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Our Duty to Proclaim Christ
The Need for Spiritual Martyrdom in Living the Catholic Faith
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
If there is one theme that Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, keeps stressing to the faithful it is the imperative, Proclaim Christ! We do well to examine what this means.
To proclaim Christ means to make Christ known by those who do not yet know Him, and better known by those who do not know Him well. This is absolutely necessary if Christ is to be loved and served as He deserves, for we do not love what we do not know, and we do not give ourselves in devoted service except to someone we love. Knowledge must come first, then love, and then service.
But proclaiming Christ is a very special way of making Christ known. It means telling others about Christ in such a way as to convince them that Jesus is their only hope of happiness in this life and in the life to come. Proclaiming Christ means that we ourselves have a deep relationship with Christ, that He is the most important person in our lives, that we personally love Christ, and that we want nothing more than to convince others that there is no treasure more precious and no joy more satisfying than the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus.
We must be sure, however, that the Christ we proclaim is the real Christ, and not the product of someones fervent imagination. There are many zealots nowadays telling us, Here is Christ or There is Christ, but the one they are proclaiming is not the Son of God, who became the Son of Mary. The real Christ is now physically on earth in the Blessed Sacrament and is speaking on earth in the person of His Vicar the Bishop of Rome.
Why Proclaim Christ?
Remember, we receive nothing from God to keep to ourselves alone. We are obliged to share as a condition of our salvation, as the Savior made plain in His prophecy about the last day. To whom more has been given, he is expected to give more to others. Therefore, we might say that Christ should be proclaimed because He wants to be known by those whom He came into the world to save. Knowing Him, people will respond to His goodness by obeying His commandments and striving to imitate the life that He lived.
When the Savior told the apostles before His Ascension to make disciples of all nations, He was speaking through them to us. This is the first and basic reason why Christ should be proclaimed: because He wants human beings like Thomas to adore Him as their Lord and their God, and like the repentant Peter to tell Him, Lord, you know all things, you know that I love you.
But there is another and more immediately urgent reason why we should proclaim Christ. Perhaps never before in history has mankind been more desperately in need of a Savior. The scientific explosion of modern times has opened up vistas of secular knowledge that were not even dreamed to exist as recently as the past century. We have penetrated into the secret of the atom and man has set foot on the moon. We travel across space faster than the velocity of sound, and we can communicate ideas across the world with the velocity of light.
Yet all these advancements in tapping the secrets of matter have not been balanced with a corresponding development in man's spirit. The modern world, certainly our Western American world, is spiritually ill. This illness is deep, deep down in the human heart, and no one but the living Christ can heal it. In order to heal the illness of our society, Christ must be known as the Divine Physician - if he is to work the miracles of restoring ailing souls to health, and even of raising dead souls back to supernatural life.
To Whom Do We Proclaim?
But to whom should we proclaim Christ? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it may seem. There are, in fact, as many answers as there are Christians. Absolutely speaking, we should proclaim Christ to everyone, since the Lord's mandate is clear enough. We are to make known the Good News to all creatures.
But the very universality of our mission as believers may obscure our personal responsibility. It is right here, I believe, that something has been drastically missing in the Church's apostolate. For how is it that after almost 2000 years since the Incarnation much less than half the human race is even nominally Christian, and among Christians only about half qualify as professed Catholics?
One would think that after all these years since Christ died and rose from the dead at least more, if not most, of mankind would be Christian and indeed Catholic. It stands to reason, one might say. After all, is not the Person of Jesus the most appealing, even on human grounds, in the annals of history? Is not the message of Jesus sublime in the highest degree? Is not the Christian ethic elevating of personal and social morality, as in raising women to a dignity that is unknown outside the true Faith? Has not Christ promised to give the help of His grace to those who proclaim His name, and even to work miracles in witness to the truth of His claims?
We answer yes to all of these questions, and then sadly turn to the facts. Not only is only about one-third of the human family Christian, but the ratio of growth among non-Christians is greater by far than in Christian cultures, now plagued by contraception, divorce, and legalized murder of the unborn.
What is the explanation? There are no simple answers, and the final estimate must be left to the mysterious judgment of God. Nevertheless, one explanation is the fact that proclaiming Christ is costly, and too many Christians have been unwilling to pay the price.
They will give lip service to what they sincerely believe. (And Faith comes from hearing. None of us would be a believer today unless some believer in Christ had first told us about Him. If Faith comes from hearing, someone who believes must do the speaking. This much is too evident to be questioned.) But when it comes to carrying this into practice, then suddenly something happens. We freeze in our tracks, and our zeal becomes strangely cold.
Yet we reread the Gospels and what do we find? We find that Christ Himself was not successful in proclaiming Himself to the world. He experienced opposition and persecution and finally was crucified for daring to intrude on the smug complacency of the people of His day. And He made it clear that those who were to follow Him and try to communicate His message of salvation would face the same thing.
Thus we return to our question, To whom should we proclaim Christ? Our reply: We should proclaim Christ to everyone who enters our lives from this day to our dying day. Everyone.
The object of our zeal has to be practical and prudent; it should be loving and generous. But it must be universal; it must be a conscious effort to radiate Christ and reveal Him, make Him known or better known by every single person whose life we touch in any way: from a three minute telephone call to a friend, to a 300 page book some scholars might publish in the years to come. To whom should we proclaim Christ? To every man, woman and child that God puts into our lives, if only for a moment or, as in marriage, for a lifetime.
We have no illusions about what this will cost us. But neither do we doubt that this is our God-given responsibility. And this brings us to one last question, in a way the most important one: How should we proclaim Christ?
How to Proclaim Christ
There is deep mystery implied in proclaiming Christ. In God's ordinary Providence He uses external means to confer internal grace. So true is this that ordinarily He requires some kind of sense perceptible communication by means of eye or ear in order to give actual grace to the mind and heart.
Christ spoke. He spoke often; He spoke in detail; He spoke in sermons and parables and allegories; He spoke to individuals and He spoke to crowds. He spoke, it seems, at such great length that more than once He became exhausted from this verbal communication. Moreover, Christ performed actions, especially the acts of virtue that everyone could see. He practiced patience with the apostles; He practiced charity towards those in need; He practiced mercy towards sinners; and He practiced perfect obedience to the will of His Father.
The point is that we should proclaim Christ as Christ proclaimed Himself, by word of mouth and by word of life: by talking about Christ and telling others what Christ wants people to do; and by living Christ and thus proclaiming Him by the Christian virtues that we perform.
Among the letters that St. Francis Xavier sent to St. Ignatius of Loyola from India is one that he wrote in 1542, about the lack of missionaries to preach the Gospel to the pagans: Many, many people hereabouts, he lamented, are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going around to the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity, What a tragedy; how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!
Xavier was no exception. The saints had a clear and unsentimental belief in the existence of heaven and hell. They believed that Christ came into the world to save the world for heaven and from hell. And they spent themselves proclaiming Christ because they realized that only by the grace of Christ can we reach heaven and avoid hell.
We asked the question of how to proclaim Christ. We should proclaim Christ as men and women who know Christ from the official teaching of the Church and from the personal experience that comes from prayer. How should we proclaim Christ? We should proclaim Christ as persons who are deeply in love with Christ, which means we are willing to do anything, no matter how hard, if it is pleasing to Christ. For the difficulty in proclaiming Christ is not that the Gospel He preached is hard to understand. The difficulty is rather in the demands that His teaching makes on the human will.
As time goes by, we will more than once be tempted to keep silent out of fear of rejection or of being ignored, or even strongly opposed. We will be afraid of losing a friend or making an enemy. We will be urged to compromise on the Faith we have heard and on the virtue that, as Catholics, we know we should live.
But let us remember this. Just before Christ left this world in visible form, He told the disciples, and through them is telling us, You are to be my witnesses in Samaria, Judea and even to the ends of the earth. The Biblical word for witnesses is martyroi.
What are we being told? We are being told to be martyrs of Christ. That is what proclaiming Christ really means. It means being willing to shed our blood, in body if need be, but in spirit certainly. It means being ready to suffer for the love of Christ who died on the cross for love of us. But we need have no fear. There is greater joy in suffering for Christ than in any pleasure that the world can provide.
Rev. John A. Hardon, S.J. is Professor of Theology at the Pontifical Institute for Advanced Studies in Catholic Doctrine at St. John's University and author of The Catholic Catechism and The Catholic Dictionary. The text of this article is adapted from his commencement address at Christendom College on May 10, 1981.
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