I have been particularly struck over the last two to three years about one expression of God’s work on our behalf for the New Evangelization and, in particular, for the Year of Mercy.
As our parish works on becoming a community of believers who both pray and reach out to newcomers, I have been very inspired to see God’s part in this work. It is so easy to think that the New Evangelization is up to us; that WE need to make “it” happen. It is so easy to focus on what we—each of us—needs to contribute, that we forget God Himself is working very hard to open our minds and hearts to His role. Once we have found how God is moving “ahead” of us to make a way, to break open hard hearts, to soften angry ones, to bring strength to the timid and fearful, and to bring hope to the sorrowful, then we can more clearly see our part in God’s plan to bring people to Him or back to Him. There are many good books out there and many good speakers who can teach us and motivate us to open our own hearts as to how God wants to use us—yes, each of us.
If I am a priest and a pastor, I need to recognize that God has a plan for me and for my parish, if I will but listen. I need to spend time with God in prayer for my parish, asking God, Who knows my parishioners better than I do, to show me a way to bring the Gospel to my people in a way that not only inspires and encourages them, but gives them the faith, in turn, to reach out to their neighbors, coworkers, and friends with the Good News.
Programs and new ideas for evangelizing our parishes are valuable, but nothing can take the place of spending time daily with the Shepherd to see His plan for me—as pastor—as well as His plan for my sheep.
In turn, we, as the Lord’s sheep, need to be in His presence, to rest, to feed, and to hear His voice—daily—so we can personally cooperate with God and our pastor in the plan for parish evangelization and then to be able to give the Good News to others.
A couple of years ago, I was asking the Lord how I could best cooperate with the New Evangelization. How did He want me to reach out to people in my own geographical area? The following Sunday, I was at Mass in our parish church. This question was in my mind as I looked at the faces around me. Many I knew; some I did not. I prayed, “Help me, Lord. Show me how to do this.”
As Mass ended, a woman in the pew behind me, whom I did not know, said that she thought I should speak to the young man who had been at the end of her pew. He had already genuflected and was going toward an exit. I sensed that I should listen to her suggestion, so I followed the young man, who was in his early thirties, to the main door. As I reached out to tap him on the shoulder, I thought, “Oh dear, what do I say?” At that moment, he turned and looked at me. It was evident that he had been crying. So, I gulped and said, “I think the Lord wanted me to talk to you.” He said, “I just lost my wife from cancer. I think I am supposed to become a Catholic but I don’t know who to talk to.”
What if I hadn’t tapped him on the shoulder—even more, what if I hadn’t been praying and asking God to show me what to do? And now, here was God making it “easy” for me to evangelize. What if there are people in your parish in similar circumstances, who don’t know anyone? Who will reach them, if not you?
I have also had similar experiences on planes. Because I travel with some frequency, I have made it a habit to tell the Lord when I am settled on a plane, “Use me, as You wish, for Your honor, for their salvation.”
As a result of that prayer—as a result of a conscious willingness to listen to God before I take things into my own hands and perhaps say something that is not helpful—I’ve learned to “wait upon the Lord.” On almost every trip, after a simple hello or an exchange of names and destinations, the person next to me will ask some question which opens the door. Recently, a young Jewish man, seeing my crucifix, asked if I would pray with him. For about five minutes, the plane had been experiencing immense turbulence, and our plane seemed to be tossed to and fro. He was a bit shaken by it all, and so we prayed together. Peace came to both of us. He promised to stay in touch. (I almost put that in the miracle category!)
On another flight, a beautiful couple struck up a conversation with me; he was the principal of a school, and she was a teacher, so we talked about all our shared experiences in the classroom. As the conversation continued, I listened to the heart-breaking story of their young son, around the age of fifteen, who had died some years ago of pneumonia—no antibiotic could overcome it! That sharing led to a conversation about God and His love for them and their children. That led to a conversation about faith, the Church, and the need each of us has for God’s mercy. I was able to listen and, I think, help them to reach out for the unfathomable riches of His grace—especially available to us when we are in great pain or sorrow.
Each time I ask God to lead me, to show me what to say and who to speak to, and even just when to listen, God answers. He is more eager than we are to see people find His grace and mercy.
In this time of the New Evangelization, let us expect God to use us. Let us open our hearts and minds to rely more on His initiative, for the mercy of God has no bounds. May the lost be saved, and may the hopeless find the Shepherd of mercy through us!