MASS AT ZEAL SUMMIT ON MISSIONARY DISCIPLESHIP
“Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” These words of Saint Paul to the Romans sum up the theme and purpose of this day. We are called, like Saint Paul and the Romans whom he exhorted, to have zeal for the Lord and His service. This is an essential quality for an authentic disciple of Jesus. This is what makes a disciple a “missionary disciple.” It is zeal for the glory of God and for the salvation of souls.
Pope Francis writes and speaks about this a lot. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis wrote the following:
At a time when we most need a missionary dynamism which will bring salt and light to the world, many lay people fear that they may be asked to undertake some apostolic work and they seek to avoid any responsibility that may take away from their free time. For example, it has become very difficult today to find trained parish catechists willing to persevere in this work for some years. Something similar is also happening with priests who are obsessed with protecting their free time. This is frequently due to the fact that people feel an overbearing need to guard their personal freedom, as though the task of evangelization was a dangerous poison rather than ajoyful response to God’s love which summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive. Some resist giving themselves over completely to mission and thus end up in a state of paralysis and acedia” (#81).
“Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord,” Saint Paul exhorts us. That is what Pope Francis is exhorting us to do today. He often warns us against the vice of acedia. You may have heard the word acedia. It was discussed a lot in classical spiritual books. It’s been called “the demon of acedia,” “the noonday devil.” It’s not just laziness; it’s worse. It may reveal itself as laziness, but it’s deeper. It’s an evil, a sin against charity, according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, or more specifically, a sin against the joy that springs from charity. It is a lack of spiritual energy, a stifling of the spirit, discouragement, sloth, a sadness about God. Thomas Aquinas gives two definitions of acedia: “sadness about spiritual good” and “disgust with activity.”
When I read some of the homilies of Pope Francis, I am convinced that he has read and studied Saint Thomas Aquinas’ writings on acedia. Pope Francis is calling us to spread the joy of the Gospel of love. Acedia is the sin against the joy of charity, according to Saint Thomas. The joy of charity is the joy that springs from friendship with God and from communion with God. There is the ultimate joy of charity: eternal life in heaven; and there is the joy that springs from our life with God on earth through grace, the sacraments, prayer, and the life of faith. Because of God’s love for us, we are joyful. Our greatest joy is sharing in the life of God: by grace here below and by the beatific vision in heaven.
When we have this spiritual joy, this experience of friendship with God, we desire to share it. This is evangelization. This is what it means to bemissionary disciples: sharing the joy of the Gospel by our witness and our words. We are even “driven” to do so. Think of Saint Paul. He wrote: “the love of Christ urges us on.” He could not “not preach” the Gospel, even when it meant hardship, persecution, and suffering. He had zeal for the glory of God, the spread of the Gospel, the salvation of sinners. Nothing and no one could stop him. He was a man filled with the Holy Spirit. He acted not by a worldly or carnal instinct, but by the instinct of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit made him another Christ such that he was able to write: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” There was no acedia in him. He was filled with zeal because of his encounter with the Lord and His grace. He experienced deep in his soul Christ’s love and wrote to the Galatians: “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Having this knowledge in heart and mind, he became a great missionary disciple.
Pope Francis is calling us to have this zeal which has its source in the love of Christ and its power from the Holy Spirit. He laments the lack of enthusiasm in the lives of many Catholics who may go to Mass but do not want to become involved and do not feel the need to give what they receive to others. He says: “This is the illness of acedia and it cripples apostolic zeal. It causes Christians to come to a standstill. They are peaceful, but not in the good sense of the word: they are people who do not bother to go out to proclaim the Gospel, people who are anaesthetized.” The Holy Father speaks of sad and negative Christians as an illness in the Church. He says it’s like perhaps going to Mass on Sunday, then posting a sign saying “please, do not disturb.” He laments the spiritual sloth and selfishness, the sin of acedia against apostolic zeal, against the desire to give the newness of the Gospel to others,that newness which we have been freely given. He’s calling us and the whole Church to go out, to draw people to Christ and His Church, and especially to reach out to the wounded and to bring them to the field hospital of the Church.
It’s good to gather on this day to reflect on our call to missionary discipleship. We have so many saints like the apostle Paul who are great examples for us of missionary zeal. We are called to live with this zeal and courage, that also includes sensitivity, reverence for others, and the desire to share with them the word of grace that has the power to build them up.
I’ll end this homily with a thought from today’s Gospel. Jesus’ words are really pretty shocking. It sounds like he’s speaking against the fourth commandment when he told the disciple whom he invited to follow him, the one who asked him to let him go first and bury his father: “let the dead bury their dead.” And then to another who wanted first to say farewell to his family, Jesus said: “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God.” With these strong and disturbing words, Jesus is not saying we should not love our parents and families. He is teaching us very clearly though that the love of God and the desire to do His holy will must always be the first priority of our lives. Even family obligations must not hold us back from wholeheartedly living as Jesus’ disciples. Our response to Jesus must be unconditional. When it is, we have zeal. We are fervent in spirit. We serve the Lord.
Nothing hurts the mission of the new evangelization like the sickness of acedia which creates a spiritual desert, lack of joy and hope, discouragement, and fatigue. To be a Christian is to announce the Good News of salvation joyfully. It is to be a missionary. Evangelization should not be a burden because it is the sharing of a gift, the greatest gift, sharing the joy of the gift: the gift of God, the gift of Jesus, who loves us and gave His life for us.