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'We've got to be intentional convert-makers'

Archbishop Wenski's homily at state convention of Knights of Columbus

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily May 25 in Orlando, at the state convention of the Knights of Columbus.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” These words of Jesus remind us that being a Christian means not only talking the talk, but walking the walk. For Jesus, love is not the mushy sentiment of a Hallmark greeting card. In fact, for Jesus, love isn’t a feeling at all. It is rather a decision, a commitment. (You husbands and wives know that already. Love isn’t just a lot of sweet words — it’s getting up a two a.m. to feed the baby; it’s putting up with a disagreeable boss at work in order to bring home the bacon and pay the rent.)

“Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me,” says Jesus again. But today, too many people are turned off by religion — they don’t want to be constrained, to be limited by a bunch of rules. 

People run away from commitments — because they don’t want to get tied down, they think that a commitment will limit their freedom. Today in America for the first time there are more adults in the ranks of the not married or no longer married column than there are in the ranks of the married. 

People don’t want constraints — and so they don’t make permanent commitments like marriage should be; and they increasingly stay disengaged from any religious practice. In polls about religious affiliation, the fastest growing group are not “Catholics,” “Protestants” or “Evangelicals” but the “nones.” And that’s spelled N-O-N-E-S and not “N-U-N-S: people with no religious affiliation.

This is the landscape in which we are called upon to do what the last four popes have called “The New Evangelization.” The New Evangelization is not directed towards those who never heard of Jesus Christ. That work — the Missio ad Gentes — is still urgent. But the New Evangelization isn’t directed to the “classical pagans” but to the “new pagans” of a de-Christianized world, to people who think they know something about Catholicism or Christianity — and are indifferent to it if not hostile. To them, what we called the “good news” is percieved to be just “old news.” These people are our neighbors, our relatives — even our children. 

To them, in the words of 1 Peter from today’s second reading, we are to “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope…” And Peter is speaking to each one of you — to each one of us who (with the help of the Holy Spirit that Jesus promises us) is to be not only a disciple but a missionary. We’ve got to be intentional convert-makers — and to do so today, we don’t have to go off to some far off land. We've got to talk to our neighbor — or our kids. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do so. That’s why 1 Peter continues with these words: “But do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear…” We have to do as Jesus did. He didn’t start with the cross — he first made the disciples his friends and then he told them about the cross. Too often when people come to our churches, to our rectories, we give them the cross first — we ask them if they’re registered in the parish, if they use envelopes, etc. We’ve got to begin first with establishing a relationship with them. Then perhaps they may embrace the cross.

We can argue about the rightness of our doctrines; we can explain about the apostolicity of the Church — that we believe essentially what the Apostles believed and handed down to us in an unbroken line of succession of bishops. These things are not unimportant. However, the only characteristic of the Church that will convince a doubting and skeptical world is our love, a love that convinces the world only in the measure that it reflects and embodies today the self-sacrificial, unconditional love of Jesus Christ. As St. Bernard of Clairvoux said, the measure of the love of the Redeemer is to love without measure.

For Jesus, love is not “warm puppies in a basket”; rather it is commitment for the other’s good. To love one another as he has loved us is a tough love, tough because it isn’t easy; tough because it is love in truth. Love is, as Jesus says, keeping the commandments.

But the commandments are more than a bunch of rules designed to keep us from enjoying life. In fact they are more than just a whole lot of negative proscriptions that constrain or limit our freedom. The commandments actually put forth a great vision of life and show us the way to true freedom, the freedom that allows us to love as Jesus loved.

Look at LeBron James (who had another great night in the playoffs last evening). For him the rules of the game are not something he can make up as he goes along. Rather, he makes the rules part of himself — through a lot of practice to be sure. But, for him, the rules free him to being the great player he is. In that sense, you could call him a virtuous player.

As Pope Benedict XVI said several years ago when he baptized some infants on the feast of Our Lord’s Baptism: The 10 Commandments “are a 'yes' to a God who gives meaning to life (the first three Commandments); a 'yes' to the family (the fourth commandment); a 'yes' to life (the fifth commandment); a 'yes' to responsible love (the sixth commandment); a 'yes' to solidarity, to social responsibility, to justice (the seventh commandment); a 'yes' to the truth (the eighth commandment); a 'yes' to respect for others and for their belongings (ninth and 10th commandments).” (Jan. 8, 2006)

To a world who perceives the Christian message as “old news,” we need to communicate the Evangelii Gaudium, the Joy of the Gospel. To those that think our Catholic faith is just about a bunch of rules and regulations, we have to show them, by the example of our lives, that being a Catholic Christian is not a burden but a gift, that knowing Christ and walking in his way does not constrain us but rather makes us truly free. And there is no greater joy than sharing Christ with others.

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