Fr Billy Swan
Recently, I celebrated the funeral Mass of a lady in my parish who suffered from dementia for the last two years of her life. It was a trying time for her and especially her family as they watched their mother slowly lose her capacity to remember, until eventually, she couldn’t recognize her own children.
That said, one of the inspiring things I noticed about how her family cared for her and mitigated her memory loss was the way they constantly said and did things to remind her of who she was. This took great patience and commitment but was successful in that the lady was constantly reminded of her dignity as a human being and a child of God; reminded that she was their mother and reminded that she was loved and was never alone. When it came to her final days and funeral, the Church reminded her family again of those basic truths. Through the final sacraments and the funeral liturgy – her family and the faith community were left in no doubt that this woman was a beloved child of the Father who created her, a chosen disciple of Christ and an inheritor of eternal life.
This got me thinking about evangelization and how it can be understood as reminding us of truths we forget all the time. In other words, how evangelization brings us back to the most important questions of all – who is God? Who am I? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? Where is my destiny? Certainly, Christ has given us the answers to these questions because of our share in his life, death and resurrection but the truth is that we need to be constantly reminded of these answers because of our fragile capacity to remember and how prone we are to forget. This is also true of the most basic things. For example, we easily forget to say ‘please and ‘I’m sorry’; we forget to say ‘thank you’ for someone’s kindness; when we are harsh on others, we forget that we too are sinners in need of mercy. Therefore, while we are blessed with the wonderful gift of memory, it is a gift that is limited and needs constant reminding of truths that can easily be forgotten or ignored. In the words of C.S. Lewis: “We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief or any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Simon and Schuster, New York, p. 127).
In the Old Testament, the celebration of the Passover by Israel was a subversive calling to mind of the saving deeds of God in the past but in a way that reminded the community that the saving action of God was also at work in the present. This continuous need to remind God’s chosen people of their call to fidelity was the task of the prophets. In a famous passage from Isaiah, God’s unfailing memory is contrasted to our tendency to forget the most basic truths: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Is. 49:15).
In the New Testament, Jesus reminds the people that Zacchaeus too was “a son of Abraham” when they scorned him (Luke 19:9). He reminded those who would stone the woman caught in adultery of their own sin (John 8:1-11). When he left us the Eucharist at the Last Supper, he asked Christians of all time to “Do this in memory of Me” (Luke 22:19). He did this because he knew how easily it would be for them to forget his saving words and actions. At the same meal, he promised us the Holy Spirit to remind us of all that he taught us: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you” (John 14:16).
This active remembering continues in the liturgy of the Church, especially at the Eucharist. We tell the story again and we re-present the saving mysteries. So when it comes to the work of evangelization that flows from the Eucharist, the task of every Christian is to remind ourselves and others of who God is and who he has declared us to be.
The consequence of not evangelizing is an epidemic of spiritual dementia – armies of baptized Catholic Christians who have forgotten who God is and who they are. And the inevitable result is a reduction of who God is and our own identity too. We see it everywhere in modern culture. Rap artist Eminem in one of his first hits ‘The Real Slim Shady’, declared: “We ain’t nothing but mammals”. Similarly, the late English singer George Michael sang about himself: “There’s nothing here but flesh and bones”. Here is the materialistic reduction of the human person to a self-conscious animal.
Philosopher Peter Kreeft sums it up this way: “We are have reduced ourselves to pleasure seeking animals…because we are implicit materialists. Our ethics are always rooted in our metaphysics, and modern ethics are rooted in modern metaphysics, the modern view, which is the superstition that all that is objectively real is nature, which in turn we have reduced to matter’ (P. Kreeft, Back to Virtue, 32).
Commenting on this insight of Kreeft, Fredric Heidemann writes: “We have bought into the ‘nothing buttery’ of reductionist materialism: the human person is nothing but a trousered ape; sexual desire is nothing but animal urge; beautiful paintings are nothing but blobs of ink on a canvas; morality is nothing but a sophisticated herd instinct; and the whole of reality is nothing but the assemblies of matter we can taste, touch, smell, see and hear” (Fredric Heidemann, ‘Conveying the Church’s Sexual Teachings to a Hostile Crowd’, in Wisdom and Wonder, B. Vogt, ed., Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2021, pp. 76-87, p. 83).
What all this amounts to is a mass denial of human dignity and the reduction of the human person to something that he or she is not. Here is the root problem of many of the spiritual and moral crises of our time. In this light, evangelization challenges this reductionism and proclaims the vocation of all human beings to be far more noble and exalted. It is about reminding each other that God’s plans for us are more adventurous and expansive that our own and that everything we say and do ought to align with that saintly dignity that God has conferred on us. So, for example, in conversations with friends and family members who have drifted away from the practice of the faith or in dialogue with skeptics and non-believers, the challenge of every evangelist is not so much us convincing them that they are wrong but reminding them with encouraging words like these – “You are called to more than that. You can do better. You can be better”.
In the words of Fr Blake Britton: “Catholic apologetics does not start with convincing someone that we are right but rather with convincing them that there is something more. It is not in conveying the wrongness of someone’s action, but the ability to recognize the goodness they long for and how it can only be fulfilled in Jesus” (Blake Britton, ‘Why Catholics Fall Away’ in M. Nelson, ed., The New Apologetics, Word on Fire Institute, 2022, pp. 12-18, p. 17).
Here is how, I believe, effective evangelists befriend those they evangelize. They constantly remind them of who God has called them to be and teach them how to live accordingly. In this sense, the great enterprise of evangelization is the antidote to the epidemic of spiritual dementia of our time when we are forgetting God, his nature as merciful love and end up in crises of identity ourselves. Like the family of the woman who suffered from dementia, our task as an evangelizing Church is to remind our brothers and sisters of their divine origin, dignity and destiny of eternal communion with the God of love. I will leave the last word to St Ignatius of Loyola who puts it best:
“We must always remind ourselves that we are pilgrims until we arrive at our heavenly homeland, and we must not let our affections delay us in the roadside inns and lands through which we pass, otherwise we will forget our destination and lose interest in our final goal.” (St. Ignatius of Loyola).