14th Sunday 2019
Isaiah 66:10-14; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20.
During my time in seminary, one word which cropped up was “pre-evangelisation”, which in effect meant preparing people to hear the Gospel. It is a word which assumes that we are dealing with people who are not yet ready to encounter Jesus the Christ, but stand in need of some degree of preparation. In a way, it is what John the Baptist did, preparing a way for the Lord, and it is what the seventy two disciples are sent to do, visiting towns and villages to prepare the groundwork for Jesus’ own mission.
Increasingly, it seems to be the task of the Church in the Western world today. Successive Popes have called for a new evangelisation—a new preaching of the Gospel—yet so many in the West seem to be at an even earlier stage. So great has been the drift away from faith, and from knowledge of the things of God, that groundwork has to be done even before the Gospel can be preached. It is ironic that a self-professed atheist like Richard Dawkins has deplored the ignorance of the British people with regard to the Bible and to Christian culture.
There is still a vague link to Christian life, belief, and practice in many quarters, but it is becomingly increasingly tenuous. Many people still want to have their children baptised, even though their next visit to church will be when those same children are presented for First Confession and First Holy Communion. A smaller number come to be married in church. In my early days as a priest, it was a cliché that we preferred funerals to weddings, because there was more faith to be found there, but even that scarcely holds true today. As the generations have passed through, it is increasingly the case that, even if the person in the coffin had faith, it has not taken root in their children and grandchildren.
I remember, almost thirty years ago, celebrating a funeral Mass for a lady to whom I had taken communion daily during her final illness. At the requiem, it was noticeable that none of her children came to communion, because they knew that they were lapsed, but that all of her grandchildren did: they didn’t even realise that they were lapsed. I strongly suspect that, when their time comes, those children (and certainly the grandchildren) won’t even bother with a church service, especially now that funeral directors are offering home-made cremations, with whatever music, readings, and tributes the bereaved wish, with the undertaker conducting the entire proceedings, and with no need to approach a priest, or to incur the imagined cost of a religious funeral.
So if we are, as I presume, in a condition of pre-evangelisation, what are we to do about it? Firstly, no doubt, we take to heart Our Lord’s instruction to “ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to His harvest”. Incidentally, it may be worth recalling the rather scathing rebuke delivered by a colleague of mine on the Junior Seminary staff many years ago to a sixth former whose principal interest appeared to be in dressing up and playing at liturgy: “The Lord wants labourers for His harvest, not fairies for the bottom of His garden”.
Yet, even if we find these labourers, how are they to go about their task? Eighteen months ago, I spent a weekend looking after a parish on behalf of a priest, a member of the Neo-Catechumenate, who, together with his Neo-Cat brethren was, for a fortnight, taking literally the words of today’s Gospel. They were being dropped off, in pairs, the length and breadth of the country, with nothing in their pockets but the return half of a train ticket. They were to spend that fortnight knocking on doors, relying on the hospitality of others. Whether that is the right way to go about things I do not know. What I do know is that it is amazingly courageous, and that I could not do it.
So what can I, what can you, what can anybody do? Is it a cop-out to say that we do what we are able, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves? For a monastic community, in addition to prayer, this will entail hospitality, and a compassionate presence, for those who appear at the door. For me, in my school chaplaincy days, it meant having an open door and a listening ear, and delivering assemblies about wrong buses, scarlet knickers, and girls with beautiful legs.
It means seizing opportunities when they arise. A priest told me, a few years ago, that he had been called in to prepare a funeral. On visiting the family, he was presented with a set of readings (secular) music (secular) and tributes. “There doesn’t seem to be much space for me,” he commented: “You don’t really need me,” and off he went.
I can’t help feeling that he missed an opportunity, however small, for doing something, however little. In general though, what should we be doing? Praying? Of course. But what else? Answers on a postcard.