I hope you are compiling in your mind the list of those you will invite back to the Church this Christmas. This group comprises a large spectrum of people. It begins with each of us who could be considered participating members of the Church because we all need to constantly be evaluating our lives to see the ways that sin and its familiar bedfellow, complacency, are insinuating their way into our lives.
The group to whom we are reaching out with a special urgency this Advent includes those Catholics who have become very occasional in their attendance at Sunday Mass, those who are not living moral lifestyles, those who married outside the Church, those who have not been to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in many months or years, those whose daily prayer life has all but died. We consider those who for whatever reason angrily left the Church, what may seem like a lifetime ago, our special quarry. How dearly God would like to bring them back! How happy we would be to welcome them in His Name!
With all our heart we want them back. This is the work we are called to during this Year of Faith. It is the New Evangelization of which our Holy Father, Pope Benedict speaks. Nothing would make us happier than to see these lost members of God’s holy flock find their way back to the fold. We know we are incomplete without them. It is not enough for us to fill the church or to meet our budget. Christ’s Body, the Church, is crippled and unable to accomplish all he has come to do until we are all united and pulling together.
As much as we long to welcome all our members home, let’s be sure that we are clear not only about what we are offering them, but about what we will be asking of them as well. What we are offering them is a new life, grace, joy and peace in God’s presence. What we are offering them is the support and loving embrace of the whole Christian community. What we are offering them is God’s guidance in every moment of their lives in the Church. What we are offering is freedom from fear in the face of every trial and the promise of eternal life.
All of these gifts that come to us in the Church imply a readiness on our part to receive them. They are never forced upon us by God, nor are they given without our willing cooperation. God wants us to be more than merely passive vessels for His gracious work. He needs, he requires, our participation. That is why in our Gospel today we see John the Baptist reaching out to people at all levels of society. They are asking him, “What should we do?” That is why Jesus, as he begins to proclaim the Gospel, proclaims, “Repent, and believe the Good News!”
To come back to the Church and remain will eventually require a certain disposition in the hearts of those God is calling back. This in itself is a gift of God’s Spirit: they need to be fundamentally dissatisfied with the way they have been going, the way they have been choosing. Christ’s Body, the Church, is more than an association of friends; it is the place where sinners gather at the call of Jesus to begin walking, however haltingly, along the road to salvation. It requires an attentiveness to Christ as he speaks through the Church and a willingness to follow His way and not their own. Even if they cannot immediately bring their lives into conformity with what God calls them to in the Church, they need to be ready to take the first step.
This first step doesn’t require that they have every doubt resolved and every question answered. These things tend to require prayer and study and time. We in the Church are ready to assist with this. What is required is that after God reaches out to those who have been away, which he is doing at every moment, they be ready, however tentatively, to reach back to Him and to resume with the Lord, and with us, their joyful (and challenging) journey to God’s Kingdom.
It may all begin with your invitation!
+Bishop Mark J. Seitz