Paradoxes of Evangelization

There are certain paradoxes and mysteries that underlie the growth of the Kingdom. While we should strive to implement “best practices” (e.g., good liturgy, dynamic preaching, Eucharistic adoration, a welcoming parish atmosphere), even when many of these things are in place, growth may still not occur; in fact, sometimes number may decline. Conversely, in some parishes where the liturgy is perfunctory, preaching is weak, and devotions are hurried, there may be significant growth. I know parishes that should be growing but are not; I also know ones that are growing almost in spite of themselves.

There are mysterious aspects to the growth or decline of the Church. 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 (Mark 4:26-29).

Thus, the Lord teaches that much of the growth in the Kingdom of God is mysterious; it 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. However, there much that is mysterious and lies beyond our knowledge or control.

Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further developed the paradox of God’s ways of reaching the world. What we tend to think is good “marketing” does not seem to impress God. He delivers to the world a message that is not popular, but because it is of Him it wins the day. Consider this passage:

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).

Consider some of the paradoxical and countercultural ways in which St. Paul says that must we engage the world:

  • The cross, not comfort – Many people today say that we should speak more tenderly. We should be more positive, less demanding, and more merciful. We should strive to be known more for what we are for than what we are against. It is said that honey attracts more than vinegar, but clearly St. Paul and the Holy Spirit don’t agree, for we are exhorted to preach “Christ crucified” even though this is an absurdity to the world. Let us not forget to manifest our joy, but even in doing so let us not neglect to embrace the paradox of the cross.
  • 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. However, we must not equate learning with godly wisdom. As St. Paul notes, the early Church did not draw foremost from the educated classes, but rather from the humble, the poor, and the uneducated. They won the ancient world not merely by learning, but also by joy, faith, courageous martyrdom, and simple virtue.
  • Apologetics but not apologies – Notice that St. Paul accepts that many in the world call us foolish. Apologetics has its place (so that we can reach the reasonable of this world by explaining and setting forth the reasonableness of faith), but it involves explaining and defending the faith, not making apologies for it. It is easy to make the mistake of trying to make the faith agreeable to others, watering down truths that challenge or forever delaying talking about the “hard” truths. Jesus started with the hard things. “Repent!” was His opening word. Whatever methods we choose, we cannot through endless prudence forever postpone proclaiming the whole counsel of God, in season and out of season. Some will scoff and say, “This is a hard saying who can endure it?” (John 6:60) A true apologist has not necessarily lost when someone scoffs; he has only lost when he fails to proclaim the whole faith. Scoffers may reconsider; those who reject the truth may repent; but truth unspoken, distorted, or watered down is a total victory for Satan.
  • Pure more than palatable – “Marketing 101” principles would say that in order to sell our “product” we should try to make it palatable to our target audience. However, faith that is made too palatable is almost certainly not the faith at all. True evangelization does not fit easily into the tidy categories of marketers and sociologists, who are often horrified at how “off-message” the faith can seem to the modern world. Even in the Church, many people demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. Remember, God has been at this just a little longer than marketers and publicity folks. His paradoxes have a way of winning the day when the ephemeral and fickle views of the world fade away.

Should we continue to do everything we can to spread the faith through various media, dynamic training opportunities, and trying to get the widest possible exposure? Sure! Today, at least, this is how we prepare the soil, sow the seed, and help to cultivate.

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

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 do that?

Paradox and mystery may well have a lot more to do with effective evangelization than all our grand plans and glossy marketing campaigns.

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 to be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say even if it does not agree 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 wonder 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.

In this clip from the very unusual television series “The Young Pope,” the attractiveness of hiddenness and mystery is developed. It is way over the top, but the point remains that evangelization should inculcate mystery and draw forth the curiosity to which Jesus said, “Come and see.”

4 Replies to “Paradoxes of Evangelization”

  1. Thank you Msgr. Pope for your blog. It truly proclaims the gospel in and out of season. I appreciate the clarity and wisdom that I find here.

  2. I want to share a story that convinced me of the importance of sowing the seed. I had a job working with a gentleman that was a very devout “Bible Only” Christian. We had a number of conversations about faith that “in my eyes” didn’t go very well. I wasn’t yet sound in articulating my Catholic faith, only knowing enough to be dangerous. Right before I left the company I gave him a copy of a book by a Catholic apologist. We quickly lost touch after I left the company and never thought much more about him. More than 20 years later, in my mailbox one afternoon, was a small package which contained the book and a short note attached. As close as I can remember, it went something very similar to this; “Dear Chris, I wanted to return this book that you gave me back in 1995. I won’t be needing it anymore as my family and I were welcomed into the Catholic Church this past Easter Sunday. While my journey took nearly 20 years, and was a complete shock to my extended family, we are now joyfully Catholic! I wanted you to know that reading this book that you gave me was the beginning of my long journey home to the Church! Thank you and God bless!”

    I learned a couple of valuable lessons that day at my mailbox and I have carried it with me ever since. All of those years ago, I was arrogantly trusting myself instead of the Lord. It was a reminder that the Lord can use any of us to bring someone home to the Church. It is He that speaks to the heart of those willing to listen. Our job is to be humbly open to the Lord’s use of our meager faith. One final lesson that I learned from this story that I think is important on this 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Back in the mid 1990’s, I would have avoided sharing Church teaching on contraception because back then, I foolishly thought the Church got that one wrong. After reconnecting with this old coworker, he indicated to me that the Church’s teaching on contraception was one of the key factors in his and his wife’s conversion. Praise the Lord!

  3. I’m afraid I have to disagree with your Marketing 101 analogy. True Marketing begins with identifying a need. To jump in with a general message fails to recognize what is missing from society and from the individual.

    While we may want certain things (i.e. “world peace”), our true needs are far more complicated. Our current state is one of indulgence on easy messages – we look for morality candy if you will. It’s quick, easy, and you get a quick “high” from it.

    Sadly, human beings are far more complicated. While we want to feel good, we have lost the ability to know ourselves and to understand that temporal good feelings are almost always followed by a neutral period if not a down-right crash. It is a solid faith that allows us to weather those highs and lows.

    Mass messages are fine if your product is established, however we should consider it’s time to re-brand our message and start over. We need to look at each other individually and speak from the heart. Our “intelligence” isn’t going to win anyone, but if we begin to love others with the heart of Jesus rather than the pride of man, we at least have a chance at reaching them.

  4. But perhaps its a mistake to equate the growth of a parish with the growth of the Kingdom too much, at least if we measure growth in terms of numbers. Growth in numbers is not necessarily the same as growth in faithfulness. Ideally we would want to have both, but if we had to choose, I would suspect that growth in faithfulness is more to be desired than growth in numbers.

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