Fr Billy Swan
There are some passages from Scripture and the writings of the saints that are wonderfully arresting, even scary. They hit us hard, shock us out of distractions and leave us, in the words of Pope Francis, “unsettled by the living and effective word of the risen Lord” (Rejoice and be Glad, 137). One such text is a letter from St Francis Xavier whose feast day we celebrate on 3rd December.
Writing to his friend St Ignatius of Loyola from the mission fields of India, Francis reports on his exhaustive efforts to evangelize the people and of his diligent teaching them the basics of the faith. He also admits in sadness that many are not becoming Christians and he is unambiguously clear about the reason why – “there is nobody to make them Christians”. For Francis, this problem was not just about a lack of Church personnel but rather a lack of zeal for souls on the part of those who should have known better. He continues: “Again and again I have thought of going round 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!”
These words are indeed unsettling but also inspirational for us who seek to be effective evangelists for our time. There are two key takeaways from these words of Francis that merit close attention. The first is the role we play in bringing others to faith and the second is the zeal and passion with which all our efforts to evangelize ought to be directed so that others might come to know Christ and his mercy at first hand.
First, our role in others coming to faith. We all know that being a Catholic Christian calls us to evangelize. But how far do we push it with family and friends who are less enthused about faith as we might be? Where does the boundary lie? To accompany each other on the journey is great but is not an end in itself. We want others to come to faith and to worship with us in the Church. Recently, I met a lady in my parish who told me she comes to Mass only at Christmas. I responded to her: “You don’t know what you are missing”. By her reaction she expected a different response and seemed disconcerted when she saw that I was deadly serious. She also seemed challenged but pleasantly surprised to meet someone who truly believed Sunday Eucharist to be an essential source of life and joy for all who take part. Her reaction was something like “maybe there is something I’m missing after all”.
In the case of St Francis Xavier, to bring others to faith was not something of a chore but a joy. He believed that God had chosen him for this sacred work of mission and to be a bridge for people to enter the community of the Church. For Francis, not to evangelize would be to jeopardize the eternal salvation of others and place his own soul in mortal danger too.
From our perspective, we might think that Francis’ understanding of his role was over-stated and too radical. But did Francis really exaggerate the part that Christians play in bringing others to faith? Hardly. Think of Ezekiel’s words who declared that God will hold to account those who have not warned the wicked to repent (cf. Ezek. 3:18). Jesus himself taught about the close partnership between his grace and his disciples: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me” (Luke 10:16). Consider how St Paul shared his conviction that God was working through him to reach people with the Good News: “But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?” (Rom. 10:14-15).
Yes, of course God’s grace is bigger than humans and their institutions. Yet, just as there was a tendency in the past to overstate our role of mediation in bringing others to faith, today the tendency is in the opposite direction and to underestimate how the Lord has chosen us to be his instruments to bring others to faith and lead them into the Church. We priests can be guilty of this too. Too many of us adopt an attitude that says: ‘If the people come, they come. I don’t have the energy or the time to go beyond that and to pursue those who don’t want to be part of our community’. This attitude does not do justice to the essential nature of the Church as the sacrament of salvation – the sign and instrument of God’s saving presence in the world that seeks to reach with the saving embrace and grace Christ himself.
This is what St Gregory the Great called the ‘art of arts’ – the pastoral zeal and art of leading souls to a saving relationship with God. For Gregory, the proper motivation for priesthood has to be the desire to help others experience salvation of sanctification (Gregory the Great, Pastoral Care, I, 1). We see the same spirit with St Francis Xavier. He urges us today not to be content being a disciple but to make disciples too.
The second and related lesson from St Francis Xavier is to beg God to grant us something of his zeal for souls. How wonderful it is to find such strong emotions in a saint! How inspiring to discover in this priest such a zeal for leading God’s people to faith in the Gospel! His criticism of his fellow clergy in academic positions was not an attack on the intellectual tradition of the Church but rather on their blindness to what all learning is meant to serve, namely the salvation of souls. Echoing contemporary forms of this blindness, Pope Francis criticizes a faith that is ‘incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others…locked up in an encyclopedia of distractions’ (Rejoice and Be Glad, 37).
So how can we as Church recover our waning zeal for souls? By returning to the passion and zeal of God. Our God is a passionate God. His passion is panting with holy lust after the humanity he loves. God’s passionate zeal is to set all things right and order all things to the good. This is the holy zeal we see in God-intoxicated prophets like Elijah and in Jesus himself as he cleansed the temple. As they observed him that day in Jerusalem, the apostles saw God’s zeal embodied in him: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Cf. Ps. 19:31; John 2:17). Here is the holy zeal that burned within him: “I've come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze!” (Luke 12:49).
This is the same zeal with which we have been anointed by his Spirit – the zeal of God Himself. Here is the zeal of God for the people of God, for his kingdom and his Church. It is the zeal we see in saints like John the Baptist and Paul who urges us to ‘never flag in zeal and be aglow with the Spirit’ (Rom. 12:11); it is the passionate zeal in people like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross and Catherine of Siena. These were saints whose zeal overcame their fears but was directed at all times by the charity of Christ. This is our calling too – to be anointed and energized with that divine love that seeks to reach as many souls as effectively as possible. And when this divine zeal gets hold of us, its fire burns away the inertia, dissatisfaction and the dreadful tedium that marks our age.
On the feast of St Francis Xavier, we honor him and give thanks for all the souls who were gathered for God through him. But may our communion with him remind us of who we are as God’s instruments and apostles today. In the words of the prayer attributed to St Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours”. Let us not be content to love God if our neighbor does not love him too. Together, may we not just draw close to the fire of God’s zeal for souls. Let us become all flame.