Mysteries and Paradoxes of Evangelization – A Meditation on a Passage from the Gospel of Mark

020315In the Church throughout the world today, we are rightly more focused on evangelization. It is “job one,” and Jesus could not have been clearer: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt 28:18-20).

However, even as we become more serious and practical about effective ways of evangelization, we must also remember the paradox and the mysteries that underlie the growth of the Kingdom. We can and should strive to learn “best practices” and what makes for dynamic parishes and outreach. But even when many of these things are in place (e.g., dynamic preaching, good liturgy, a welcoming parish, eucharistic adoration), growth does not always come; numbers may even continue to decrease. Conversely, even in parishes where preaching is weak, liturgy perfunctory, and devotions hurried, there may be significant growth and pews that are rather full. I know parishes that should be growing, but are not. I also know parishes that are growing almost in spite of themselves.

There ARE mysterious aspects to the growth or decline of the Church. In the gospel from last Friday’s daily Mass, Jesus said,

This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come (Mark 4:26-29).

And thus the Lord teaches that much of the growth in the Kingdom of God is mysterious and works “we know not how.”

Only one thing is clear: we must sow the seed. That’s “job one.” Indeed, we must work ardently to “scatter seed.” By extension, we should do our best to prepare the soil well, and after sowing the seed, cultivate.

But much that is mysterious lies beyond our knowledge or control. St. Paul says elsewhere,

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Cor 3:6-7).

So, the seed MUST be sown; watering and cultivating are also important follow-ups. But in the end, God alone will decide what will be fruitful and grow, and what will not. Sometimes God deems it necessary to prune, or even to let the soil lie fallow for a time. That is His business. Meanwhile, we should do our work, faithfully and persistently. If we discover that we are doing some things wrong, fine, correct them. But sometimes it is not clear that we are falling short. Work anyway and wait for the Lord.

The Lord will often act in paradoxical (surprising) ways. Looking back on Church history, we can see that the Lord often acts out of the blue to bring reform and a bumper crop!

In the 4th century, the Roman Empire, though it had finally accepted Christ, continued to decline. Why? Jerome got so depressed that he went and lived in a cave. St. Augustine agonized aloud by writing The City of God. The Romans themselves caved and Constantine abandoned the great city, moving east to Constantinople! The Barbarians sacked Rome! It was one disaster after another.

But Pope Gregory met Alaric at the gates of Rome and there began a conversation that led to the eventual conversion of the “barbarians” to Christ. Europe would bloom with the faith, but not in the way many of the 4th century had ever thought.

And then, just as the faith was blooming, all of Northern Africa and Asia Minor were lost to the invading Muslims! The cradle of the Church was robbed even as Europe began to bloom.

Beginning in the 16th century, several million Catholics walked out of the Church during the Protestant revolt. But at the same time, nine million Mexicans walked in at Guadalupe.

Today, as Europe continues its decline into suicidal trends, Africa is once again blooming, with a 7000% increase in the number of Catholics over the last 50 years.

Yes, these are mysteries. Losses here, but sudden increases there. And even in the darkest moments, reform comes, seemingly out of nowhere. In such dark times, God sent the likes of Gregory the Great, Catherine of Siena, Dominic, Francis, and Vincent De Paul. They came as if out of nowhere.

Yes, mysteries, and paradoxes, too.

A paradox is something that surprises us because it is contrary (para)  to the common thinking (doxa). So, paradoxically, when it comes to “having what it takes” to be an effective evangelizer, the Lord often shows that he did not “get the memo.”

Once again, consider the same gospel from last week, in which Jesus goes on to say,

To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade (Mark 4:30-31).

In other words, what looks unpromising, even pathetic, has a way of surprising us. A mustard seed is small, unpromising, and seems unlikley to amount to much. But there is a vigorous spark of life in that little speck of seed!

Jesus’ establishment of the Church was very paradoxical. He never “got the memo” that He should choose only the best and brightest. The twelve He selected were not particularly noted for being eloquent, natural leaders, bright, or fearless. Throughout the gospels, the most frequent picture of them is of their inept responses. Jesus teaches and teaches and teaches, but they just don’t seem to get it. Only after Pentecost do we see them quicken!

Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further develops the paradox of God’s ways in reaching the world:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” 1 Cor 1:20ff.

Yes this passage is dripping with paradox!

  1. The Cross, not comfort – Many today exhort us to speak more tenderly to a tender age. We should be more positive, less demanding, more merciful, more known for what we are for than what we are against. Sugar and honey attract more than vinegar and gall. But St. Paul and the Holy Spirit didn’t get this memo, for we are exhorted to preach “Christ crucified” even though this is an absurdity and a stumbling block to the world. Let us not forget to manifest our joy, but even in doing so, let us also not neglect to embrace the paradox of the Cross.
  2. Fools more so than formally educated – Studying and learning have their place. Learn your faith well and be prepared to defend it with patience and love. Parishes need to do a better job of teaching the faith to those who would spread it. But in this, we must not be too quick to make easy compromises with the thinking of the world. We are not to look for so many areas of common ground  that we cede the ground of faith to the world. We are wisest of all in Christ when the world calls us fools.
  3. Apologetics but not apologizers – Apologetics has its place, so that we can reach the reasonable of this world. But apologetics is a word that originally and more deeply means to explain the faith, not make apologies for it. Paradoxically, a true apologist is on his game when many are calling him foolish, when they are scoffing that faith is weak and despicable. Jesus warns, Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets (Lk 6:26).
  4. Pure more than palatable – The paradox is that faith that is made too “palatable” is almost certainly not faith at all. Now this may all be in violation of “Marketing 101.” But again, God is not in receipt of the world’s little memos. True evangelization is often paradoxical, since it does not fit easily into the categories of marketers and sociologists, who are often horrified at how “off-message” the faith can seem to the world. Even in the Church, many demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. But remember, God has been at this work just a little longer than marketers and publicity folks imagine. His paradoxes have a way of winning the day when the ephemeral and fickle views of the world fade away.

In a final passage from the gospel we have been considering, Jesus demonstrates a surprising technique so paradoxical that it seems downright offensive to modern minds. The text says,

With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it. Without parables he did not speak to them, but to his own disciples he explained everything in private (Mk 4:33-34).

Notice that Jesus was discreet. He spoke to the crowds only in parables and saved more extensive explanations for “private” discussions with His disciples. Jesus says elsewhere, Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine (Mat 7:6).

Now this notion of NOT putting everything “out there” is very paradoxical to us, especially today. Our notion is to get everything in front of everyone. We strive to be on TV, the radio, the Internet. We are exhorted to invite anyone and everyone to come to Mass, attend baptisms, go to weddings, etc. The door is open! The Light is on for you! We televise our most sacred events and share our deepest doctrines with anyone who asks.

Now fine, this may be a necessary stance today. But we do well to at least consider that Jesus did not get this memo either. He was guarded with the crowds.

The early Church also maintained a “discipline of the secret,” wherein only the baptized were admitted to the sacred liturgies. Our sacred doctrines were defended to a degree by the likes of St. Justin Martyr, but they were not simply laid out there for all to see.

The point is this: though we may think that good evangelization depends on openness to be successful (and I do not deny that this is largely true today), the paradox is that it does not necessarily depend on it. Most deeply, it depends on God.

Consider a liturgical example. In the days of the “Old Latin Mass,” all the usual modern rules for effective communication were broken. The Mass was offered in an ancient language; it was conducted remotely at an altar against the wall; it was largely whispered; and the people were not all that “involved” in the sacred action other than to witness it and (hopefully) pray along. The Mass was not easily “understood,” especially by the uninitiated.

But people piled in to Mass! That form of the Mass inspired great music, great architecture, and soaring, art-filled churches. The Mass inspired great devotion and generated a huge number of saints.

Today, the liturgy is in receipt of all the “memos” of the modern world. It is conducted in a language that is intelligible; it is conducted facing the people, who are encouraged to get involved in numerous ways. A key goal today is that the Mass be easily “understood,” even by the uninitiated.

But the people stay away in droves. Mass attendance looms toward 20%, down from nearly 80% in the “arcane” days.

The old liturgy broke all of the marketing rules, but people came. The new liturgy follows many of the marketing rules, but (mysteriously) people have fallen away.

Granted, the issue is more complicated than liturgy alone. But the point remains that evangelization and the growth of the kingdom are mysterious things, and often quite paradoxical.

Should we continue to do everything we can to spread the faith in the usual manner using media, training, and the widest possible exposure? Sure! Today, at least, this is how we prepare the soil, sow the seed, and help to cultivate.

But in humility and serenity, we must also accept that there are mysteries as to what works and what does not. Growth sometimes comes out of nowhere for no good (discernible) reason. God often surprises us with sudden growth spurts that are hard to explain. Meanwhile, we work as best as we can and do what seems wisest.

But how about a little humility that allows paradoxical things to work, paradoxical because they do not conform to the rules of the world? How about a little humility that is willing to listen to God? We are always asking God to bless what we do. Why not (at least occasionally) find out what God is already blessing and go do that?

Paradox and mystery may well have a lot more to do with evangelization than all our biggie-wow plans and glossy marketing.

Lord, we seek a miraculous catch of fish in our day and we are open to surprises. Keep us faithful to your teachings, which are “out of season” today. Help us to cast your nets faithfully and be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say, often in tension with our own instincts. And, like Peter, may we experience the astonishing miracle of a great catch that will make us fall to our knees in wonderment and humility at the mystery and paradox of your work. Have mercy on us, Lord, and work, often in spite of us, to enrich your kingdom in ways “we know not how.” In Jesus’ name! Amen.

10 Replies to “Mysteries and Paradoxes of Evangelization – A Meditation on a Passage from the Gospel of Mark”

  1. Couple of random thoughts…I do think that the RCC retains mystery, even these days. Two examples come to mind…During Christmas, our local paper will have many ads for Christmas services for Protestant churches. “Come! Anyone! 7 pm! Candlelight! Donuts! Come!” You don’t see any ads like that from Catholic churches, for obvious reasons. The other thing that comes to mind are the signs that Protestant churches try to put up by the street with the sayings that change every week, “Winter is cold, seek the Son here” etc. You also don’t see those on RCC churches.

    1. They had an article in the Arizona Republic recently that some Protestant ecclesial Christian communities are putting in skating rinks in an attemp to lure families.

      In our building project we are putting in a prayer garden.

  2. Awesome indeed.

    The one thing I’d say, though, is that this approach of opening to the world ( a la Vatican II) has failed. And further, not only has it failed from an expediency standpoint, I’d argue that theologically, it is contrary to the Gospel which is constantly telling us not to be conformed to this world, that “the world” is at war with the Gospel.

  3. ” Wherefore it is manifest that the sacraments of the Church derive their power specially from Christ’s Passion, the virtue of which is in a manner united to us by our receiving the sacraments. It was in sign of this that from the side of Christ hanging on the Cross there flowed water and blood, the former of which belongs to Baptism, the latter to the Eucharist, which are the principal sacraments.”–St. Thomas Aquinas

  4. “Jesus teaches and teaches and teaches, but they just don’t seem to get it.”

    This is comforting to me. I have been Catholic for sixty years, and I often apologize to Our Lord for my apparent density in still not “getting it” despite how I try. Daily I pray for the grace to keep trying until my dying day. Even if I die having not gotten it, I will at least have died trying.

  5. The US President was obeying The First Commandment of God when he spoke of religious freedom during his visit to India in January. “Your Article 25 (of the constitution) says that all people are ‘equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’.” Mr. Obama told a town hall address to mostly young Indians. From a news report Also from Catechism of the Catholic Church, part three, chapter one, Article1 The First Commandment heading The social duty of religion and the right to religious freedom.

    Many Thanks, hoping you can find it.

  6. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the LORD.

    For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.

    Is 55:8-9 NAB

  7. Dear Monsignor Pope:
    Your ability to take a complex theological topic and make it clear and understandable to me is so much appreciated. Please know that there are thousands more “out there” who feel the same. May God continue to shower you with blessings.

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