Henri Nouwen said “Being the beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”
On December 27, the Church celebrated the feast of St. John the Apostle - referred to in the Gospel of John as the beloved disciple. A few short days ago, we also celebrated the great and holy feast of Christmas: the turning point in history. On that night in Bethlehem, when God became a little baby, He made it possible for us to truly become “the beloved.”
St. John shows us that to truly love and become “the beloved,” we must stick by each other even through suffering. It was John, along with Our Lady and Mary Magdalene, who remained with Our Lord until His final moments at Calvary.
St. John’s Gospel not only gives us one of the most profound recollections of the crucifixion, but it also reminds us that we love others “because He first loved us.” As Christians, everything in our lives must first flow from a lived relationship with Love incarnate, Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate this Christmas season. This relationship with Christ enables us to know what St. John knew: Jesus makes all things new, all burdens light.
Before we can believe the truth of being beloved, I have found that we often believe a lot of lies. Our world and culture - not to mention the Evil One - tell us that we aren’t good enough, that we are unworthy of love. But to truly love and be loved is to live in the truth of who God says we are and the truth of who He calls us to be.
The truth of our identity is that we are beloved sons and daughters, called to stay close to the manger AND the cross and commissioned to share the Good News that we are called to love because He first loved us.
Today as we are still reveling in the shadow of Christ’s manger in Bethlehem, let’s ask Our Lord, Our Lady, and St. John to fill us with the greatest truth of our existence: our identity as beloved.
The call to evangelize is at the heart of our Christian faith. We are evangelizers at our core; it makes up our very identity. And yet, if I were to ask most people sitting in the church pews at Mass if they are evangelists, they would probably shake their heads and identify themselves in other terms: vocation, occupation, role in the family, country of origin.
A professor of mine in graduate school put it starkly when he said most of the laity are experiencing an “identity crisis.” We do not know, or have forgotten, who we are as members of the Body of Christ and what our role is within it. Today, Pope Francis echoes his predecessors in reminding the laity of their call to become missionary disciples. This is a call that originates from God Himself, with the Risen Christ saying to his beloved disciples before ascending to the Father, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” These words reverberate ever more powerfully for us today.
Though the universal call to holiness and a greater emphasis on evangelization has roots in the papacy of Pope Paul VI and within the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis calls the concept of sharing our encounter with Jesus Christ using the means available to us “missionary discipleship.” It is a profound concept that Pope Francis assures us is relatively simple. “The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized,” he writes in Evangelii Gaudium. “Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love.” Once we have encountered Jesus Christ and His merciful love, we are called to bring that encounter to others, therefore playing a unique role in salvation history.
Several of my colleagues from the Catholic Apostolate Center and I were honored to discuss “The Call to Missionary Discipleship” at the Catechetical Day hosted by the Archdiocese of Washington in late October. We discussed that, as baptized Christians, we have been given the grace of Jesus Christ in order to respond to the both daunting and exhilarating call to “go out to all the nations.” This understanding of evangelization subsists not only on our personal encounter with God’s transforming love, but also on our proclamation of it. It is not enough to encounter Jesus Christ for ourselves. Like the woman at the well, we must go forth telling anyone who will listen, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done.”
Below are five practical tips we came up with for living out the call to be a missionary disciple. What are we missing? Feel free to add to our list by commenting on our post below!
If we are to be missionary disciples, we must be people of collaboration. This does not mean that we attend endless meetings, join committees, or fill every moment of our schedule. We propose collaboration from the beginning, which means a willingness to begin an endeavor communally with others—recognizing the valuable role each person has. Collaboration must happen among, for, and with those in our parishes and organizations. It requires openness to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, humility, dialogue, and flexibility. How can you learn from others in your community, parish, family, workplace, or neighborhood? How might God use the gifts and talents of a diverse group of people to strengthen His kingdom on earth?
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to use the tools of this present age in order to re-present the Gospel to our world in a way that is innovative and re-invigorated. A major tool today that can be used to spread the Gospel message is technology, especially the internet. We can share digital content that is valuable, such as Scripture, the Catechism, and Papal and Conciliar documents, in order to become better informed about our faith. Technology can also create a new type of community, enabling us to connect with others and share information in a way that is cost-effective and not limited to physical proximity. What are some ways you can use technology to spread the Gospel and help build a civilization of love?
3. Community/Parish Life
We do not exist in isolation. As Christians, our work of evangelization will not bear much fruit if we do it alone. Our community, especially our parish, strengthens us and equips us to go outside our church walls in order to evangelize. It is within the parish that we receive the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which gives us the grace of Christ Himself. In order to be effective as missionary disciples, we are called to have a vibrant sacramental life strengthened by our communities. How does your parish community strengthen you for your mission of discipleship?
Relationships outside of the parish are also crucial to missionary discipleship. As mentioned above, we do not exist in isolation. Do we have a mentor or spiritual guide helping us to grow in our faith life? Do we have relationships or friendships that hold us accountable and push us to become better witnesses of faith? By developing faith-filled relationships and surrounding ourselves with mentors and guides, we ensure that we continue to grow in our role as missionary disciples.
Prayer is crucial not only to a life of missionary discipleship, but to the Christian life overall. Prayer is the foundation for our relationship with God, inviting us to get to know ourselves more deeply through his gaze of love and mercy and helping us to better understand our specific mission in building up the Body of Christ. Prayer can, and should be, both personal and communal. God speaks in the silence of our hearts, as well as through others. Are we carving out time in silence to converse with God and hear the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Do we read Scripture, pray the Rosary, journal, sing hymns, or reflect? By having an active prayer life, we will be better equipped to become fruitful missionary disciples.
The call to missionary discipleship is both daunting and exciting, and we can live it out at any time. As Pope Francis wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, “Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.” Above, I’ve listed a few tips to fulfilling our call to become missionary disciples. What would you add to the list?
To learn what the Catholic Apostolate Center is doing to form missionary disciples, click here to learn about Apostles on Mission.
"I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them." -Ezekiel 11:19
I hold my son Leo closely, rocking him back and forth in the quiet of the night. He throws his head back, pushes against me, and babbles to keep himself awake. As his mother, I must be patient and persistent. The fruit of my efforts results in his deep breathing, dangling arms, and heavy eyelids.
Leo is now ten months old—crawling, pulling himself up, climbing. While he still looks to me for assurance and affirmation, he much prefers exploration to stillness. Not wanting to miss a thing about this big world, he wrestles with me as I put him down for naps and at bedtime.
I often think as I sing to Leo and soothe him to sleep: This is how I am with God. I wrestle with him, pushing back, filling my life with distraction. I prefer my will—my way—to his own. I forget to rest in his stillness.
In my graduate program, a professor once shared a particularly beautiful insight that still strikes me today. He said that if two human beings rest long enough on each other’s chests, their hearts sync up and beat in rhythm with one another. As a mother, this insight is especially poignant and beautiful to me—I think of my son’s heart slowing down and mine speeding up to embrace and beat as one. Then I apply this truth to God: have I allowed myself to rest in him? Do our hearts beat as one?
The Gospels tell us that John, the Beloved Disciple, reclined on the chest (kolpos in Greek) of Christ at the Last Supper. Applying my professor’s insight to the Gospel, we can gather from this image that John’s heart beat in time with Christ’s, whose own heart beat perfectly with his Heavenly Father’s.
As Christians, we are all called and invited to become the Beloved Disciple. This is not a privilege for a select few. Resting on the kolpos of Christ and allowing our hearts to beat in time with his gives our lives true meaning and fulfillment. As Pope Francis said, “The Heart of the Good Shepherd tells us that his love is limitless; it is never exhausted and it never gives up. There we see his infinite and boundless self-giving; there we find the source of that faithful and meek love which sets free and makes others free; there we constantly discover anew that Jesus loves us even to the end’ (Jn 13:1), without ever being imposing.”
This intimacy with God, however, does not happen overnight. The Gospel does not say that John rested on the chest of Christ right after Jesus called him to discipleship on the Sea of Galilee. This intimacy was the fruit of years spent in the presence of Jesus. It is the fruit of a deep relationship with him—sitting at his feet, sharing meals, listening to his preaching, witnessing his miracles.
We do not rest on the chest of a stranger. We are called, therefore, to grow in intimacy with God by opening our hearts to his. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “It is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.” Though Christ opens his heart to all of his children, we are called to build that intimacy with him, as John did, through prayer, stillness, the sacraments, and service.
The famous quote of St. Augustine reminds us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. And so we will not feel satisfied in this world until we have allowed ourselves to rest in the heart, on the kolpos, of Christ. “God’s heart calls to our hearts, “ Pope Benedict XVI observed in his homily on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When we allow ourselves to rest in the heart of Christ, he invites us “to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties, to trust in him and, by following his example, to make ourselves a gift of unbounded love.” Our encounter with the heart of the Good Shepherd, therefore, is what strengthens us to go out in our respective vocations and live as missionary disciples.
May we rest on the kolpos of Christ and experience his perfect charity so that we may become “gifts of unbounded love” to the world. As we deepen our intimacy with God, let us look to John’s childlike trust and ask for his intercession in order to become who we were created to be: beloved disciples.
Questions for Reflection: Do certain things keep you from growing in your relationship with Christ? How might God be calling you to rest in him?
For resources on prayer, please click here.
"On this holy night, while we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close?" - Pope Francis (Christmas Homily, 2014)
The past year has seen many moments that called out for the "tenderness of God." Challenging moments of war, suffering, natural disaster, and human-caused neglect - seemingly harsh, rather than tender. Some might use the harshness of the world as an excuse to move away from God or render God irrelevant. Yet, there is still a seeking in the human heart given by God who desires to embrace us and draw us close. When we look at the scene of the Nativity, do we see the tenderness of God in the midst of the harsh reality that Mary and Joseph were not shown tenderness in their need, but instead were rejected? The Son of God came into the world in poverty. At the end of his earthly life, he was rejected once again. The Father, though, continued to show mercy, love, and tenderness by raising him up, opening the way to salvation, and leaving us a share in Christ's mission of love and mercy until he comes again.
During this Jubilee of Mercy and beyond, may we go about doing Christ's mission well through living tenderness, reviving faith, rekindling charity - living the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. These works of mercy are practical ways for us to welcome and share the "tenderness of God."
On behalf of the board, staff, collaborators, and advisors of the Catholic Apostolate Center, may you have a Blessed Christmas and a good New Year! You will be remembered by me at Masses during the Christmas season!
May the charity of Christ urge us on!