Il Vangelo di Marco 16 termina con le seguenti parole: “Allora essi partirono e predicarono dappertutto, mentre il Signore agiva insieme con loro e confermava la Parola con i segni che la accompagnavano.” Che bella descrizione di cosa si intende per attività evangelizzatrice nella Chiesa in ogni tempo! Il Signore risorto “operava con loro” (in greco synergeo), o “impegnato in uno sforzo collaborativo con loro”, così che attraverso la loro proclamazione piena di fede del vangelo, la sua potenza salvifica si mostrava a co
The Gospel of Mark ends with these words: “They went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.” What a beautiful depiction of what is meant to be the evangelizing activity of the Church in every age! The risen Lord “worked with them” (Greek synergeō), or “engaged in a collaborative endeavor with them,” so that through their faith-filled proclamation of the gospel, his saving power would be displayed to those most in need.
A good example of such collaboration looks like is in the prison ministry of my friend John. He volunteers regularly at prisons and rehab centers, bringing the love and compassion of Christ to the inmates. On one typical day, he had gathered some of the inmates for prayer, and this is what occurred:
An inmate named Rick said he had back pain. I prayed for that, and the pain left him. But then I had a nudge from the Holy Spirit to ask him if he had one leg shorter than the other. He said he didn’t know, but he had had ankle surgery. I sat him down to check and, sure enough, he did. I told the dozen or so men in the room to gather around and watch. Jesus did not disappoint. The leg grew out to match its twin. They were, of course, stunned, because they all saw it happen right before their eyes. I used the opportunity to evangelize and talk about God’s love and how he not only wants to heal physical ailments, but to heal Rick’s relationship with Him, and the same for all of us.
The inmates that day received not only good catechesis, but a visible demonstration of the power and mercy of Jesus that radically changed their lives.
For more than half a century the Church has been ringing out a clarion call: the call to a new evangelization. It began with Vatican Council II, which sought to renew the Church in order to proclaim the gospel more effectively in our time. After the Council Pope Paul VI boldly declared, “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize.” Every subsequent pope has repeated that message. Pope Francis put it this way: “we cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings; we need to move from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.” The whole Church is being invited to rediscover its identity as a “community of missionary disciples.”
Given this summons re-echoing continually from the chair of St. Peter, it is wise to ask from time to time, How are things going with this new evangelization? And in many parts of the world, the honest answer is, “Not so well!” In Europe and North America the number of practicing Catholics has been in rapid decline, and it is declining faster among young people. A recent survey in the United States found that for every one adult who joins the Catholic Church, 6.5 people leave; the surveyors noted that no other religious group has such a high ratio of losses to gains. In Latin America, the most Catholic part of the world, millions have left the Church to join Evangelical or Pentecostal groups. In parts of Africa and Asia the Church is growing, yet even there, relatively few Catholics have fully awakened to their call to be missionary disciples.
This mediocre response prompts the question, What is missing? What is not in place that ought to be in place for the new evangelization to take off? Could it be that we are missing something in the Great Commission given to us by the Lord himself?
I believe that question can best be answered by returning to the Scriptures, where we find the story of the first evangelization—the explosive spread of the gospel in the ancient world. In the New Testament we discover how a little band of fishermen, tax collectors, and other ordinary people, even while being subjected to waves of violent persecution, “turned the world upside-down” for Jesus (cf. Acts 17:6). So effective was their proclamation of the good news of salvation in Christ that by the mid-fourth century, when it was finally safe to become a Christian, Christians were already nearly half the population of the Roman Empire. What explains that exponential growth?
Jesus had taught his disciples that their mission is rooted in his own mission: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:21). Jesus, then, is the model for us. His mission formally began with his baptism by John in the Jordan River, an act of humble obedience to the Father’s plan. Immediately afterward the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended on him in the form of a dove, and Jesus heard the Father’s declaration of love: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). The gospel does not say that the heavens then closed up again. The implication is that Jesus lived under an open heaven! After his baptism, he was “full of the Holy Spirit” and went “in the power of the Spirit” into Galilee to begin his ministry of teaching, healing and liberating the oppressed (Luke 4:1, 14). It was from that day forward, not before, that he began to minister in power. Although he is the Son of God, Jesus chose to live as man, dependent on the Holy Spirit.
After resisting the temptations of Satan in the desert, Jesus went into the synagogue at Nazareth and gave his inaugural sermon, in which he summed up his mission as the Messiah. He took the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read a messianic prophecy:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to evangelize the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus then declared that this passage is fulfilled in himself. It is in fact his “mission statement,” the perfect description of what he came to do. He has been anointed by the Holy Spirit so as to be sent into all the places of human bondage, blindness, sickness, oppression, guilt, and misery, in order to proclaim the good news of salvation and to visibly demonstrate it by actually setting people free.
Jesus is teaching us that the gospel he preaches is good news because it comes with power! Conversely, without power the gospel would not be good news. An example may help to clarify this basic principle. Imagine a dark, dank underground prison in which hundreds of people are chained up; they are filthy, hungry, cold, sick, miserable, and full of bitterness and despair. Then suppose someone walks into that dungeon and loudly announces, “Hey, everybody! I have good news: there is a savior who has come to open the doors of prisons and let all the captives go free. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that. Have a nice day.” Then that person walks out, leaving everyone still chained up just as before. Was that message good news? Of course it is no good news at all unless what it announced actually happens. So it is with the gospel: the gospel is good news because comes with power to actually bring about what it announces—healing, freedom, forgiveness, blessing, and salvation.
Another immensely important truth is embedded in Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4:18-19. Jesus attributes all the mighty works he is about to do—his healings, miracles, casting out demons, preaching with authority, ushering in the kingdom of God—not to his divine omnipotence as the Son of God, but to the anointing of the Holy Spirit imparted to him in his human nature. The reason this is so important is that he promised to give us, his disciples, the very same Spirit who had anointed him. Just as his mission was founded on his being filled and empowered in his human nature with the Holy Spirit, so our mission is founded on being filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, who was first poured out at Pentecost and is now given through baptism and confirmation, and whose presence is to be continually renewed in the life of a Christian.
After Jesus declared the essence of his mission, he proceeded to do as he had said. From that point on, a large proportion of the gospels is devoted to accounts of his healings, deliverances and miracles. Again and again the gospels summarize his ministry with statements like this: “He went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people” (Matthew 4:23). Jesus’ healings and miracles cannot be separated from his preaching. They are not merely an external proof of the good news he preaches; they are its embodiment. They visibly manifest that the kingdom is here. They show in a powerfully convincing way that his message is true: he really is the Messiah, he is victorious over sin and every kind of evil; he has compassion on all the sick and all sinners, and he has come to set people free.
After modeling in his own life how to evangelize, Jesus commissioned his followers to continue his mission. He commanded them to preach the gospel in the same way he had: not only in words but in supernatural deeds that would demonstrate the truth of the words. He instructed the Twelve, “Preach as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matthew 10:7-8). Now many Christians, reading this extraordinary charge, have assumed that it applied only to the apostles. But there is no basis for this assumption, since Jesus later sends out a larger group of seventy disciples, representing all his disciples for all time, and he gives them essentially the same charge: “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you… heal the sick in it and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Luke 10:8-9).
Again, some readers assume that that mandate was only for the first generation of Christians, during the period of the initial growth of the Church. But Scripture leaves no room for such a conclusion, since the risen Lord Jesus again repeats it just before ascending into heaven, as a command and promise that is valid for all time:
Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation…. These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them [i.e., they will be protected from evil]; they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.” (Mark 16:15-18)
Jesus does not say “These signs will accompany great saints,” or “These signs will accompany a few extraordinarily gifted people,” but “These signs will accompany those who believe,” i.e., Christians. He makes a similar promise during the Last Supper discourse in John: “Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (Jn 14:12).
How can the Lord expect ordinary Christians to do what is extraordinary or even impossible? He reveals the secret in his last words before ascending into heaven: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…” (Acts 1:8). It is the Holy Spirit who will clothe the disciples with “power from on high” (Luke 24:49) to accomplish works that are beyond what is humanly possible, and that therefore demonstrate that Jesus Christ is truly victorious over sin, Satan and death.
On the day of Pentecost Jesus’ promise was fulfilled. The Holy Spirit fell upon the Christians gathered in the Upper Room with a mighty wind and tongues as of fire. The love of God began to burn within them, their timidity and fear vanished, and they were filled with an extraordinary boldness. Compelled by the love of Christ, they did exactly as he had commanded: they went out in all directions to proclaim the gospel, accompanied by healings, miracles, signs and wonders.
A striking example of their evangelizing dynamism is the mission of Philip, one of the first seven ordained deacons, in Samaria. Jews and Samaritans were not friendly toward each other, to say the least. Yet Philip, a Jew, comes to a Samaritan village proclaiming Jesus, a Jewish Messiah, and lo and behold, crowds of people believe and are baptized! Luke tells us why: “The multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many who were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed” (Acts 8:6-7). With their ears they heard the verbal message of the gospel; with their eyes they saw the accompanying signs that visibly corroborated the truth of the message.
The mighty works that accompanied evangelization did not end with the apostolic age. The writings of the Fathers attest that miracles were often done not just by great bishops and evangelists, but by ordinary people. Indeed, these signs were a major reason for the rapid growth of the Church in the ancient world. The kingdom of God was visibly breaking in on a society that had been mired in moral and spiritual darkness, with all the consequent emotional and physical brokenness. The sun of justice had risen with healing in his wings! (Malachi 3:20). St. Irenaeus of Lyon gives a snapshot of what normal Christianity was like in his time, in the third century:
[Christians] perform miracles in his name for the well-being of others, according to the gift each one has received from him. For some truly drive out devils, so that those who have been cleansed from evil spirits frequently believe in Christ and join the Church. Others have foreknowledge of things to come; they see visions, and utter prophecies. Still others heal the sick by laying their hands on them, and they are made whole. Yes, moreover, the dead have even been raised up, and remained among us for many years.
In later ages, signs and wonders became less frequent as mistaken views of the gifts of the Spirit began to arise. But they never disappeared from the life of the Church, especially in periods of intense evangelization. St. Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary, brought the gospel to the Far East. In one of his letters from India, he describes what he did when he was besieged with requests to visit and pray for the sick in the nearby villages.
It was impossible for me myself to satisfy all… so I hit on a way of serving all at once. As I could not go myself, I sent round children whom I could trust in my place. They went to the sick persons, assembled their families and neighbors, recited the Creed with them, and encouraged the sufferers to conceive a sure and well-founded confidence of their restoration. Then after all this, they recited the prayers of the Church. To make my tale short, God was moved by the faith and piety of these children and of the others, and restored to a great number of sick persons health both of body and soul. How good He was to them! He made the very disease of their bodies the occasion of calling them to salvation, and drew them to the Christian faith almost by force.
By healing people through the faith of these children, the Lord was giving a powerful message to the people whom Francis was evangelizing: you do not need to be a European missionary to be an instrument of God’s healing power. You do not need to be a priest, or a scholar, or a saint. You don’t even need to be an adult! You just need a heart filled with simple, childlike faith in the Lord Jesus.
Today the Lord Jesus is reminding his Church that he is alive, and what he did back then, he still does now. My friend Tom, a doctor, learned this a few years ago when he went on a mission to Mexico. He went with a team to serve the poor who live in a garbage dump, eking a living out of what they can find picking through the garbage. Tom provided medical care to those he could help, but the hard cases he sent to the prayer ministry team! He remembers:
As the people came into the medical tent, many of them had permanent afflictions I could not meaningfully change. My heart broke for them. The best I could do for many of them was hand them a bag of ibuprofen, which would only relieve their pain for a short while.
An elderly women walked in, hunched over from osteoporotic back fractures, leaning on a cane. You could see that she lived in daily pain. Moved almost to tears, I gave her two bags of ibuprofen—and then sent her to receive prayer. A little later, I saw her reenter the medical tent. She stood straight up and threw the cane at me, laughing and cheerfully exclaiming that she had no more pain! Then I saw a man who had had a neck fracture; his head was permanently bent down so that his chin touched his chest. He went for prayer and returned to me saying, “Nada.” No pain. His neck was straight. Then a man with a huge hernia—gone. Another with a tumor in the stomach wall—gone.
When I returned home to the USA, one of my beloved patients had developed lung cancer and was scheduled for surgery to have the lung removed. It broke my heart, because he had been an alcoholic but had joined Alcoholics Anonymous and was sober. He had also met Jesus and was passionately pursuing a life of sharing Jesus with others. His daughter was devastated because she felt like she was only now getting to know her Dad. I told him about Mexico, and asked if he would allow me to pray with him. So we prayed, asking Jesus if He would remove the cancer or at least allow the surgery to be safe and effective. When he went to the hospital to have his preoperative chest X-ray, there was no tumor! Two years have passed and he has had normal chest rays ever since.
The extraordinary resurgence of signs and wonders today is not something alien to the Catholic Church. It is a return to normal. It is a rediscovery of what belongs to our DNA: the power of the Holy Spirit and his supernatural gifts as the normal equipment given by the risen Lord to equip all baptized believers for their evangelizing mission.
People today, no less than people in the first century, need more than a message. They need an encounter with our all-powerful, prison-shaking, chain-shattering, healing, delivering Savior! And the Lord is once again clothing his children with power from on high to empower them to bring his good news to the ends of the earth.
Dr. Mary Healy, STD
Leaders Conference, 6th June 2019