Pope Paul VI once stated: “The world of our time is searching, sometimes with anguish and sometimes with hope, to receive Christ’s Good News. But it will not be received from those who appear dejected, discouraged, or anxious. True evangelizers are those who glow with fervor, who embrace the joy of Christ, and who are willing to minister the Gospel as though risking their lives for the sake of this world and the world to come.”
Every pope since has emphasized the importance of evangelization; Pope Francis puts an exclamation point on Paul’s message and the joyous aspects of our Christian mission. Jesus instructed followers not to look gloomy or sad when praying (Matthew 6:16) nor to be self-righteous or histrionically pious in church worship (Luke 18:11). Similarly, Francis wants our church gatherings to reflect the joy of the Lord; he says that our worship shouldn’t be dull and our faces shouldn’t be sour. Yet too many Catholics suffer from lackluster liturgies that are disconnected from the rest of their existence.
Many local priests, my age (59) and older, were blessed to have served in Kansas City’s urban core. Bishop John Sullivan (1977-93) believed that young priests would benefit for the rest of our lives from the spirited worship of minority communities, not to mention their resilience in hardship. It was there that I learned that God’s Holy Spirit can descend upon an impoverished family matriarch raising ten grandchildren while battling gangs, drugs, illiteracy, and Ebonics, just as fully as The Spirit descends upon Catholic bishops at their ordination. It was there that I learned that clericalism—from garb to titles to attitude—can be destructive and sinful. It was there that I learned that any Christian, dead in his faith, can float through dull rubrics and rote prayer but lively ones rock the house of God with authentic praise and are inspired to overcome daily obstacles as God’s partners (or as parishioners put it, “any dead fish can float downstream but it takes live ones to swim upstream”). It was there that I learned that good church music unites generations and cultures, good preaching inspires us to live more-godly through the week ahead, and a joyous presider enlivens the soul of a community. It was there that I discovered what it means to leave church each Sunday filled with God’s Good News and to value the tremendous treasure entrusted to us. I wish every young priest could be given a similar experience.
It is, no doubt, hard work to reach the level of joy which Popes, from Paul to Francis, desire for our churches. Though I strive toward it, I don’t claim to have achieved it; yet I am saddened every time I hear Catholics tell about dull and uninspiring Sunday experiences they have to endure. At the same time, I am uplifted whenever I hear about those who are alive in their faith, who inspire others, who bring God’s grace to their daily world; I am grateful for those priests and faith communities that emphasize message and music while enlivening souls in worship and ministry. While church overseers are beat down by scandal and mired in bad news, it is encouraging that many Catholics still bring the Good News of Christ’s love to others through a culture of encounter. It is fortifying to witness the power of the Holy Spirit welcomed by individuals, groups, and communities that are open to divine grace.
Unless we’re engaged in the planning of, or presiding at, our church’s worship, there’s probably not much we can do to breathe life into lifeless liturgy. Nevertheless, we can respond to the papal challenge of evangelization, both in Sunday services and weekday living, by showing up, participating, and desiring to embody the Easter message. We may have to go to the core of our faith much like Bishop Sullivan sent us to the core of the city. When we do, we will be reminded that Christ is alive in us and in the gatherings of His people.