Pope Benedict the XVI has begun a new department in the Vatican for evangelization, a dicastery or Pontifical Council for Promoting a New Evangelization. Since preaching the Gospel is the principal task of the Church, he hopes that his new initiative will help revitalize dechristianized Europe and other secularized places in the world.
As a model, a type of patron saint for this new enterprise, he recently suggested that St. Alphonsus Liguori might be a good choice. He said that Liguori is “a model of missionary action which can also inspire us today for a New Evangelization, especially among the poorest, and for building a more just, fraternal and united human coexistence.”
The New Evangelization’s Patron?
Alphonsus died over 220 years ago. What did he do and why is he a good choice for such a mission? Isn’t he a bit too old fashioned, too out of date for such a present-day endeavor? Can he contribute anything relevant to living our faith today?
Here are some points to reflect upon that show why Alphonsus is a good choice:
1) Conversion and renewal are themes which John Paul II and Benedict have emphasized repeatedly. John Paul was convinced that the Church will be faithful to Jesus and her mission only to the degree that we pray.
St. Alphonsus has been called the Doctor of Prayer, whether it be personal or private, liturgical or communal, mental or oral. The message is clear: pray always. Alphonsus teaches us so many different ways to renew our lives to a life of communion with the Lord through the power of prayer. Though his times were much different from ours, he started prayer groups.
Groups of faith are essential in our larger and increasingly impersonal parishes so that people can meet on a face-to-face basis and share their faith. And his visits to the Blessed Sacrament helped inspire St. John Neumann to install 40 Hours Devotions; today we see many churches with perpetual Adoration.
Barry Ulanov, in his work The Way of St. Alphonsus Liguori quotes this great teacher of prayer as saying, “The first means of preserving grace is to avoid all occasions of sin. It is impossible for anyone who does not try to fly from the occasions of sin, especially in the matter of sensual pleasures, to avoid falling into sin.” Liguori reminds us that a life of prayer is our number one pastoral work. Then we perform other works of ministry. Benedict remembered a Dom Didimo who said that Jesus preached by day, but spent the night in prayer!
2) We live in a world of consumerism that feeds itself by seeking pleasure. A pan-sexualism is all around us. We are bombarded by appeals to buy things we do not need and often do not even use. We are told that the economy depends upon it. Even though it may be a biblical truth that God judges the rich or the poor by their hearts, not by their bank accounts or prosperity, it would be naive to ignore the seduction of wealth.
Distacco, an Italian word that Alphonsus used, means the virtue of giving up a lesser value or goal to achieve something better, like an athlete who stays home Saturday night and doesn’t party before a big game, so as to be in great shape. This virtue of detachment frees us from being overly attached (cf. Phil 2:6) and is a healthy Christian remedy to control and dominate our instincts and desires, versus fulfilling our true needs.
Detachment helps us resist the temptation to buy something to fill an inner emptiness. Money in one’s pocket is not permission to buy superfluous things when so many people are poor and hungry. Alphonsus preaches across the centuries: what specific sacrifices and renouncements are we willing to make today to make Jesus better known, better loved and better served?
3) Post-modern life, then, has become full of examples of selfishness and exaggerated individualism. Far too many people see themselves as the center of the universe. Goals are seen in relationship to making us feel happy, to pursuing desires or whims. A false sense of personalism has kidnapped autonomy.
Alphonsus wrote extensively on doing the will of God. What does the Lord want from me? “Conformity signifies the conjoining of our own will to the will of God, making the divine will and our own will one will only, so that we desire nothing but what God desires, and his sole will becomes ours.”
The relevancy of Alphonsus is in teaching us to be countercultural, to question abuses made in name of seeking personal self-fulfillment, regardless of the needs of others. Americans are becoming obese while many in the world starve. Too many of us in the U.S.A. have too much. Children are growing up without learning how to restrain themselves; they cannot handle frustrations as adults. Only self-denial prepares children for the future.
To evangelize, to reach out and help the poor and the weak, demands sacrifice and renunciations of personal plans, a willingness to forgo what seems pleasurable for us to achieve victories for the Kingdom. Alphonsus’ life speaks well about what he was ready to do to make Jesus more loved and known.
4) Much has been said about the laity assuming its role in the evangelization of the secular world. Baptized Catholics need to assume their responsibility in making Jesus’ presence stronger in today’s society. As Blessed John Paul II said, all are called to do missionary work.
As a young lawyer, Alphonsus started a pastoral work that was the forerunner of today’s Basic Christian Communities (B.C.C.), a fact mentioned by the pope. Alphonsus not only preached the Gospel, but also organized lay leadership in the Evening Chapels of Naples. The laity were not only to be obedient, but to build up the Kingdom by assuming their functions. All were called to sanctity and growth. Holiness was not the privilege of monks. In talking about the universal call to holiness, Vatican II ratified Alphonsus’s position — something he learned from another Doctor of the Church, St. Francis de Sales.
Pastoral Councils and other similar structures have been a good start, but more is needed. Paul VI wrote that lay people do not need the permission of their pastors to do good works (although informing them might not be a bad idea). Baptism has already commissioned the laity to go forth. Alphonsus, in his role as a model for New Evangelization, calls for all Christians to be engaged in ministry.
5) After centuries of fighting and mistrusting each other, ecumenism and the search for reunion among Christians, as well as dialogue with other religions, has been part of our religious scene and life for the past 40 years.
Alphonsus rightly understood that the basis of all our religious values and pursuit are contained in Jesus who comes before Church structures, practices or customs. Liguori’s personal love for Jesus and the many devotions which he promoted (e.g. visits to the Blessed Sacrament, a novena in honor of the Sacred Heart, an Advent Novena, Devotion to the Passion, the Way of the Cross, etc.) show us the way to reunion: uniting around Jesus. An ecumenism that passes through a Christology that Alphonsus promoted will discover many common points for building bridges.
6) All recent popes have wanted qualified pastoral agents who know their faith well. John Paul II wrote an Encyclical on Faith and Reason and another about the Gospel of Life. There were also writings on the dignity and value of human work. To attract and recapture lost souls, we need to be intelligent, qualified instruments.
Alphonsus spent his whole life studying and updating his knowledge about the problems people had to face. Eight revisions of his Moral Theology and the constant stream of spiritual and ascetic works show his emphasis on the need for study. He wanted his followers to live among books. Preaching left-over, warmed-over sermons from last year does not feed the hungry sheep who look to their pastors for insights and motivation.
He who does not pursue wisdom and learning runs the risk of not recognizing and growing in God’s plan. Alphonsus inspires us to study and understand what God is asking from us. Besides personal reading, using the Internet to get the latest information about papal declarations, and participating in renewal courses, the good pastor of today has Bible studies and forms groups of faithful that study moral and social issues. He buys visual-aid materials to inform people, and he keeps his parishioners up to date on what is going on in the religious and spiritual fields. Alphonsus sent a case of books to cloistered nuns instead of the penitential instruments they had asked for!
7) We have all heard remarks about North vs. South, East vs. West, and, more recently, Islam/The Arab world vs. The West, etc. These designations and ideologies separate and divide people. They cause war and bring misery and hunger to billions.
Alphonsus created a religious group, the Redemptorists, whose common rule is to live together in charity for the purpose of the mission of making Jesus known and loved.
Without a sense of community, our families will break apart. The good pastor organizes groups not only for marriage preparation but also for those already married. Couples need to continuously deepen their insights and love into conjugal responsibilities and mutual growth. This kind of community-building in families and among them makes everyone aware of the needs around them. No more US vs. THEM mentality. Rather than seeing what makes us different, concentrating on what holds us together removes selfishness and makes people alert to situations that surround them.
8) The 25th of December has become secularized and pagan. Ask any child what happens on that date, and he or she will probably say that Santa Claus comes. Alphonsus had a great devotion to the Incarnation. The Crib was one of his symbols or icons, a custom that he inherited from St. Francis Assisi. His Novena and preparation for Christmas can motivate us to get people to spend some time in December to remember the true reason for celebrating: that greatest of all gifts from the Father.
Our ‘Brave New World’
9) Even issues like the international debt that is strangling and holding back many countries from participating freely in today’s modern economies and developing a better life for their people can be approached with wisdom from Alphonsus. Our “Brave New World” has left many people behind, outside the benefits of the modern economy. Some call them the excluded, the most abandoned. They are outside the loop, not remembered, and at times, not even seen.
Alphonsus renounced family wealth and his noble title, leaving the good life of Naples for work in poor, rural areas. He challenges us to seek out those whom society has excluded, to develop apostolic and social work, and to give priority to the deprived and underprivileged, because for every two persons enriched by globalization, one person is still impoverished. Alphonsus Liguori inspires us to serve the poor.
God’s abundance in natural resources illustrates that there is enough to feed and supply all human needs. What is lacking is social justice and right reason to distribute resources more effectively. In his Moral Theology, Alphonsus treated the question of usury, asking when is enough too much? Willy Brandt once said that if you cannot relieve or pardon the international debt because of justice, nor even because of charity, to protect one’s own gains demands healthy and prosperous nations in the world’s community. New Evangelization has to include a social, international flavor. It cannot remain only on the personal, individual level.
10) The Internet, telephones, movies and music have helped to create a culture and a way of thinking that has gone beyond local cultures and traditions.
Alphonsus used all his skills of communicating, of marketing Jesus’ message, by writing, preaching, singing, painting, composing poetry, etc., a point Pope Benedict recognizes. Alphonsus was the great communicator of the 18th century. Benedict wants the clergy to use the Web in creative ways, to communicate with younger people in the 21st century.
Could Alphonsus also become the Patron Saint of the Internet, for inspiring us to make Christ better known worldwide?
Based on all this, and many other factors, St. Alphonsus is a very eloquent model to inspire priests to preach the Good News in a world starved to hear it. TP
Father Kirchner, C.SS.R., ordained a priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, has been a pastor many times and also did formation work. He received a degree in Moral Theology in Rome, and currently works and lives at Liguori, Mo.