When Pope Saint Pius X began his pontificate, he made the revitalization of the faith and the restoration of society his primary focus. It is for this reason that he chose as the motto for his pontificate instaurare omnia in Christo (“to restore all things in Christ”). Two World Wars and their destabilizing aftermaths dominated the attention of succeeding popes, though they continued to promote some essential elements of renewal, such as a return to primary sources in theology, and liturgical renewal, Catholic Action (also referred to as the lay apostolate) and the development of Catholic social teaching for the life of the faithful and their encounter with society. With the advent of the pontificate of Pope Saint John XXIII, once again the full attention of the Holy Father returned to the renewal of the Church and society. St. John XXIII saw that this renewal could be accomplished only through an increase in zeal among the faithful. This zeal would be both a fruit of and a means to a more abundant spiritual life. The need for a spiritual renewal in order for the renewal of society was one of his main purposes for calling the Second Vatican Council.
Increasing the fervor of the faithful for living a life of holiness and mission has been a central concern for every pope since then. Loss of enthusiasm for the faith is not a new phenomenon; we see the issue in the early Church (e.g. Gal 3:13; Rev 3:16). It has been and always will be a challenge for the Church to confront. There are a variety of reasons for this phenomenon. The prevailing problem for the majority of Catholics today is a lack of authentic, interior conversion. Without authentic conversion, subsequent catechesis, no matter how complete, no matter how faithful, will continue to bear little fruit. Without the light of faith, catechesis is like the man standing outside of the church gazing with misapprehension and perplexity at the dark stained-glass window. Interior conversion is required to bring one fruitfully, inside the Church. However, even among the Catholic faithful who dutifully attend Mass on Sundays there is all too often little ardor for promoting the faith as the grim statistics testify.
There is only one solution to this widespread problem, and it is not a quick fix. The widespread ardor of Catholics will come about when a large number are helped to fall in love with Jesus Christ. As well intended as are the various “evangelization” activities, such as high-energy conferences, motivating DVDs and CDs, well-designed websites and other efforts, without bringing the recipient into a personal, transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, these forms of evangelization will continue to be found inadequate to the immense challenge of bringing about a pervasive increase in evangelical ardor. Among the reasons these activities fail to bear the kinds of fruit necessary, an important one is that they tend to achieve more of a transitory, emotional response rather than bringing about authentic conversion. The new ardor, to which Saint John Paul II referred, is first a gift of the Holy Spirit rather than an elicitation of excitement. This gift is a fruit of man’s surrender to Jesus Christ as an intentional disciple (to use Sherry Weddell’s term). The general lukewarmness, apathy, and spiritual weariness (or acedia) we see among the vast majority of Catholics will be overcome when more faithful Catholics make their progress in two interrelated areas a real priority: holiness and mission.
John Paul II asserts that the real key to increase in evangelical ardor is to be found through an increase in the holiness of Christians (RM 90). Holiness is measured by the degree of perfection one has reached in disinterested love for God and neighbor. That is, the degree to which one consistently gives himself to God and others for their own sake, regardless of self-benefit, is the measure of holiness one has achieved. The prerequisite to holiness, to total self-gift is self-possession; one cannot give what he does not yet possess. The key to self-possession is self-mastery, what society when it was concerned with such things called good character and what the tradition calls virtue. Society has become so confused about the human person that these prerequisites for holiness are found in ever diminishing quality and quantity, even among the faithful.
One can become holy only through authentic relationships with God and others. Yet, one cannot become holy passively. Neither is holiness simply a personal effort even though personal effort is required; yet effort is an essential aspect of holiness. One’s personal decisions to understand and accept the faith are also prerequisites to holiness. One must understand and accept the fullness of the Gospel. The Christian also must exert personal effort to make fruitful the grace he receives through the Sacraments. This effort is, of course, the life of virtue mentioned earlier, but a life of virtue is not self-oriented; it is directed toward others.
Pope Benedict made clear that there is no division between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. In other words, one cannot simply accept the faith without also acting upon it. The Apostle James put it this way: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (RSV, James 2:14-17). Pope Francis makes this same point in Evangelii gaudium (EG) when he says:
This inseparable bond between our acceptance of the message of salvation and genuine fraternal love … is one which we often take for granted, and can repeat almost mechanically, without necessarily ensuring that it has a real effect on our lives and in our communities. How dangerous and harmful this is, for it makes us lose our amazement, our excitement and our zeal for living the Gospel of fraternity and justice! (EG 179)
Genuine fraternal love is lived out, according to Francis, in a variety of ways beginning with solicitude for the poor. This is something that his predecessors also emphasized (John Paul II, Puebla Address, 1979; Benedict XVI, Caritas in veritate, 22-27). Like his predecessors, Francis understands faith and works in an integral way. This is to say that Christians are not to be social workers. Rather, we must be concerned about the salvation and flourishing of everyone, body and soul. It is not an either/or proposition. Fraternal love is manifested in acts of corporal and spiritual mercy; that is, those actions we traditionally call social concerns and mission.
Francis often says that he prefers a Church that is bruised rather than unhealthy (EG 49). His emphasis on the need for renewal makes it clear he thinks the Church is now in an unhealthy state, and this is manifested in the lack of evangelical zeal among the vast majority of Catholics. Renewal in the Church, including in terms of zeal, will be brought about through what he calls a “missionary option” (EG 27). Personal holiness will be aided, and the Church will be renewed, through this integral missionary option. That is, when we work for the sake of both integral human salvation and integral human flourishing.
In many ways, evangelical ardor is a fruit of attitude. Ardor will increase to the extent that each Christian’s attitude is that of his Master. The Christian’s attitude needs to be continually reoriented to three main themes if he is to achieve and maintain the ardor of a faithful disciple: 1) salvific poverty, 2) continuing conversion and 3) reverence for Christ and each person he engages. The first theme can be derived from Pope Francis’s favorite admonishment that he wants a poor Church for the poor. He indicates that, by a poor Church, he means one in which every Christian recognizes he has nothing of redeeming value to give to others except Christ. This Christian realism about one’s salvific poverty, reflecting the kenotic poverty of the Master, is the only attitude possible that can motivate one on a pilgrimage that often limits the natural vision to seeing only Good Friday. To maintain this attitude, one must embark upon a commitment to continuing conversion each and every moment of each and every day. Discipleship means moment-by-moment, dying to one’s fallen self, to those aspects of one’s being which make him an unfaithful disciple. Finally, one must develop a deep reverence for Christ and for those whom we wish to evangelize. We must reduce ourselves to faithful disciples who want nothing more than to be instruments of Christ in bringing the lost into a saving relationship with our Master.
In some ways, achieving a new ardor in the Church seems like the proverbial chicken-egg problem. Yet, we see that a small group in the average parish does the most in terms of service to the parish and in personal faith development. This group is where parish-based efforts should begin. There are an increasing number of resources that can aid in parish-based development of authentic discipleship, that is love for Christ, a thirst for holiness, and missionary ardor. In order to serve the new evangelization, every diocese and parish should address the need for increased ardor through programs aimed at developing and maturing zealous disciples. Some select resources to help in developing missionary ardor can be found here.