Fire in Our Hearts

Authored by Bishop Leonard Blair in Issue #29.4 of The Sower

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In this article, Bishop Blair looks at the role of the Holy Spirit and prayer in Evangelization and Catechesis.

In 2009, catechetical leaders in the United States will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the publishing of Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us: A Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation, issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In this article, Bishop Blair highlights and reflects upon the document’s emphasis on prayer, especially to the Holy Spirit.

The Pastoral Plan for Adult Faith Formation, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, states that adult Catholics ‘must be women and men of prayer’ if they are to address the widespread spiritual hunger that characterizes society today. ‘Deepening personal prayer’ is acknowledged as a significant means to achieving the first of three major goals in the pastoral plan, that is, to ‘Invite and Enable Ongoing Conversion to Jesus in Holiness of Life’. Prayer is also presented as the fourth of six dimensions of a living, explicit and fruitful Christian faith.

I would like to offer some reflections on prayer, specifically on prayer in relation to the Holy Spirit, as an essential spiritual requirement for the fruitfulness of any pastoral plan, including adult faith formation.

This year the celebration of Pentecost in the Diocese of Toledo included a diocesan-wide novena for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Special booklets were printed and distributed to all the parishes with the goal of having the novena prayed in every church and in people’s homes. The response was very positive. People are hungry for a direction that is spiritual and prayerful as they strive to live their faith. What better prayer could there be than a novena for a ‘new Pentecost in our time’ given the Church’s many challenges and our mandate to bring people to conversion and new life in Christ? Indeed, in Washington D.C., during his recent visit, Pope Benedict said that he himself had come ‘…to implore from the Lord a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Church in this country’.

Evangelization and Catechesis

Jesus commanded his disciples to ‘make disciples’ of all the nations (cf. Matt 28:18-20). Broadly speaking, evangelization encompasses all those activities of the Church designed to make disciples by conversion and faith. And as the documents of the Church – including our own National Directory for Catechesis – emphasize, catechesis is a part of this overall mission of evangelization of the ‘disciple-making’ mission of the Church (NDC, Chapter 2).

Catechesis has as it purpose the deepening of a believer’s conversion through instruction in the truths of faith as well as formation in Christian living. It presupposes that one is already converted to Christ. In practice, however, this is often not the case, as Pope John Paul II observed in Catechesi Tradendae. Even among a significant number of the baptized, the Holy Father writes, we

must allow for the fact that the initial evangelization has often not taken place…This means that catechesis must often concern itself not only with nourishing and teaching the faith, but also with arousing it unceasingly with the help of grace, with opening the heart, with converting, and with preparing total adherence to Jesus Christ on the part of those who are still on the threshold of faith (No.19).

Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us enumerates a number of challenges and concerns that overshadow our efforts at evangelization and catechesis, including adult faith formation (p.11).

The Holy Spirit as the Principal Agent

In Evangelii Nuntiandi Pope Paul VI speaks of the Holy Spirit as the ‘principal agent’ of evangelization (and therefore also of catechesis):

Techniques of evangelization are good, but even the most advanced ones could not replace the gentle action of the Spirit. The most perfect preparation of the evangelizer has no effect without the Holy Spirit…It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: it is He who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is He who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood (No.75).

Prior to Pentecost, the Apostles had already been formed and taught by Jesus Himself. Yet He insisted that it was better for the disciples that He ‘go’ so that the Holy Spirit could come to them (John 16:7). Because the Apostles were called to a supernatural mission, they needed supernatural powers. They needed to be ‘clothed with power from on high’ (Luke 24:49). Only in this way would the self-revelation of the Most Holy Trinity and the act of our redemption be complete: the Father sending the Son to give the Holy Spirit, so that through the power of the Holy Spirit we might be converted to the Son who leads us to the Father.

On the day of Pentecost, St Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, announced the core truths of the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ as Messiah, the mighty deeds of Christ’s earthly ministry, and the necessity of repentance and faith in order to be saved.

These truths represent the basic Gospel message, or ‘kerygma’ in Greek. Proclamation of the kerygma introduces a person to Christ and invites a response of faith and conversion. However, in light of Pope John Paul’s observations which were noted earlier, kerygmatic truths are in need of proclamation throughout all of evangelization and catechesis. We must teach and minister for conversion, and seek to exemplify it in our personal Christian witness.

What is essential, however, is the action of the Holy Spirit. Only a convergence of the divinely-inspired apostolic proclamation about Christ and of the powers of the Holy Spirit can stir the heart to belief. St Paul writes ‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Cor 12:3). Obviously the Apostle is not referring to a mere recitation of words. Rather, he is expressing a principle vital to evangelization. It is the Holy Spirit who leads a person to confess that Jesus the Lord is ‘my Lord’. It is the Holy Spirit who brings an individual to personal faith in Christ as the Son of the living God, to repentance for sin, and to self-surrender as a disciple of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit, Master of Prayer

We who are believers have a mission to ‘make disciples’ to the ends of the earth. Whether it is the mission ‘ad gentes’, the new evangelization, or on-going catechesis and adult faith formation, the goal is to bring people ever more deeply into the mystery of Christ who leads us to the Father. This is something that transcends the natural order, as Pope Paul VI makes clear when he says that all our ‘techniques’ will remain ineffective without ‘the gentle action of the Spirit’. To evangelize and to catechize is to be lifted up into the heavenly realm. God’s supernatural purpose cannot be realized primarily by our own efforts, plans, programs, or methodologies. We need the grace and power of the Holy Spirit in order for our endeavors to bear lasting fruit.

This being the case, we should never forget that an essential element in the exercise of Christian ministry or spiritual leadership is our own prayer life. By drawing closer to God through prayer, we simultaneously address all the other issues we may be facing. We tap into the ‘power source’ by drawing near to the Almighty Lord of heaven and earth, who alone knows all, can resolve all and ‘who is able to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine’ (Eph 3:20). A prayer life includes personal immersion in the sacramental life of the Church, which is ‘a participation in Christ’s own prayer addressed to the Father in the Holy Spirit’ (CCC No.1073).

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read: ‘ “The Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Holy Spirit, the artisan of God’s works, is the master of prayer’ (No.741)

As a divine person of the Most Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit knows the depths of every situation and what is required. It may be that we find it a struggle to deepen the adult faith life of the devout, or we wonder how to help families and individuals overwhelmed by difficulties and trials. Perhaps we are troubled at seeing Catholic parents who send their children to our schools but do not attend Mass on Sunday, or at seeing young adults who seem indifferent to the faith and its practice. In all of these situations our own deeper conversion and closeness to God in prayer would greatly help, bringing light and energy to any darkness or discouragement we may experience.

The importance of prayer to the Holy Spirit for an evangelizer’s or catechist’s work cannot be emphasized enough. Besides our own prayer, however, it is important that we spend time in prayer with those we are serving and be prepared to answer their questions about prayer. People can be shy about discussing their own prayer life, but faith tells us that it is prayer that makes all the other elements of formation fruitful, especially prayer to the Holy Spirit.

We would also do well to invite the regular intercessory prayer of others. This is what we find throughout the Acts of the Apostles, where community prayer prepares for all the important moments in the Church’s life. Besides asking for prayers from the parish or school, we should not hesitate to make the same request from a local prayer group or religious community, or from specific families who can pray the rosary together regularly for our ministry. Our heavenly purpose requires heavenly aid, so the more intercessory prayer, the better.

Perennial Pentecost

The following words of Pope Paul VI constitute both a statement of faith and a challenge for anyone who takes to heart the work of evangelization and catechesis, including adult faith formation. In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, he said:

What do we feel is the first and greatest need of this blessed and beloved Church of ours? We must say it, almost trembling and praying, because as you know well, this is the Church’s mystery and life: the Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He it is who animates and sanctifies the Church. He is her divine breath, the wind in her sails, the principle of her unity, the inner source of her light and strength. He is her support and consoler, her source of charisms and songs, her peace and her joy, her pledge and prelude to blessed and eternal life. The Church needs her perennial Pentecost; she needs fire in her heart, words on her lips, prophecy in her outlook…The Church needs to rediscover the eagerness, the taste and the certainty of the truth that is hers (General Audience, Nov. 29, 1972).

This article was originally published in Catechetical Leader, August 2008, Volume 19, Number 4 © 2008 National Conference for Catechetical Leadership, 125 Michigan Ave., NE, Washington, DC  20017 www.nccl.org  Used with permission. All rights reserved. To view the document, Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, go to: http://www.usccb.org/education/ourhearts.htm.

This article is originally found on pages 5-6 of the printed edition.


This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact sower@maryvale.ac.uk

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