In today’s cultural climate, people are suspicious of truth claims, especially those that come from religious institutions. Thus, in evangelisation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince people of Catholic truths solely by argument, no matter how coherent or convincing those arguments are. The one thing however, that does still get people’s attention, and continues to have the power to convince, is the witness of a life changed by grace – i.e.; the fruits of the Holy Spirit. If one’s life exhibits ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Galatians 5:22-23), then others will think longer and harder about what it is that has enabled those characteristics in that person.
This is, of course, as it should be – Jesus Himself said that ‘the tree is known by its fruit’ (Matthew 12:33), and if our faith is not producing the fruits that Holy Scripture lists as being characteristic of one transformed in Christ, then we should reasonably ask ourselves why. Whilst it is indeed frustrating that our culture is so intensely relativistic that logical argument is often no longer able to convince, the fact that personal integrity does still attract people, and remains our most viable way of evangelising to a culture indifferent to Truth, does present us with an opportunity to ask ourselves how closely our beliefs correlate to our lives.
To the average modern person, the most appealing of the fruits of the Spirit that Saint Paul mentions, and least likely to arouse suspicion, is the fruit of joy. When people see someone else filled with joy, they almost inevitably want to know what it is they are joyful about, and often in time will start to want to share in the source of that joy. But what is its source? The love of Christ – the knowledge that God is Love, and the assurance that we are loved by Him without limit, despite all the ways in which we have let Him down. Pope Francis, in his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, discusses how a personal encounter with the love of Christ must be present in order for our witness to be authentic (and thus for our evangelisation to be successful):
‘The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence…
…The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us. But if this is to come about, we need to recover a contemplative spirit which can help us to realize ever anew that we have been entrusted with a treasure which makes us more human and helps us to lead a new life. There is nothing more precious which we can give to others.’
Evangelii Gaudium, 264.
The love of Christ is an infectious love, that once received cannot help but make us joyous, so that our joy pours out of ourselves into the lives of those we meet. If we have truly encountered Christ in this way, and known His love for us, then we will not be able to help sharing it with others, and the knowledge that we have been forgiven and redeemed from the slavery and banality of sin, will express itself in that joy which people cannot resist opening up to. This, once passed on, will also reinforce our own sense of joy; as Our Lord said, ‘give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back’ (Luke 6:38).
The reality for most of us is however, not like this – we go through peaks and troughs, our relationship with God undergoes periods of uncertainty and sterility. What it is important to remember therefore is that what Pope Francis (and Saint Paul) is saying is an exhortation, not an order – it is meant to encourage us to go deeper into that personal relationship with Jesus, to make Him our first port of call when we are starting to feel disconnected from God or weak in our faith. If we do this (and it requires discipline to do so), then we will stand a much better chance of regaining the sense of peace and joy that comes from knowing God’s love and forgiveness in Christ.
In fact, in an excellent article recently published at The Integrated Catholic Life, which addresses the sense of despair felt by many Catholics living in a world that sometimes seems intent on leading us away from the Faith, six points are suggested by which one can make practical steps towards re-establishing our relationship with Christ and letting His transforming grace back into our lives. The article suggests these as tried and tested means used by the author himself, and the list is not proposed as something that the reader should feel bound to do in its entirety – it is put forward more as a rough guide, hewn from the rock of personal experience.
Having said that though, each item on the list seems to me an eminently sensible means of deepening our relationship with Jesus, and the general gist of the path laid out there – full commitment to the Lord, regular use of the sacraments, recovering a sense of gratitude – should form the basis of any serious attempt to do so. The main point though, is that reconciliation with the Lord is always possible – His door is always open, and no matter how many times we stray from the path, or how far we may feel from Him, there is always a way back. As Saint Paul counseled Timothy, ‘if we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself’ (2 Timothy 2:13), and if we fall out of love with Him, His love for us will yet remain, because Love is what He is, and He cannot deny Himself.
The boundless nature of the Love of God revealed in Christ thus should be something we always bring to mind, and whilst it is easy to become complacent about it, we should always try to recover the sense of just how tremendous this revelation is. If we regularly recall ourselves to the extent of this love by meeting it in Jesus, and allow ourselves to be rooted in and formed by it, peace and joy will flow into us, opening up our horizons and spilling out into the world around us. The joy that comes from knowing Christ in this way cannot but draw the world’s attention and admiration. When we are asked where this joy comes from, then the answers we give will be received all the more readily – they will be received as the words of light and life that they truly are.