Implementing the New Evangelization, Memorial of St. Ireneus, June 28, 2001

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Dominican Monastery, Krakow, Poland
Tertio Millennio Conference
Memorial of St. Ireneaus
June 28, 2001
2Tim2:22-26; Jn 17:20-26

1) “The glory of God is man fully alive,” St. Ireneus teaches us, “and the life of man is the vision of God.” Everything that the Church is and does is meant to help man become fully alive and so give glory to God. The Church’s social doctrine — upon which we’re concentrating during these days and which constitutes an “essential part of the Christian message” and new Evangelization — is likewise geared toward helping create the context of a free and virtuous society so that man can achieve this full life in Christ. Christ came so that we might have this life and have it to the full.

2) So tonight I would like to focus on the implementation of the New Evangelization, how we are to put into effect all that we’re learning during these wonderful days. The New Evangelization needs new Evangelists and we are those new Evangelists. But to be effective evangelists, to bear good fruit as we heard in last night’s Gospel, we need certain virtues. Tonight we can stand on the shoulders of three giants of the faith, three of the greatest evangelists in the history of the world, and see what these virtues are. Not surprisingly, all three have had, have shown and have taught these particular virtues. These three giants are St. Paul, St. Irenaeus, and Pope John Paul II.

3) St. Paul’s second letter to St. Timothy is a fascinating training handbook for the new evangelization in which the Doctor of the Gentiles teaches his young spiritual son — and through him, us — what virtues the proclaimer of the Gospel needs. Listen to him again from tonight’s first reading. He puts first things first gives us all the indispensable starting point: “Fasten your attention on holiness” The first thing needed is holiness. Everything we believe we believe on the basis of the credibility of the one giving witness, and the greatest witness is holiness. We’ll return to this later. Paul then adds the virtues that lead to holiness and flow from it. “Faith” in God and in his promises. “Love,” the love of God for us which we’re called to share. “Peace,” the peace the world cannot give and no one can take away, the peace which is not just an absence of war, but the peace that comes from a right union with God. And “union with all those who call on the Lord with pure minds.” The recognition that none of us is a lone ranger in this mission, but that we’re in communion with all those who purely call on God. The first thing needed is not a particular series of lectures or arguments, not a brilliant understanding of the history of the various questions or logical acuity, but a deep, vibrant, holy relationship with the Lord.

4) Then St. Paul turns to the question of technique and gives very practical advice about what to do and not to do. “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies which bring quarrels. A servant of the Lord — a new Evangelizer — is not to engage in quarrels, but has to be kind to everyone, a good teacher, patient, and gentle when he corrects the people who dispute what he says.” The new evangelization is not about winning arguments, but about winning souls for God. Our sole object should be to bring people to the truth who is God, not to the conclusion that we know more than they do. It’s not about proving ourselves right and others wrong, but about bringing people to the truth who is Christ. This is a great temptation that so many of us have to fight. Because the issue is bringing people to God, kindness, patience and gentleness are crucial, lest someone who might be open to the truth reject it so as not to give us the satisfaction of winning an argument against them. As Paul reminds us at the end of the passage, God is the principal agent in this work, and can give them a change of heart so that they might “recognize the truth and come to their senses, and out of the trap where the devil caught them and kept them enslaved.” It is God who converts the heart. Grace counts so much more than all our arguments.

5) St. Ireneus put all of these principles into action. He lived during the second century, dying about the year 202. He had been taught the Gospel in Smyrna, learning it at the feet of the great St. Polycarp, who himself learned it at the feet of St. John, who himself learned it by leaning on the heart of Jesus. St. Ireneus, early in his life, was sent as a missionary to Gaul and was eventually ordained a priest for the Church of Lyons, France. Much like our own era, the second century was a time of great difficulties for the Church, both from the outside and from the inside. On the outside, Christianity was still very much illegal and Christians, under the implementation of the Emperor Trajan’s Letter, could die just for being Christians. In 177, hundreds of Christians were massacred in Lyons for their faith. The only reason why St. Ireneus was not martyred with his bishop and his flock then was because he had been providentially sent on a peace mission to Rome.

5) There were also huge problems inside the persecuted and young Church, in the form of heresies which were tearing the Church asunder. There were heresies from the “right,” like Montanism, a rigorist understanding of the faith which held, among other things, that serious sins committed after baptism could never be forgiven, and hence kicked serious sinners out of the Church rather than to try to allow Christ to save them through the Church he founded. There were several heresies from the “left,” including gnosticism, which believed not in God’s revelation, not in a Christ who saves and handed on all the means necessary for salvation to the apostles and their successors, but in a “special knowledge” that was needed for salvation; this bears a striking resemblance to modern day new age cults. Or like docetism, which believed that Jesus was never incarnate, but only appeared to have a human body. Hence, since Jesus didn’t have a body, he couldn’t have suffered and died hammered to the Cross. Thus they didn’t believe in his passion and death. Moreover, since he didn’t have a body at all, he couldn’t give us his flesh and blood, and hence the Eucharist and the sacraments were likewise out. Against all of these, St. Ireneus fought and wrote his famous work Adversus Haereses, but St. Irenaeus wrote and fought in a particular way.

6) True to his name, which means peaceful, he first listened intently to understand completely the arguments of his opponents. This took great effort and patience on his part, but he knew it was worth it. Then, with great moderation and courtesy, and an unembarrassing sense of humor, he pointed out their errors and tried to lead them to the truth. Unlike, for example, the great Montanist minds like Tertullian, who skillfully ridiculed the positions of those with whom he disagreed, Ireneus loved those who were in so much error. Against those in the Church who might have thought that error had no rights and consequently wanted to deal harshly with heretics, Irenaeus believed that persons in errors did have rights and dignity, and should be loved with the love of Christ. Hence he went to Rome in 177 to try to intercede with Pope Eleutherius so that he would not deal too harshly with the Montanists — and this deed of love and kindness was what God used to save him from an early martyrdom with the others in Lyons — and 14 years late he interceded with Pope Victor to lift a sentence of excommunication of the Quartodecimans, who celebrated Easter on the fixed date related to the 14th day of the month of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar. And his kind, patient, gentle work, and holiness, faithful, loving, peaceful, and contagious relationship with Christ had an enormous impact. He’s credited with finishing the gnostic heresy and setting the groundwork for the elimination of others.

7) We see the same principles at work in the life and in the teaching of the present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II. In his latest apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, he describes in detail the pastoral program of the Church for the new evangelization of the third millennium. This is a pastoral plan that he himself has put into practice his whole priestly life long, against difficulties from outside the Church, against difficulties inside the Church from the right (like the Lefevrists) or from the left (like fundamental optionists, those in favor of abortion and others). He says, like St. Paul, that the new evangelization, that all our efforts, have to start with holiness. Against those who might think that holiness is unattainable or for others, he, in very clear language, says that holiness is possible for each of us and that each of us is truly called to holiness. That are saying yes to baptism and amen to holy communion is to say “yes, so be it” to the question, “Do you want to be holy? Do you want to become Christlike?” But, very practically, he says that holiness requires “training,” and this formation in holiness has several elements: prayer; the Eucharist (particularly on Sundays); the sacrament of reconciliation; a focus on the primacy of grace in everything; listening to the word of God; proclaiming that word we’ve heard; being witnesses to love, even to the point of laying down our lives as Christ did, as St. Paul did, and as tradition says, St. Irenaeus did, which is the supreme manifestation of the Law of the Gift. All of this training in holiness is the foundation for the new evangelization, for becoming effective New Evangelists in the New Acts of the Apostles the Holy Spirit wants to write for the 3rd millennium.

8 ) If we’re tempted to discouragement because we’re so far from that holiness to which we’re called, or because we deem ourselves so incapable of being effective evangelists, the Pope finishes his apostolic exhortation by calling us back to the example of Christ’s instruction to St. Peter, who himself on paper was not the holiest, most competent, most courageous, most brilliant applicant for the job of evangelist either. “Duc in altum!,” Christ says to Peter and to each of us. “Put out into the deep and lower your nets for a catch!” Take a risk, not because you have confidence in yourself, but because you have confidence in Christ who commands.

9) That same Christ has prayed for us, as we read in tonight’s Gospel, that we might be one with each other and with Him, just as He is one with the Father. And God the Father will always hear the prayer of His only begotten Son. The entire Gospel of Christ — of which the social doctrine of the Church is, as John Paul II says, an “essential part” — is a treasure for us so that we might come to see the face of Christ and allow us to radiate that face throughout all of society. The life of man is this vision of God and helps man to become fully alive in Christ and give glory to God in heaven. As we come to receive that same Jesus here in this holy Eucharist, to become one with him bodily so that we might become ever more one with him spiritually, may Jesus who prayed for us grant us the grace to carry out this mission of the new evangelization. Christ wouldn’t be calling us to “put out into the deep” in this new evangelization unless he knew that we, united with him, were fit for the task.