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The Catholic New World
The Cardinal's Column
December 18, 2005

On not whittling Jesus down to size

Christmas is the occasion for many people to weigh in on who Jesus is. Usually, Jesus ends up looking suspiciously like the person telling the story or making the argument. If the author is involved in political life, Jesus ends up looking like a social reformer or even a revolutionary. If the writer is Thomas Jefferson, Jesus ends up a moral philosopher with a life devoid of miracles or anything which might leave one thinking He is divine. If the speaker is a multi-culturalist, Jesus is the all-inclusive acceptor of anyone or anything, certainly never a judge. Each nation likes to portray Jesus as a countryman in dress and manner; and that is true, because Jesus is the Savior of the entire world. He is always one of us, no matter who we are. But He is always more, which is why He can call the entire world to conversion.

Telling the world who Jesus really is is the mission of the Church. It’s called evangelization, and we’ve been struggling with it for a number of years in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The Gospel was proclaimed before the four canonical Gospels were written, and evangelization means proclaiming in our own language the truth about Jesus Christ. At Christmas Midnight Mass, the Church proclaims the Gospel according to St. Luke, the Christmas story which makes him familiar: a little baby, a mother, her husband, a stable and a manger, farm animals, a harried innkeeper, shepherds, sheep and angels. Except for the angels, it’s all pretty familiar; and even they have been domesticated in recent years.

By contrast, the Gospel proclaimed at Mass on Christmas Day is that according to St. John. It starts with the Eternal Word, begotten of the Father from all eternity, the pattern for the creation of the universe, made flesh by the miracle of the Incarnation and given a mission which was prepared by John the Baptist, himself never to be confused with the boy next door. When the two accounts of who Jesus is are read side by side, we come to realize again that Jesus is always more. The Church is to tell all the stories that are true and, in the telling, she calls us to change, to conversion.

An evangelist bears a message that is not his or her own, that does not come from private ruminations and personal convictions. An evangelist is not a philosopher with a compelling new theory or a guru with a novel program for self-improvement. The evangelist does not speak on his own authority or out of the certitude of his experience. The evangelist speaks with the authority of God, like the angels on Christmas night, and the message is, quite literally, out of this world, a truth that could not be fully anticipated in advance or guessed at on the basis of the past.

The angels proclaiming Christ’s birth told the shepherds not to be afraid. They had reason to be afraid, because what the angels proclaimed was going to break up their world. The call to become an evangelizer usually causes some fear, which is why we have a hard time finding evangelizers now. Evangelizers have to witness to what they proclaim; and who is without sin among us? We have to speak of mysteries we will never fully understand and encounter animosity from those who will feel they are being judged because their world is threatened. But that’s the point. So compromised are we by the dysfunction of sin that we cannot possibly solve our own problem. So captive are we in the web of violence, hatred, fear and division that we cannot, even in principle, extricate ourselves from it. The incomparably good news shared by the evangelist is that God has offered us a way out, that He has brought us light in our darkness and water for our thirst. And this salvation is neither an idea, nor a program, nor a social theory; it is, instead, a person, someone named “Messiah’ and “Lord.” It is none other than the God who willingly wrapped himself in the swaddling clothes of our frail humanity in order to allow us to share in His own divine life.

We can take courage in accepting the challenge to evangelize from the fact that we are never alone in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we announce the Lordship of Jesus Christ, we join an army of the saints on whose lips and in whose hearts was the same message. We stand with Peter and Paul, Ambrose and Augustine, Aquinas and Bonaventure, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, Edith Stein and Maximilian Kolbe. We stand with heavenly powers as well, with the angelic hosts. When we are tempted to give up on evangelization, convinced that the proclamation of the Gospel will be drowned out by the insistent and contrary voices of the secular culture, we should take courage in this great company. To declare who Jesus Christ is brings us into solidarity with powers both seen and unseen.

Cardinal Avery Dulles has claimed that the turning of the Church’s attention to evangelization, prompted by the purpose of Vatican II and by the writings of both Paul VI and John Paul II, constitutes one of the most remarkable developments in the modern history of Catholicism. We have discovered anew that preaching the Gospel, explaining how Jesus is always more, is not one task among many in the life of the Church; it is, rather, the task around which all other ecclesial activities revolve.

To focus anew our efforts and attention to evangelizing, I have asked Father Robert Barron, a well-known and well-respected priest of the Archdiocese and a professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary, to lead an evangelical renewal in the Archdiocese. I have asked him to preach conversion to Jesus Christ at special missions in the six vicariates, in the schools and through the media. (Barron’s first article appears on Page 3.) My hope is that Father Barron’s efforts will give new impetus and focus to the evangelizing mission of the Church of Chicago. My prayer is that, in the coming year, we might all join in the privileged work of the angels on Christmas night, announcing glad tidings of great joy and pointing, in the fullness of divine self-revelation, to the One who alone is Messiah and Lord.

I wish all of you and your families a truly blessed Christmas and a New Year filled with happiness and peace.

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Dec. 18, 2005 - Jan. 8, 2006
Sunday, Dec. 18: 11:30 a.m., Sunday Mass and Blessing of Convent, St. Eugene Parish, Chicago; 7 p.m., Archdiocesan Posada, Holy Name Cathedral

Wednesday, Dec. 21: 6:30 p.m., Illinois Club for Catholic Women Presentation Ball, Chicago Hilton & Towers

Thursday, Dec.22: 1 p.m., Christmas Prayer Service with Pastoral Center Employees, Quigley Seminary

Friday, Dec. 23: 7 p.m., Simbang Gabi Mass, St. Linus Parish, Oak Lawn

Saturday, Dec. 24: Midnight Mass, Holy Name Cathedral

Sunday, Dec. 25: 9 a.m., Cook County Jail Mass; 11 a.m., Children’s Memorial Hospital Visit

Wednesday, Dec. 28: 3 p.m., Opening Mass, National Catholic Student Coalition Conference, Embassy Suites, Columbus Dr.

Thursday, Jan. 5: 9 a.m., Management Meeting, Pastoral Center

Friday, Jan. 6: 1 p.m., Board of Advisors Meeting, Mundelein; 10 p.m., Mass, St. Therese Marian Vigil Society, Santa Maria Del Popolo, Mundelein

His Eminence, Francis Cardinal George announces the following appointment:

Rev. Peter J. Cyscon, from pastor of St. Odilo Parish, Berwyn, to be the pastor of St. Fabian Parish, Bridgeview, effective immediately.

Rev. Thomas McQuaid, to be the administrator of St. Odilo Parish, Berwyn, while retaining his duties as pastor of St. Leonard Parish, Berwyn, effective immediately.

Rev. Robert J. Heidenreich, from administrator of Queen of Angels Parish, North Western, to be on sabbatical from Nov. 1 to May 1, 2006.