Four steps for Christian discipleship in Advent

Like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis invites us to live Jesus’ message of love, mercy and forgiveness every day by reaching out to the needy.

Pope Francis’ invitation is at the heart of Christian discipleship. Jesus teaches that the poor offer us the key to understanding the Gospel message. From them, we learn the ways of Jesus.

At our baptism, we become disciples of Jesus, whose birth we await throughout this season of Advent. We are called to proclaim his word through evangelization. We do this by the way we live — especially as we serve the poor.

Time of anticipation

During Advent, traditional reflections remind us that our call to evangelize involves waiting and anticipation. As we move toward Christmas, we relive the long-expected coming of the Messiah by the Jewish people. The Mass readings and Liturgy of the Hours recall this Jewish expectation that was vaguely promised in Genesis 3:15: “I will put enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman.” This yearning intensified with the prophets, especially Isaiah. The preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism brought it to a climax.

Reflecting on prophesies of a coming Messiah in the Old Testament affords us the opportunity to thank God that we live in this post-Messianic time. Such reflections help us better appreciate Jesus, the Son of God, who came to earth, walked among us and continues to live in people and in the sacraments. Living in a post-Pentecostal era allows us to give thanks and anticipate Jesus’ second coming, and prepare for our final journey into eternity.

And yet, we can anticipate more. This “more” involves a new attitude of waiting that centers around Jesus’ ministry to the poor and downtrodden. It invites us to shift our attitude of waiting from looking to some distant past or future to the waiting that happens in everyday life.

Self-Evaluation
Personal Reflections

We adapt a new way of waiting during Advent by looking forward to our daily opportunities to reach out to the poor in our families, neighborhoods and workplace. This involves an “intentional attitude of waiting” in the here and now. By doing so, we commit ourselves to wait for opportunities that afford us the chance to respond like Jesus did when he responded to the woman with an issue of blood, to the Samaritan woman at the well, or to the 10 lepers who approached him. This attitude enables us to anticipate the poor among us and help them as Jesus did. Our daily lives become occasions to live as Christian disciples, called to proclaim Jesus’ Good News to those we meet daily.

We wait with an open heart for the poor and disenfranchised in whom we recognize the risen Lord, and we reach out to them. We anticipate serving the poor by acknowledging economically, psychologically, spiritually and physically poor people as living invitations to serve Jesus who lives in our midst. We may recognize him in an elderly mother living in a nursing home, a teenage child suffering from drug addiction, an insecure spouse or a neighbor without a job. Advent invites us to put our everyday acts of mercy under the lens of the Gospel, recognizing the needy, poor and outcasts as hinges that join Jesus’ mission and ministry with our discipleship.

Christian discipleship

Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) and Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) invites us to follow Jesus’ way by serving the poor. The pope offers a path that moves us forward as members of Christ’s risen body. We call this the path of Christian discipleship.

While Pope Francis often relates this path with the ministry of Church leaders, it applies to all Christians in service of their brothers and sisters.

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We describe this path of Christian discipleship by using four words of Pope Francis: welcome, accompaniment, discernment and integration. These summarize the pastoral attitudes needed to deal with any situation of hurt or brokenness. Together, they afford us with a new model of Christian discipleship. We support a person’s move from a sometimes dry riverbed of life to the living waters of a stream suffused with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Welcome is the underlying perspective; accompaniment happens as we support the needy; discernment occurs as we help them discern God’s will; and integration results as we help integrate them in some way into the Church community.

The Holy Spirit, at the center of this evangelization process, leads the parent, child, work associate or friend that we assist. We are the Holy Spirit’s ambassadors.

These four attitudes provide the framework for our remarks about anticipating the poor in our midst, as we focus on Advent and responding as Christian disciples. Seen in the context of evangelization, the following sections explain them, connect them to each other and offer stories or examples of sharing Jesus’ Good News, especially with the poor.

We now describe these four attitudes comprising the path of Christian discipleship.

Welcome
Being a welcoming home helps form children's attitudes toward caring for those around them. Shutterstock

Welcome

The path of a Christian disciple begins with the family and returns there. We concentrate on family as a starting point, then move to neighbors, friends, work associates and the parish.

Welcome begins in the family. A child becomes aware of parents, siblings and environment before becoming aware of the child’s own self. The external environment of the home redounds on the child’s developing self-concept. It’s vital that children feel loved and cared for, even before they develop a clear sense of their own self. Love and affiliation set the foundation for human interchanges later on. They introduce children to a welcoming, loving family.

As children grow, relationships and the home environment play a big part in how they respond to others. Whether at home, in workplace or at church, welcome is the foundation for a positive attitude toward life.

The welcoming climate of the home affects children’s religious formation and attitudes. Religious rituals, prayers and religious artifacts, like a crucifix or a Bible, play an important part in a welcoming religious home environment.

To illustrate the significance of welcome for Christian discipleship, I cite a story from my childhood. Our home and our small dry-goods store strongly influenced my early upbringing. Both part of my family’s climate, they established the foundation for who I am today. Our store in the west end of Cincinnati was a happy place where neighborhood folks bought merchandise and knew that everyone, mostly poor African-American and white people, felt welcome.

The old store is gone now, but memories live on. The special sense of welcome that those coming into our store felt continues to inspire me in my ministry and moves me to welcome everyone, especially in church. Remembering our home and the old store, I realize more deeply how God’s love and human kindness bring a sense of welcome and new life. Applied to Christian discipleship, we learn that hospitality is a fundamental attitude as a Christian disciple.

Jesus must have possessed a remarkable way of welcoming others, especially the poor and needy who flocked to him. If we hope to reach out to the poor, it is imperative that we make them feel welcome.

If not, other efforts to evangelize often bear little fruit. The call to discipleship invites us to be a welcoming person, regardless of whether this welcome happens at our home, in the neighborhood or in the parish.

Besides the welcome extended by individual Christians, parishes as a whole are challenged to be welcoming communities.

This goes beyond the pastor greeting people before or after Mass on Sundays. It extends to how the secretary answers the rectory phone or whether minority groups feel welcome. Welcome is strongly affected by the climate of the entire parish. If this climate is not a welcoming one, attempts to evangelize will be severely limited. Welcome is the starting point, and Advent is the time to seriously consider it.

Accompaniment

Welcome roots accompaniment, which also begins in the family and extends outward into the neighborhood, work and the parish. Parents develop their attitude of accompaniment as their love grows, and it extends to their dealings with the entire family unit.

Reflect on your family and Pope Francis’ call for accompaniment in family ministry as you join me on an aspect of my journey that occurred in the spring of 2016.

Uncertainty filled the hearts of my sister, Joan, and myself as we drove to Columbus, Ohio, to visit my dying brother, Tom, at the James Cancer Hospital. On our trip north, we remembered our other sister, Mary Ann, seriously ill in Cincinnati at Good Samaritan Hospital.

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Pope Francis stresses that we walk with those who are struggling. Shutterstock

Arriving at the hospital, we stood outside of Tom’s room. Seeing us, his feeble voice invited us to enter. After a visit with family and friends, everyone left the room except Joan and me. I asked Tom, “Do you want us to pray with you?” He answered, “Sure!” As we said the Our Father, I looked at his trembling lips and the worry on Joan’s face.

Coming to the words, “Thy kingdom come,” my mind flashed back about 75 years. I remembered our mother teaching us children this prayer and praying it with Mary Ann, Joan, Tom and me. It was almost as if we were transported back in time to a core moment that united us together as a family.

Thinking of Mom praying with us, I experienced powerfully what Pope Francis calls accompaniment as we said, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Through life, our family members nourished each other in our joys and sorrows, made possible by faith-filled parents. As I left Tom’s room that day, not long before he died, I realized more deeply that faith is born in and nourished in the family, where we grow in love, mercy and forgiveness through life’s ordinary events.

Accompaniment, built into a family as they strive to support one another, is the foundation for how we reach out later in life to be with and support the needy, especially in troubled times.

Pope Francis uses accompaniment in a broad sense. It can happen when supporting a student having difficulty learning mathematics, consoling a high school football player who tore his meniscus, supporting a boy caught stealing from a store who tries to amend his ways, advising a widowed Catholic wondering about the next step in her life, or counselling a divorced Catholic struggling with whether to remarry. In each case, the path of Christian discipleship calls us to walk with and support them, as they discern the workings of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Discernment

Discernment, an essential quality along the path of Christian discipleship, is so significant that Pope Francis named discernment as the theme for the next Synod of Bishops in 2018. This synod will focus on how to catechize youth and help them discern the will of God in today’s complex world.

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In order to find our path in life, we must listen to the Holy Spirit. Shutterstock

Put simply, discernment is the process whereby we attempt to decide what is right or wrong, good or bad, true or false. Often, discernment centers around a particular event, way of acting or decision to be made. This can be as simple as helping a child see why it is wrong to lie, to grappling with a complicated ethical matter. Regardless, it focuses on helping someone discern how the Holy Spirit is leading the individual.

In conscience formation, a person has the obligation to do one’s best to develop a well-formed conscience — that is, one formed in light of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the teachings of the Church, the wisdom of learned or holy people, and the Scriptures. In this process, the Church teaches us that the ultimate monitor of whether a person is morally responsible for actions before God is the judgment of the individual’s practical reason. Such a decision must be made sincerely, while listening to the movements of the Holy Spirit.

The path of Christian discipleship involves developing a well-formed conscience, often done with the assistance of another committed Christian. In the interchange between the listening disciple and the individual searching for the right thing to do, both must seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. From childhood to old age, conscience formation requires discernment. We need to make every effort necessary to make sure that we recognize the way the Holy Spirit is moving us.

Integration

Integration means that for the path to discipleship to reach fulfillment, contact with a believing Christian community is necessary. For the seeking Catholic or one in some irregular situation, it’s important to receive the support of the Catholic community, usually the parish. How many times has it happened that someone going through RCIA stops attending or falls away not long after being received into the Church? This indicates that the welcome, accompaniment and decision to enter the Church must be connected with integration into the parish. Otherwise, the fruits of God’s grace received during the RCIA process can be lost afterwards.

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Feeding the poor can often help them see the good in the Church. Shutterstock

Something similar may occur when someone who has left the Church wants to return. Usually, this often does not occur overnight. Whether in big steps or small ones, the person accompanying such an individual must never give up, but keep encouraging the individual to take small steps until he or she acknowledges the value of returning to an active, faith-filled life in the Church community.

A person, divorced and remarried outside of the Catholic Church without a declaration of nullity, may sense the Holy Spirit’s urging him or her to return to the Church but not receive holy Communion as long as he or she lives in an irregular situation. The one accompanying this person can encourage them to attend Mass and be integrated into other aspects of the parish. Steps like these may someday lead to a return to full communion in the Church if one’s personal situation changes.

Advent invites us to evangelize by reaching out to the poor. We do this when we let anticipation and waiting, an integral part of Advent, be the attitude that enables us to recognize daily opportunities to support the needy and downtrodden as we welcome, accompany, discern with them, and integrate them deeper into the faith life of the Church.

Father Robert J. Hater, Ph.D., is a Cincinnati diocesan priest and an internationally acclaimed speaker and widely published author. He writes from Ohio.