Some time ago, I had detailed my experience as chapter coordinator for the Joliet Chapter of St. Paul Street Evangelization, an apostolate that does exactly what it sounds like: it evangelizes. This apostolate answers the call that our Lord Jesus gave us, which is to make disciples of all nations.
The best way to do that is in meeting people where they are literally located. Our peers in the workplace. Our family members at annual holiday events. And yes, even our neighbors on the street as they walk about their daily business. Somewhat surprisingly, I received a moderate amount of backlash on social media in response to this call to evangelize, all for varying reasons. It is not typically my personal policy to respond to articles on social media, but I made an exception in this case. There was however, one comment in particular that I did not respond to directly. That’s because I wished to give that comment a more thoughtful response, and to take my time making such a response in another post here.
In addition, the comment (which can be read at the original article at the link above), was quite benevolent, and I would like to respond in kind, quoting various portions of it. The main question at hand that came from the commenter is this:
Was the call to evangelize all peoples, given to us by Jesus Christ, a mere task or “privilege”, or is it a command of our Lord’s, a duty we have been given, that we must obey by virtue of our Christian baptism?
Catholics in the Streets
I argue wholeheartedly that it is the latter for reasons that will become readily apparent. At the outset, I believe we have to make one thing clear. In our postmodern culture, particularly here in the West, we typically abhor the suggestion, or even mere thought, that we should be obligated to do anything. Oftentimes we have a “you can’t tell me what to do” attitude when it comes to something that we are required to do. This can be something as innocuous as homework or preparing for a test in school, or as grave as not fulfilling the obligation to help a person whose life is in immediate danger.
Like it or not, we all have obligations in this life, and for the Christian, it shouldn’t be too hard to understand that God expects many things of us too, as any loving father does. In response to my original article, our friend lets us know that he has a “tiny but crucial” problem with my assessment of our Lord’s words in the Gospels, yet otherwise comments that the essay is “great” and that he “would love to see more Catholics in the streets!” He begins his difficulties with the following observations:
“I beg to differ that this should be a command of Jesus to do so. This whole thing “making disciples” is at best described as the Great Commission in the Gospels (Matthew 28, Mark 16 – only in the unofficial headline). Not a command. Therein is a big difference! One works like a law. With pressure. Just another law we all will certainly fail to fulfill. But the Great Commission is more like a divine appointment, a special task that God wants to do with us and through us. A privilege.”
The Great Commission: Command or Privilege?
What should we make of this? Is the Great Commission being a “special task” and a command mutually exclusive? Or is it possible that the Great Commission is both: an appointment to all baptized Christians and an obligation to them as well. I think it’s clear from reading both Gospel accounts referenced above that it is the latter. But as I mentioned, very often we dislike hearing words like “duty” and “obligation”, much less the word “command”. Does this necessarily mean that by obeying a command we are devoid of love? Or, rather, are we obeying a command in love?
Consider this scenario that many readers have probably experienced. As a parent (and I’m one myself), it would be fair to say that we have a duty and obligation to our children, to provide for their wellbeing, to provide them with shelter, nourishment, and most importantly with love. As Christian parents, we have a further duty, especially if we’ve already baptized our children. We have a duty to pass on the Catholic Faith to our children, and it’s something we cannot be dispensed from. Indeed, it is a special task, and the Catechism also describes this as a privilege, but it is more than that. It is an obligation, and despite that, no one can say that a parent’s love is diminished in any way because they are also fulfilling a parental obligation; nor can one say that one is “pressured” to be a good and loving parent because there are civil laws in place promoting the wellbeing of children.
Christ’s Command to Love Another
Keep in mind, too, that the New Testament didn’t dispense of the Law. Indeed, our Lord came to fulfill the Law, and to suggest that by calling the Great Commission a command we have then effectively created “another law we all will certainly fail to fulfill” is to suggest that our Lord has given us commands that we cannot carry out. As our Lord said:
“My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). The only way the Great Commission becomes an unfulfillable commandment is if we allow our hearts to become hard and we buy into the mentality that “obligation” and “law” are inherently bad or undesirable. Our friend continues:
“One part of making disciples is teaching Jesus’ command. What is his command? ‘This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ [John 13:34] This is key.”
I totally agree. However, there are many different ways that this love is expressed. Remember what Jesus said concerning the Law and the prophets:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
If You Love Me …
Love is an act of the will; therefore, there are many different ways to show that love for others. One of those ways is by reaching out to people with the saving message of the gospel. Our friend further comments:
“I strongly believe that as long as sharing faith is seen as a commandment, some sort of New Testament punishment, something we HAVE TO DO than [sic] we have nothing more to offer than any other hatred-filled religion that currently are on a mission in our streets … If something should drive us out into the streets it should be only Christ‘s love that compels us (2 Corinthians 5:14). No pressure. No commandment. Only love. Overflowing. May the fruit of the Holy Spirit grow in us! (Galatians 5:22).”
There are many assumptions made here. I think the first problem is that a false equivocation is made here between “commandment” and “punishment”. The two are not synonymous, yet they are made to be here. As I mentioned above, a commandment can (and should) be kept in love. As our Lord said:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
He couldn’t have been more blunt that that. First we fall in love with our Lord and God. Following that first step of love, we then continue to obey him because we love him. We love first, and then follow and obey. One naturally flows into the other. So it cannot simply be said that following a commandment is akin to being under the pain of a punishment.
All Catholics Are Called to Evangelize
Furthermore, we can’t simply say “No pressure. No commandment”. Christ’s love should be the only thing that compels us to evangelize, or to live a holy life. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Christ gives us firm directions on how to live our lives, and if we don’t meet those expectations, we won’t reign with him in the heavenly kingdom. Of course, no one should be forced to live a Christian lifestyle because they’re pressured into it, but the immediacy of our Lord’s directives to those who follow him should not be ignored. On more than one occasion,
Pope Benedict XVI talked about the “duty” of all Catholics to evangelize:
“Mission is a duty about which one must say ‘Woe to me if I do not evangelize‟ (1 Corinthians 9:16)… Redemption and mission are acts of love [because] those who proclaim the Gospel participate in the charity of Christ.”
In an address to the superior generals of missionary societies, Pope Benedict used even stronger language:
“One of the promising indications of a renewal in the Church’s missionary consciousness in recent decades has been the growing desire of many lay men and women, whether single or married, to cooperate generously in the missio ad gentes. As the [Second Vatican] Council stressed, the work of evangelization is a fundamental duty incumbent upon the whole People of God, and all the baptized are called to ‘a lively awareness of their personal responsibility for the spreading of the Gospel’ (Ad Gentes, 36).”
‘Preach the Gospel to Every Creature’
So not only is evangelization (“the spreading of the Gospel”) a duty, it is a responsibility as well. On top of that, it is a responsibility that the writers of the Second Vatican Council also emphasized. But the comment below, made during an address on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s Ad Genetes, is certainly the pontiff’s strongest, and he explicitly uses the word “command” when describing the Great Commission:
“Out of obedience to the command of Christ, who sent his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all the nations (cf. Matthew 28: 18-20), the Christian community in our time too feels sent to the men and women of the third millennium in order to acquaint them with the truth of the Gospel message and thereby give them access to the path of salvation.
“And this, as I said, is not an option but the vocation proper to the People of God, a duty incumbent upon it by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ himself.”
The bolded portion is borrowed from Blessed Pope Paul VI’s comments in his 1975 apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi. In the document, Blessed Pope Paul VI states the following:
“[T]he presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique… It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life…
“If people proclaim in the world the Gospel of salvation, they do so by the command of, in the name of and with the grace of Christ the Savior…
“But who then has the mission of evangelizing? The Second Vatican Council gave a clear reply to this question: it is upon the Church that ‘there rests, by divine mandate, the duty of going out into the whole world and preaching the gospel to every creature.’”
Duty. Responsibility. Command. Mandate. All these words describe evangelization. And what animates our action in this mandate given to us by our Lord? Love. Love for Christ and love for our neighbor. As I stated before, “love” and “duty” need not be mutually exclusive. If we carry out the commands of our Lord, including his command to evangelize, then we are certainly showing our brother that same love our Lord asked us to show in John 13. Let us continue to pray that more of the faithful find the courage to evangelize, whether that’s in the street, in a coffee shop or at home with family. We all have different charisms. But in Christ Jesus we are one body and we have only one mission: To set the world afire.
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About Nicholas LaBanca
Nicholas is a 20-something cradle Catholic who wears many hats, (husband, father, tradesman, religious education catechist, liberal arts college graduate, et al.) and hopes to give a unique perspective on life in the Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney and St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He currently writes for the Diocese of Joliet’s monthly magazine, “Christ Is Our Hope”.