Matthew concludes his Gospel with Jesus commanding his apostles in these words, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (28:19-20). This command, which later became known as the Great Commission, comprises the main mission of the Church (see Evangelii Nuntiandi 14). It is for this mission that the Holy Spirit is poured upon the disciples gathered in the upper room on Pentecost morning. Strengthened by the Holy Spirit, the early Church fulfills Jesus’ Great Commission by proclaiming the Gospel, calling people to conversion, baptizing, and teaching. I would like to take some time to reflect more deeply on Christ’s call to “Go” – that is the initial evangelization activity of the Church.
Jesus’ mandate “constitutes the essential mission of the Church” both yesterday and today (EN 14). Reflecting on Jesus’ command, the General Directory for Catechesis states:
Primary proclamation is addressed to non-believers and those living in religious indifference. Its functions are to proclaim the Gospel and to call to conversion.… Primary proclamation, which every Christian is called to perform, is part of that "Go" (183) which Jesus imposes on his disciples: it implies, therefore, a going-out, a haste, a message. (GDC 61)
There are three fundamental aspects of Jesus’ commission that call for our attention if we are going to understand clearly what Jesus is asking of his disciples. These three include a going forth, a haste, and a message.
As opposed to staying put or remaining idle, Jesus tells his disciples to “Go.” In preparation for his own public ministry and his proclamation of the Gospel, Scripture tells us that Jesus “left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum” (Matt. 4:13). In other words, he went out. He did not stay put in Nazareth but went out into the surrounding area to initiate his public ministry.
In order to fulfill Jesus’ command, we, his disciples, are called out into the world. Practically, this means “going out” to work, to school, to social activities, to sporting events, to friend’s homes, to children’s activities, etc. It can be easy to stay put in our families or in our parish communities where we know others and perhaps feel more comfortable sharing about our faith. Or it may be easier to go out into the world and never give witness to Jesus Christ and his Church. However, this is a luxury that is not afforded to disciples of Jesus. We must go out into the world and be a witness by our example, our charity, and our words of the presence of Jesus.
Going out to witness is only one aspect of the initial evangelizing activity to which we are called. Jesus’s commission also implies a haste. Going out in haste also presents certain difficulties. Henry Wordsworth Longfellow in his famous poem Paul Revere’s Ride writes:
The watchful night-wind as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent
And seeming to whisper, “All is well.”
Living in an increasingly secularized world without the backdrop of a Catholic worldview, it at times can seem as if “all is well.” It may be inconvenient or uncomfortable to “go out” and share the message of the Gospel. It can seem, we are “rocking the boat” at work, school, or at home. Therefore, there seems to be no need to be in a hurry to bring a message that may cause others (even ourselves) to feel uncomfortable. But in reality, the Good News of salvation is a message that the world needs today and Jesus’ command implies urgency. It is not a matter of getting to it later, rather it demands our attention now. Why?
It should bother us that others have not had the opportunity to know Jesus Christ and the means of grace that he provides for us in the Catholic Church. Frank Sheed, a lay apologist of the 20th century, in his work “Are We Really Teaching Religion?” poses this as a test:
A Catholic receives the gifts of truth and life that the Church has to give him, through Christ our Lord. Is he in a kind of anguish at the thought that there are others who know nothing of these gifts and are not receiving them? Can he take it quietly, can he go about his business and only occasionally say: "Poor fellows, they are unlucky"? Or is it a matter of anguish that fellow human beings should be starved of the gifts of truth and life that Christ wanted them to have? Is he as much concerned at that fact and conscious that he ought to be doing something about it, as he would be if he heard that fellow creatures lacked bread? If he is not, then it means that bread has a more real value for him than the truth and the Sacraments.
Does it make any difference to what church or faith community one belongs? How often have I heard the partial truth: “All religions are just different paths leading to the same God.” If so, is there any reason to attempt to evangelize Buddhists, Hindus, Moslems or Jews, much less to seek to share our Catholic faith with other Christians?
Consider this analogy: if your next door neighbors were surviving on water and dried tree roots, would you feel any obligation to offer them the opportunity for a fuller, richer diet? So as not to insult them by suggesting their diet was incomplete, would you fail to offer them the opportunity for a diet, rich in vitamins, nutrients and protein affording them the opportunity for a longer and healthier life? Would you deprive them of the energy and strength that comes from a balanced diet? Would you not want to offer them the opportunity of enjoying the full range of sustenance and tastes that their present menu simply could not provide?
It is not only a good thing for us to offer others the gift of our Catholic faith, but we have an obligation to share with others the abundant life made possible through the sacraments, the teaching and the traditions of the Catholic Church. Moreover, while it is possible that non-Christians through God’s providence may come to salvation without knowing Jesus, we know for certain that they will be given the gift of eternal life through the waters of baptism. We are assured that those, who believe in Jesus and gratefully respond to His love by following His teaching, experience abundant life in this world and are destined for eternal life.
The fact that others may not have heard this news should inspire in us a sense of urgency. Later in the same poem, Longfellow distinguishes the apparent reality that “all is well” with the truth that inspires “haste”:
“And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night.”
As Catholics, we must be convinced that our fate and that of others is riding on our response to Jesus’ command to “Go and make disciples.” As Pope Paul VI writes in Evangelii Nuntiandi, the presentation of the Gospel message is not an “optional contribution” rather it is necessary, unique, and cannot be replaced. It is a question of people’s salvation and our own. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16) Seeing clearly Jesus’ command and the reality of the human condition inspires in us the desire to bring the Gospel to others today.
The final aspect the General Directory for Catechesis brings to our attention regarding Jesus’ commission is the message itself. Jesus’ command urges us to go out in haste with something to say that is important for people to hear. Jesus began his public ministry with the message, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” (Matt. 4:17) While our example and charity precede this proclamation, we cannot rely only on a wordless witness. As Pope Paul VI states, “There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.” (EN 22). Our message, in essence, is the life and work of Jesus Christ. It involves “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked upon and touched with our hands … what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1-3).
St. Peter exhorts all Christians, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks for a reason for your hope.” (1 Peter 3:15). What is most likely to open others to the beauty and truth of our Catholic faith is not theological arguments but Catholics living their faith with integrity and with an eager willingness to share with others the source of our joy and our power to love. In preparation to give witness to the Gospel, it is helpful if Catholics reflect on the following questions:
- How has God worked in my life?
- What difference have being Catholic and participating in the Sacraments made in my life?
- What would my life be like without the Catholic Church?
Answering these questions makes it more likely that the Lord will present us with opportunities to influence others with the message of the Good News and helps us to concretely identify what difference Jesus Christ makes in our life.
Going out, in haste, with a message are three aspects of Jesus’ Great Commission that are practically important in our preparation to fulfill his command. It is incumbent on every Christian to perform this task because Jesus “imposes [it] on his disciples” (GDC 61). Initial proclamation of the Gospel leads to a moment where catechesis… “starts with the condition indicated by Jesus himself: ‘whosoever believes’, whosoever converts, whosoever decides”(GDC 61). This belief, conversion, or decision is brought about by Christians, empowered by the Holy Spirit, going out in haste with the message of salvation.
This article is originally found on pages 12-13 of the printed editon.