Flavour of the Gospel16 Oct 2021
Everyone, in their different ways, has the ability to spread the good news of the Gospel.
Evangelisation, I confess, is not one of my favourite words. We hear it almost exclusively in churches, often to describe something we are all in favour of, but are not sure about what it asks of us.
In common use, it is often associated with evangelicals and evangelists. The latter have a bad name, evoking images of wild-eyed people preaching on street corners, or of handsome men, sleek, fastidiously dressed, capturing the attention of a huge group of eager listeners with the assistance of a team of experts.
My first reaction to the word and to the images attached to it, I readily admit, reflects my prejudices. When Pope Francis talks of evangelisation as he does in his prayer intention for October, however, he has something much more earthy and practical in mind. He speaks of ‘witnesses of a life that has the flavour of the Gospel’. His phrase suggests that evangelisation is something much broader than speaking about Christian faith. It includes all the relationships between people and with our world that encourage people to taste the Gospel.
Evangelisation is about the whole of living, not solely about its directly religious aspects. It is not about this but not about that. It is about both this and that. It includes the whole of our lives.
Evangelisation recognises that Christian faith is more than a set of religious beliefs that we accept or do not accept. It is a whole life which in all of us, Christian or non-Christian, has many layers of belief and doubt, generosity and meanness, attentiveness and blindness, hope and giving up, love and apathy. To come to faith or to make it central in our lives we all need to encounter people who witness to the flavour of the Gospel.
Evangelisation is not confined to periodic missions, pastoral programs or media campaigns. Jesus wants the Gospel to touch all our relationships: to other people, to nature, to work, as well as to religious rituals and symbols. We may find God’s presence in nature and be drawn to thank God for the beauty of the world and for being invited into such a wonderful world. For us, hiking, cycling and sitting by a stream will then be ways of evangelisation.
The religious practices and memories that are woven into the tapestry of our lives are also part of evangelisation. They might include statues, crucifixes, Masses, family Rosaries, hymns and poems, the smell of a rural church, and all the conversations that draw us to wonder at the mystery of our lives, whether these are explicitly religious or not.
In the chapel of a home for homeless men who have lived much of their lives on the streets, a large, battered crucifix holds pride of place in the chapel. It has lost a leg, and much paint. Over it, dating from the foundation of the house by the Missionaries of Charity, are the words, ‘I thirst’. To many of the men and those who accompany them, the crucifix carries the smell of the Good News as powerfully as any sermon.
If evangelisation is so broad, we should expect to see surprising evangelists. They might certainly include a man who devises programs, speaks and write publicly to large audiences and win a large following. Among them might also be a homeless woman who has had a hard life, suffers from addiction, and sits praying the Rosary at the back of the church, or the couple who pour out coffee with a welcoming smile after Mass. Each in their different ways might touch, often without realising it, the hearts of Catholics or non-Christians with the flavour of the Gospel.
Do you need to be a Catholic, or indeed even a Christian, to be an evangelist? I would once have been sure that that you do. Now I am not so sure. Meeting Sopheap made me wonder. She and her seven children spent hard years in a Cambodian village in the Pol Pot time. Khmer Rouge soldiers controlled the village and its grain store, which was reserved for regime cadres. Anyone who was caught taking rice from it was instantly killed, with the certain consequence that their children would also die – the people lived close to starvation. I met Sopheap after she had come to a refugee camp by the Thai Border. She had gathered orphans to live with her and her children, and was also training young women to act as social workers for the poorest families in the camp. One day, she told me that she had stolen rice during the Pol Pot years. ‘To keep your children alive, surely?’, I asked, wondering at her bravery. ‘No’, she answered, ‘I did not steal for my children, but for the old people who had no one to find food for them’. I was silent, overwhelmed by the sudden, overpowering scent of the Gospel.
Sopheap was a Buddhist, then. She later became Catholic and a leader within the Catholic community, encouraged by the generosity of some Christians she had met in the camp. If being ‘witness to a life that has the flavour of the Gospel’ makes you an evangelist, she was surely that after she became a Catholic. But did she become an evangelist only after her baptism? Or is it too daring to say that, while she risked so much in the Khmer Rouge village, and served so selflessly her fellow refugees, she already was an evangelist?
This article first appeared in the Spring 2021 edition of Madonna magazine.