Recently I was asked to preach at one of the Mondays of the Summer Novena of Hope. The topic: “What is The New Evangelization?” I have grown up with the Vincentian tradition of the Miraculous Medal Novena. Over the years, I have often reflected on “The New Evangelization”.
But a funny thing happened as I tried to put the topic and the context together: I discovered that I was a slow learner. As I prayed over the topic in the weeks preceding, I came to an insight that had been right before my eyes for the more than 50 years of my priesthood.
I realized a simple insight into the reality of the New Evangelization and that insight gave me an even deeper insight into what happens when people come to the Shrine of the Miraculous Medal here on the grounds of the Motherhouse of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission. The insight that linked the two together was something a woman wrote to me shortly before ordination in 1965.
First a bit of history of my understanding of the word evangelization. In my formative years, “evangelization” was not a word we Catholics used. In the climate of mid 20th century United States, it was a word that Protestants used frequently. A second bit of background lies in the fact that I had never preached The Summer Novena of Hope at the Miraculous Medal Shrine until this year. The net result was that I had never tried to put those two things together.
Back to the insight that was there in plain sight for over 50 years! This woman wrote of the beginning years of her marriage:
“I have become aware of what it means to be loved and it is that awareness of being loved that I am trying to share with others.”
It was that experience of being loved that turned her life upside down for the past sixty-five plus years of marriage. That includes her husband and childhood sweetheart, four children, nine grandchildren and a still growing generation of great-grandchildren. Sharing awareness of being loved has become a lifestyle for her. Of course, she would be the first to admit that she has not always succeed in living that lifestyle. But being aware of being loved turned her life upside down and, in turn, the lives of others.
Recalling that insight led to another: this time it was an insight into the man who is waking up the world and the church to what it means to have your life turned upside down — Pope Francis.
Let me use this lens to understand the life of a man like Pope Francis. He is confusing to many. Is he a liberal? Is he a conservative? There are all kinds of opinions on that. One thing most people can agree on is that he REALLY loves everyone, especially those society does not see. And you can see it when he kisses a badly disfigured man most of us would turn away from. Or when he washes the feet of prisoners. And, most obviously, when he smiles. If there was ever a smile that could light up a room… It is very hard to be in his presence without feeling his warmth and love.
And where did that come from? There was an event that changed him when he was a late teenager. And event he speaks freely of now. Ironically, it was on the exact date a year later than when the woman I mentioned before, my sister, got married. Pope Francis describes his becoming aware of God’s love:
“One day in particular, though, was very important to me: Sept. 21, 1953. I was almost 17. It was ‘Students’ Day,’ for us the first day of spring — for you the first day of autumn. Before going to the celebration I passed through the parish I normally attended, I found a priest that I did not know and I felt the need to go to confession. For me this was an experience of encounter: I found that someone was waiting for me. Yet I do not know what happened, I can’t remember, I do not know why that particular priest was there whom I did not know, or why I felt this desire to confess, but the truth is that someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for some time. After making my confession I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard something like a voice, or a call. I was convinced that I should become a priest.”
Keep this mind when you see a picture of him keeling at an open confessional in Rome confessing to another priest. His life has become a living example of sharing his good news of being aware of being loved no matter what. Of course, Francis also would be among the first to say he has not always communicated that sense of being loved to others. There was a period in his life where others saw him as a stern and rigid legalist. But for the last 30 or 40 years this is what has consistently motivated him to sharing that awareness of being loved.
That insight 50 years ago has now led me to imagine Jesus as communicating that sense of being loved. Why else would people drop their nets and follow him? Why else would they tell their brothers and sisters and friends about their meeting with him? Why else would the woman at the well excitedly say, ‘he knows everything about me and yet he loves me’? This is true of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and so many others who, in the pages of the New Testament, recount their encounters with Jesus.
His disciples experienced an awareness of being loved… and ran to tell others about it!
I now realize that is is what we mean when we speak of the Gospel as Good news and the writers of the Gospel as Evangelists or tellers of Good News. So, in every day language, evangelization is sharing with others the awareness of being loved. It is not the experience of getting 100 on an orthodoxy test. It is not the experience of Pharisee justifying himself. It is the experience of knowing one is loved and trying to bring that awareness to others.
So what is new about the “New Evangelization”? Pope John Paul II has made the expression “New Evangelization” part of the contemporary Catholic vocabulary. But it is actually rooted in Pope Paul VI. Few topics have received more attention in the Church in recent years. He speaks of an evangelization that is new in ‘its ardor, in its methods and in its expression’.
Now what about the connection with the Miraculous Medal Novena? I believe people who come to the Miraculous Medal Shrine experience the sharing of good news, and it can turn lives around. As people listen to the sharing of favors others have received, — maybe the announcement of a favor we have received — hopes comes alive. People come to the novena hoping that their lives will be similarly blessed.
But we also face the fact that it does not always turn out the way we expect. Sometimes we come almost demanding this or that sign that God loves us. When nothing seems to happen we are temped to give up hope. And yet we get signs, sometimes hiding in plain sight, even if not in the signs we set as criteria for our experience of being loved. I am sure you have heard it said of the visitors to Lourdes: “The greatest miracles at Lourdes are not those of physical healing.” Few people leave Lourdes without a gain in faith. Moral and spiritual cures are more marvelous than physical cures. Some go to Lourdes with lifetime prejudices, yet their minds are cleared in a sudden manner.
Frequently skepticism gives way to faith; coldness and antagonism become whole-hearted love of God. Again and again, those who are not cured of bodily pain receive an increase of faith and acceptance of a bigger picture – true peace of soul.
They come away with an understanding of why Jesus suffered so much: to show us we are loved by God. The biggest miracles for those who pray the novena of the Miraculous Medal is that they become aware of being loved and committed to sharing that awareness of being loved with all they meet.
So we invite others to come and see; to taste and to see the goodness of the Lord. “Come and see!” That is why I look at the novena of the Miraculous Medal with a new appreciation of what was hidden in plain sight 50 years ago. I also now understand better what is behind Pope Francis recent description of shrines as powerhouses of evangelization and calls for “the promotion of an organic pastoral ministry of Shrines as powerhouses of the new evangelization” (Apostolic Letter of the Holy Father Francis in the form of a Motu Proprio “Sanctuarium in Ecclesia”) On July 18, 1830, our Lady of the Miraculous Medal spoke these words to Sister Catherine Labouré, a novice of the Daughters of Charity, in Paris, France:
“My child, the good God wishes to charge you with a mission.” Do we make it our mission to share the awareness of being loved?
Fr. John Freund, C.M. is a Vincentian priest who recently celebrated his fiftieth anniversary of ordination. He spent forty of those years in higher education, teaching in Major Seminaries and serving on numerous boards including those of Niagara University and St. John’s Prep. John also served two terms as Chair of the Department of Theology at St. John's University in New York.
Committed to serving those marginalized by society, John has made enormous contributions to connecting the followers of St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac in various branches of the Vincentian Family through famvin.org. Through workshops on internet and digital practice as a means of connecting and sharing information, he has helped connect over a million members who serve the poor and the marginalized in more than 150 countries.