LEAD STORY

The priest as evangelist

Damian Feeney on the gift of evangelism and the importance of identifying and encouraging it in others

Mention the word ‘evangelist’ and it is a loaded word. Images of larger-than-life charlatans, or slogan-bound figures in public places shouting at no one in particular still tend to impose themselves in our minds whenever the ‘e-word’ is mentioned. It is ironic when you consider that an evangelist is meant to be a ‘teller of good news.’ When I look back on my youth, I recall with joy the ministry of the priest that was instrumental both in proclaiming the faith to me and offering a remarkable role model for priesthood.

His qualities? He was a quiet, gentle soul – fervent in prayer, disciplined in his rule of life, firm and honest in preaching the Gospel, wise in counsel, diligent in pastoral care. Above all, he lived the Catholic Christian life in an attractive way, a way which showed love for his congregation whilst constantly challenging us with the standards of ceaseless love encompassed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. He was a true evangelist, and many were blessed with the gift of faith through him. He was a world away from those caricatures.

Holiness of life

Priests have a crucial role in modelling the faith. Conversations at the recent ACS Vocations Conference at St Stephen’s House granted me the privilege of hearing the stories of others, discerning the will of God in their own lives, with similar examples to mine. Holiness of life is infectious, and attractive, and it persuades others of the value and importance of lives spent in the costly service of the Gospel.

The gift of evangelism to the Church is a specific one. Sometimes priests fall shy of the doing of evangelism – the story telling, the making connections between the life of people around us and the life of faith in Christ found in the church. Recall the words of Ephesians 4: ‘And to some, his gift was that they should be apostles; to some, prophets; to some, evangelists, to some, pastors and teachers, to knit God’s holy people together for the work of service to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in faith and knowledge of the son of God’ (Ephesians 4.11–13a, NRSV).

Issuing invitations

So – the gift is found within the Body, if not specifically held by all. It’s a vital gift, focusing as it does on the business of seeking out those who are searching for truth, sharing the story of the good news of faith, leading those who once were far away from God into a renewed and close relationship with him.

 

As a friend of mine once memorably put it, ‘An evangelist’s task is to issue the invitations to the Heavenly Banquet’ – a splendid, rich and altogether enticing image. It is important that we recognize that such invitations are invitations into God’s kingdom rather than simply church membership – but in places where this gift is alive and used in the right way, there is little doubt that people respond with curiosity and a desire to explore the faith. Such parishes and churches inevitably grow.

Prayerful discernment

Because of the nature of apostolic ministry, it is inevitable that bishops, priests and deacons carry a proportion of the responsibility for this task. Even if clergy do not have the specific gift, we are still needed to act as a focus for it within the local church. This can mean finding those who show signs of such activity in our congregations, spending time with them, and encouraging their ministry. My last parish was blessed with a person who possessed such a gift – the gift of personal invitation (in such a way that people couldn’t refuse!) alongside the ability to tell the story of her faith in a compelling and attractive way (and at the right time!).

Such people need nurturing, encouraging, and (sometimes) protecting, so that the Kingdom can reap the rewards. In a parish part of the responsibility of clergy is the task of prayerful discernment, perhaps within personal intercessory prayer and colloquy. Who are the evangelists, the storytellers, those whose lives attract and challenge? These are people whose energy can be focused in a vital and transforming way.

 

We only become aware of a gift by being placed in situations by God where that gift must be exercised. It is not necessarily about feeling good, or comfortable, but rather about trying, and seeing what the results might be. And the more we try, the better we become. And when we fall short, we are reminded of two important truths – that the work of evangelism is ultimately God’s responsibility, and that it is his grace, not our gift, which converts. Recall the words of the mighty St Jean Vianney, in which this is clearly understood: ‘[Lord,] grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer whatever you wish, for my entire life!’

Proclaiming the faith

All of this has added importance when we contemplate all that lies before us. Our current difficulties should make us more concerned for evangelism, not less. Behind the complexities and discouragements of the debate over women bishops and an increasingly liberal theological agenda, there is still the imperative of the Gospel faithfully proclaimed and the importance of that Gospel in a society where people are now actively encouraged to distrust the whole business of faithful and faith-based living.

A believed faith is a proclaimed faith, a lived faith. Wherever we are led to witness (and in whatever context), the need for people with a lively, confessed faith is as vital to God’s purposes as ever.

There are three specific issues which seem to colour the world of faithful living. The first is the number of people we meet who are happy without faith. The second is the issue of the credibility of the Church. The third is the (often valid) accusation of hypocrisy which is so often raised by those hearing the claims of Christ – that we do not live as our Master lives. The importance of honesty in these types of encounters cannot be over-estimated. The questions people raise as criticisms are so often opportunities for fruitful conversation.

Parish ministry offers the privilege of sharing that which is most precious to us. The daily round of prayer and sacrament, the privilege of preaching and teaching, the life of pastoral care and spiritual accompaniment, the building up of groups of people committed to excellence in ministry – all of these tasks offer the means by which the faith is modelled and taught. Here a gauntlet can be thrown down to the wider community, challenging self-centred, loveless and unjust ways of living.

Pastoral understanding

All too often it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the task of evangelism just isn’t me’. We are tempted to contrast evangelism with pastoral care; ‘Oh, I’m a pastor, not an evangelist’. Of course the best pastoral care is profoundly evangelistic, because it models the life of Christ, just as the best evangelism begins with a deep pastoral understanding and knowledge of the people with whom we engage. The most important examples of this are often to be found in our experiences of the occasional offices, but in truth can occur anywhere.

As ever, we take Jesus as our model of evangelism. He teaches large crowds, but then focuses on individuals – think of Zaccheus, or Bartimeus, or the woman who sought his healing by touching the hem of his garment. All of these were people in crowds, to whom Jesus devoted his attention, love and grace. Effective evangelism so often begins with the genuine befriending of individuals who in turn find in that friendship a host of questions which their normal frames of reference cannot answer – and so they are forced to face the dimensions of the spiritual and the faith-based which may have received scant attention in their lives thus far.

Recovering our confidence

What does this mean for the day-to-day ministry of the priest? Of course, some time is necessary – time to ponder who the people are in our communities who are not content with glib half-truths about life, but who long for something more; these are the seekers after truth and we should spend time looking for them, befriending them, eating and sharing with them. So much of our time is spent with individuals. How do we use that time? Do we speak of the things of God, or of the weather? Do we issue the invitations personally, so that people realize that they are being invited to a place where they will be loved, valued and cherished, and that we genuinely mind whether they are included or not?

For some time now we have pondered the question of the recovery of our confidence. Perhaps some of that recovery might come with a re-emphasizing of the evangelistic role of priesthood, as a focus and sign of the vocation of the whole Church to be a people of the New Evangelization, a people who are focused on being and telling Good News, a people who offer the hope of Christ’s Risen Life. ND

This paper was originally given
at the Catholic Societies
Vocations Conference
at St Stephen’s House

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