communicated that encounter to the peoples they served through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments of eternal life.
But, attention! The Jesus they encountered was the real Jesus, not some figment of their imagination. It was the “real deal.” It was not a make-believe, Santa Claus Jesus; it was not an academic concept of Jesus; it was not a mythical Jesus however heroic; it was not a Jesus as fruit of the workings of their own understanding or wishes. No, it was the real Christ: the one who was born of the Virgin, suffered, died and rose again, true God and true man. Only this Jesus could give them the power to leave and risk everything.
Let me go further into what it means to say they had a personal encounter with him. We meet people every day. In the course of our lives, who knows how many? To some we barely say hello; with others we might pass the time of day; with yet others we might joke or argue about anything from politics to football. And while it is true that in all the encounters of a more or less superficial kind, two persons are present to and communicating with each other, this is not the kind of personal encounter with Christ that will suffice. Jesus is not a passer-by or a buddy or a pal or a drinking mate.
It is our universal experience that we meet another person with our own person in any depth only when matters become more serious. Only when love comes into the picture does one person begin to open up to another the depths of who they are. Only then do we share our vulnerabilities as only then do we share the truest and deepest riches of the mystery of our own being with the other. Knowledge born of love is a knowledge that the mind cannot of itself understand for it is a knowledge which goes deeper than the mind. It is love alone, the truest manifestation and communication of the person, which can penetrate the deep personal truth and dignity of the other and give life, as well as drawing life from that person.
And here’s the thing. When you do encounter another person in this precious way, you discover not only who the other person really is: you also discover more fully who you yourself really are. A lover’s joy is not only that he has found his beloved, but that he has found himself. A light goes on! So, this is who I am! So, this is what it means to love and be loved! So, this is what I am capable of! So, these are the horizons which open out before me that I did not know before!
What’s even more sublime, and breath-taking, is that, if this is so when two human persons fall in love, what is it when I, in my humble human person, meet the Lord Jesus in his divine person? Vatican II tells us that it is only in the personal encounter with Christ that any person finally and definitively discovers who they really are. In that encounter, I come home to my final destiny. In that encounter, the fullness of who I am, the total potential of my being flourishes. In the encounter with Jesus, I encounter the source of my very being and therefore the utter fullness of all my hopes and desires. So much so, that not even death matters any more. In fact, as St. Paul expressed it so beautifully, “Life to me is Christ; and so, death brings something more.”
My friends, it is no wonder that someone who has this experience of Christ becomes a missionary. He becomes like the young man who has just fallen in love and needs to grab the microphone at a public event and shout to everyone, “I am in love!” Being a missionary is the immediate result, the flipside, of being in love with Christ. That is also why being a missionary concerns every Christian travelling along the path towards this encounter with Jesus. Missionaries abroad, missionaries at home, missionaries in any and every form possible and imaginable!
I have no doubt whatsoever that most, if not all, of you here are on that path. I know many of you who have allowed the Lord to meet you in special ways. I know, too, that we don’t all have the experience of St. Paul or St. Francis of Assisi. But I also know that the encounter of which I speak is not reserved for the select few. It is for every single human being.
So, there follows the question: how? How do I “get” this experience?
Well, as with any other personal encounter of depth, it cannot be engineered. We can’t “produce” it out of our own heads if we just think hard enough. Let me come at this from the other side. Jesus, from his side, wants to have that encounter with you. How do I know that? Goodness me! He came from heaven, made himself as loveable as he could by being a little baby so that we could not fail to love him. He lived an ordinary humdrum life as a labourer in an obscure village, as so many do. He then revealed himself gradually by preaching, healing, forgiving, performing miracles. The crowds were all pressing around him to touch him, to hear him. He suffered, died and rose again to win us back and so that he could make himself available to whoever would want to come to him and believe in him throughout the subsequent course of history. He left us the words of his deepest heart in the Gospel. He left us his very body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. He consecrated men to act in his own person through teaching and sanctifying. He gave us all seven sacraments so that these would be encounters with himself.
An image comes to mind of a young man seeking out the love of his life. He catches sight of her from afar; she sees him, too, with a twinkle in her eye, but is shy and coy. He pursues her respectfully, but she rebuffs him. He keeps after her. He finds out where she works, in an office high up in a building. He finds a window-cleaner to lend him his high-rise ladder to wave at her through the window … It gets to the point of harassment, but he keeps trying in the hope that she will at last respond.
I am describing, of course, the extent to which Jesus has gone, goes every day, and will keep going to coax us out of our indifference to him. What this comes down to is whether or not we want to have the personal encounter with him. Sometimes I have the impression that many Catholics play this “hard to get” game with Jesus. They come to Mass – sometimes. They pray – sometimes. They say they believe – sometimes. Meanwhile, Christ is jumping through hoops and doing summersaults. We stand up and proclaim, not with much enthusiasm it has to be said, the creed. Sadly, we seem not to grasp its import for who we are, for what our lives could be, for what the whole purpose of existence and of the world itself is about.
How often to do we pass this church during the week? How often do we come in to where he is there, awaiting us, desperate for a word of love from our lips, a sign of warmth from our hearts? Our minds and hearts get so dulled in the fog and mist of our lives. No one is saying that people don’t have responsibilities and commitments and obligations to which they must attend; or that many are incapacitated by suffering and the throes of life. I marvel, however, at the efforts parents make to bring their children to karate, golf, horse-riding, ballet …. but are nowhere to be seen on Sunday. I marvel at how much planning goes into arranging a holiday abroad, but little or no planning goes into ensuring that the week ahead will have Mass on Sunday at its heart.
And while I might have to agree with the tragic analysis that so many who have received baptism into Christ are indifferent to him now, or have even rejected him as he really is (while possibly preserving an idea of him that suits their preferences), I will never fail to proclaim that, for his part, the burning love with which he created them, died for them, and still seeks them out, will be ablaze until, we can only hope, they at last let him in, be it at the hour of death.
My brothers and sisters, let’s not be content with Catholic religious practices and customs, as if “religion” were just another form of organized social activity. The only reason we are Catholics is so that we can fall in love with the Christ who has already fallen in love with us. So, seek him out unfailingly, go to where you know he is, alive in the Church, the Eucharist, the Word and in personal and communal prayer. Let down the barriers, let him cleanse you of the dross which hides the rich and glorious beauty of your soul, and let him lift you up in an embrace of divine and human love that will set you on fire to proclaim his most holy and beloved Name from the rooftops. That I may fall in love with you, Jesus my Lord and my All!