Voices Online Edition, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 2004
During Lent, I attended a parish mission and arrived late. I missed the priest's opening remarks. As I came in, he was grasping the podium with both hands, elbows out, leaning over it and challenging the congregation with a question: "Do you have a passion for Jesus?"
His voice was commanding and imposing. After a long moment, he repeated: "Do you have a PASSION for JESUS?!"
He held the "s" to let its sound linger, and to focus the mind on the sacred name. Though the priest didn't expect verbal answers, it was not just a rhetorical question.
There has been a lot of talk about "passion" in recent weeks, most of it generated by and focusing on the film The Passion of the Christ: There's been talk about the authenticity of the Gospel accounts of the Passion and about Mel Gibson's rendering of them, about the historical Christ and scholars' and artists' rendering of Him. But that can be a diversion from the reality the film presents.
Facing Jesus Christ, in the awesomely complex simplicity of who He is, can be terrifying and shattering. Why? Because when you face Him, it is a decisive moment. And when you really encounter Him, you can never be the same.
"Who do you say that I am?"
As I write, today is the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Mankind), in which he wrote:
"Christ the Redeemer fully reveals man to himself. The person who wishes to understand himself thoroughly must draw near to Christ. The Redemption that took place through the cross has definitively restored to man his dignity and given back meaning to his life in the world". (RH 3)
A quarter of a century later, we are still struggling with legal battles over upholding human dignity from conception to natural death -- and we are faced with an unprecedented film that makes us witnesses to the Passion of Christ as it no doubt happened. And it forces us to see His redemptive mission: what it took, how He undertook it; and to realize the meaning this gave our lives in the world.
Father Augustine Di Noia, Undersecretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, put it this way: "If this is the remedy, what must the harm have been?" The answer to that, he says, is "almost beyond our comprehension" and cannot ultimately be known "until the hour of our death". He credits the film experience of Christ's Passion with giving us "a powerful sense of the cosmic drama of which we are all a part. There is no possibility of neutrality here, and no one can remain simply an onlooker in these events".
That means we have to take part. The Passion of the Christ very effectively ends with the briefest scene of the Resurrection, with a glowing and living Christ moving forward with purpose, and then... what? When you are able to breathe again, the question sets in: "now, what will you do?"
On a Mission
The pope has been telling us -- exhorting us -- what we must do for a long time, now. In fact, from the beginning of his pontificate. He needed to remind us of this more than a dozen years ago when he wrote the encyclical Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of the Redeemer) and he got right to the point from the first line:
"The mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion... an overall view of the human race shows that this mission is still only beginning... I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church's energies to a new evangelization... No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples".
The Holy Father reminds us that this mandate comes from Christ Himself: "All the Evangelists, when they describe the risen Christ's meeting with His apostles, conclude with the 'missionary mandate': 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age'". (RH 22)
This work is the inheritance of all the Church. "Those who are incorporated in the Catholic Church ought to sense their privilege and for that very reason their greater obligation of bearing witness to the faith and to the Christian life as a service to their brothers and sisters and as a fitting response to God", the Holy Father declares. Then he recalls the strong language of Vatican II's Lumen Gentium (14), as he reminds members of the Church that they cannot keep the faith to themselves. "They should be ever mindful that 'they owe their distinguished status not to their own merits but to Christ's special grace; and if they fail to respond to this grace in thought, word and deed, not only will they not be saved, they will be judged more severely'". (RM 11)
Not responding is not an option. So what will we do?
From Saints Peter and Paul to Pope John Paul II, we are told to be good Christians first. "Saint Peter expressed this well when he held up the example of a reverent and chaste life that wins over even without a word those who refuse to obey the word", wrote Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. (41) "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses".
Then, as the priest at my parish mission emphasized, proclaim. (This loses a lot in the written word, because his commanding voice challenged everyone to go out there and passionately talk about Jesus. So it was more like: "PROCLAIM!!!")
The priest said he has great admiration for the evangelist Billy Graham, who reveals his passion for Jesus just in the way he always pronounces the sacred. Graham's preaching is so powerful, our mission preacher said, because "it's proclamatory, not therapeutic!" The effectiveness of Archbishop Fulton Sheen's preaching, he said, was probably because he made a holy hour every day of his priesthood, no matter what. Archbishop Sheen may be one of the best role models for today's new evangelization mission, because he spoke to the modern world.
After the Encounter
On the second night of our parish mission, another priest recalled that in The Passion of the Christ, everyone who came into personal contact with Jesus was changed. And it was often not by anything He said, or even did, but by eye contact with that piercing gaze -- by who He is.
"Since the 'Good News' is Christ", the Holy Father says in Redemptoris Missio, "there is an identity between the message and the messenger, between saying, doing and being. His power, the secret of the effectiveness of His actions, lies in His total identification with the message He announces: He proclaims the 'Good News' not just by what He says or does, but by what He is... The disciples recognize that the kingdom is already present in the person of Jesus and is slowly being established within humanity and the world through a mysterious connection with Him". (RM 16)
All connections with Him are mysterious, since He is the essence of mystery.
"We know nothing", wrote Jody Dean, a CBS news anchor from Dallas, in a column after experiencing The Passion of the Christ. "We've gone 2,000 years -- used to the idea of a pleasant story, and a sanitized Christ. We expect the ending, because we've heard it so many times. God forgive us. This film tears that all away. It is as close as any of us will ever get to knowing, until we fully know... For the first time, one gets a heart-stopping idea of the sense of madness that must have enveloped Jesus -- a sense of the evil that was at His very elbow. The physical punishment is relentless -- but it's the sense of psychological torture that is most overwhelming.
"He should have quit. He should have opened His mouth. He should have called 10,000 angels. No one would have blamed Him. What we deserve is obvious. But He couldn't do that. He wouldn't do that... He was obedient, all the way to the cross -- and you feel the real meaning of that phrase in a place the human heart usually doesn't dare to go. You understand that we are called to that same level of obedience. With Jesus' humanity so irresistibly on display, you understand that we have no excuse. There is no place to hide". (original emphases)
But there is no desire to hide, either. It's more like a coming out of hiding to see an altogether new light, a truth that our deepest longings, in this culture of pop psychology and theology, have vainly sought elsewhere. This Lent, many of us have collectively experienced the person of Jesus in a crushing encounter. Our sensibilities have been shattered -- about Him and the Gospel story and our snug lives.
That's what happened after the original Pentecost, when Peter explained to the crowd just who they had crucified: "Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the Apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37)
That's what we are left asking after encountering the real Jesus Christ. It seals a relationship, involves responsibilities, shakes your world.
"Encountering the Person of God is exactly like encountering the man or woman who will be your spouse - it changes everything", stated Archbishop Charles Chaput in an address delivered at the 1998 Mile-Hi Catechetical Congress in Denver (The Task of Evangelization in Secular America).
"It gives you a purpose. It orders everything else about your life. It's why the novelist Francois Mauriac wrote that 'Anyone who has truly known God can never be cured of Him'".
A Passion for ... ?
The word "passion" today is strongly evocative of deeply held love or desire or joy and goes further in describing your feelings than to say "I love doing what I do". At a business dinner once, I told someone that I have a "passion for writing". At that moment a man seated at my left spun around and said, "You just used my favorite word. Having passion for something says a lot about someone".
The word is often cheapened or trivialized by consumerism -- like a jewelry ad on the radio around Valentine's Day that suggested, "nothing says you're passionate about her like a diamond". A current commercial for a popular multi-vitamin shows athletes and recreation enthusiasts with a voice-over saying 'When you're passionate about something, you never let up".
That caught my attention. I thought about the priest's question: "Do you have a passion for Jesus?!" I thought about all the messages we succumb to regularly, like those images on the screen. After touting the merits of the vitamin, the commercial ended with this advice: "Put your heart into what you love."
Good message, I thought, as long as your heart -- your love -- is rightly ordered.
I still have a passion for writing, and it works well with the passion for Christ, because He is present in all issues and people, with forgiveness and healing and hope. It's a mission to see that and speak of that in writing. We don't have to be Mother Teresa or Padre Pio to live the love of Jesus in all things.
When Pope John Paul II wrote Redemptoris Missio, he suggested many ways to evangelize, beyond becoming missionaries. "Among the laity who become evangelizers, catechists have a place of honor", he stated. (RM 73) But the new evangelization also needs "leaders of prayer, song and Liturgy leaders in the various forms of apostolate; religion teachers in schools. All the members of the laity ought to devote a part of their time to the Church, living their faith authentically". (RM 74)
That's a challenge. So is "Proclaim Jesus Christ!", which the priest at the mission punctuated with arm raised high, finger stabbing the air of the sanctuary, voice firm and commanding. The message was: get out there right now and get started, no matter who or where you are.
The Summons to Christ's Mission
At the end of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, at the dawn of this new millennium, Pope John Paul II renewed the urgency of his reminder that the Redeemer's mission has continued in each member of the Church. In his Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineuente (As the New Millennium Draws Near), in a section subtitled "Proclaiming the Word", the Holy Father states that in some countries, the reality of a Christian society is now gone, and that globalization makes new demands on Christians:
Over the years, I have often repeated the summons to the new evangelization. I do so again now, especially in order to insist that we must rekindle in ourselves the impetus of the beginnings and allow ourselves to be filled with the ardor of the apostolic preaching which followed Pentecost. We must revive in ourselves the burning conviction of Paul, who cried out: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel". (I Cor 9:16)
This passion will not fail to stir in the Church a new sense of mission, which cannot be left to a group of "specialists" but must involve the responsibility of all the members of the People of God. Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep Him for themselves, they must proclaim Him. (NMI 40)
The Holy Father points out that special commitment and sensitivity will be required as we address different groups of people in our diverse culture. But everyone notices sanctity, generosity and charity, and that at least gets people's attention, as Archbishop Giuseppe Chiaretti of Perugia observed in his Pastoral Letter for Lent 2001:
It is with holiness of life that the Christian becomes "interesting"; even for a distracted public opinion. Interesting not because he works "miracles" but because he has the courage to go against the tide, he is not ashamed of his faith, rather he speaks of it with joy and enthusiasm, he shows consistency in all of his choices, he knows the personal price of the social marginalization to which he may be condemned, forgiving and loving those who place him upon the cross.
To take up this mission -- "to preach the Gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15) -- requires that we speak clearly and directly, be focused, and on fire for the truth. Archbishop Chaput emphasized this in his 1998 address:
The good news is not a message of niceness. It is a revolutionary message of new life in Christ through death to the self and the world usually doesn't want to hear it, and will often resist it with violence. I ask you to pray for me - as I will pray for you - to have the same courage which the apostles found at Pentecost: to preach Jesus Christ with passion and conviction, in season and out, so that others may hear and believe.