Learn the Language

– Feast of St Francis Xavier –

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven’ [Matthew 7:21]

Today is the feast day of St Francis Xavier, one of the great missionary figures from our faith tradition. An early companion of St Ignatius Loyola, he learned from his mentor and friend what it means to become single-minded and pure in heart as we learn to serve God alone.

As a man with a faith-inspired mission, he went wherever he felt compelled to serve. He was notable for his insight that the gospel needs to be proclaimed in words and symbols that are meaningful to the people he was working with. He knew that God is already at work in the lives and hearts of “all people of good will”, and the missionary’s role is simply to witness to that fact, and to help them recognise and respond to God’s invitation in Christ. It is not about making other people in our image and likeness, but to simply point out Christ (John 1:29).

One of the most challenging aspects of proclaiming our faith involves putting ourselves into the shoes of those to whom we are sent. Too easily, we can fall into the trap of speaking in ways that make sense to us, and all the time failing to see that our words, our symbols, and our actions may make little sense to the men, women and children with whom we imagine we are in dialogue. Sometimes, as Catholics, we can be like the proverbial English speaker travelling in various parts of the world. Instead of learning the native language of the people with whom we are trying to communicate, we resort to SPEAKING LOUDER.

We have a problem. As Catholics we value our theology, our symbols, our rituals and our ways of doing things. That is as it should be. However, we can forget that the richness of our tradition might be overwhelming and confusing for someone who has not been brought up with that. We offer them a rich banquet while in reality they are in need of milk (1 Corinthians 3:2). Addressing this fact, while remaining faithful to that which is true and important for us, is the central challenge for proclaiming the Gospel in the contemporary world.

The Fathers of the 2nd Vatican Council strongly perceived, as a true breath of the Holy Spirit, a need to talk about God to men and women of their time in a more accessible way. The walls which too long had made the Church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way…The Church sensed a responsibility to be a living sign of the Father’s love in the world. [Pope Francis, ‘The Face of Mercy,’ Misericordiae Vultus no. 4]

By Shane Dwyer

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