Editor’s note: On August 21, 2012, the feast of St. Pius X, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio—now Pope Francis—published a letter to the catechists of his Archdiocese of Buenos Aires. This is an exclusive English translation of that letter.
“In those days, Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Lk 1:39)
It has been a custom now for many years that I write you a letter around the feast of Saint Pius X. In this way I wish to greet you on his day, thank you for your quiet, faithful work each week, for your ability to be Good Samaritans who offer hospitality out of faith, by being familiar faces and dear hearts that make it possible to transform, in some way, the anonymity of the big city.
This year, the day of the catechist finds us facing a grace-filled event that we are already starting to experience. Within two months begins the Year of Faith that our Pope Benedict XVI has declared “so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ” (Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, 2).
It will certainly be a jubilee year. Hence the invitation that the same Pope extends to us to enter through the “Door of the Faith.” Entering through this door is a journey that lasts a lifetime, yet in this time of grace we are all called to renew it. Therefore from the bottom of my heart I exhort you in this year, as your pastor and as your brother, to strive to experience the present time with the transforming power of this event.
We all remember the invitation repeated so many times by Blessed John Paul II: “Open the doors to the Redeemer.” God is urging us once again: Open the doors to the Lord: the door of the heart, the doors of the mind, the doors of catechesis, of our communities… all the doors to the Faith.
In this opening of the door of faith there is always a free and personal Yes: a Yes that is a response to God that takes the initiative and draws near to man so as to start a dialogue with him, in which the gift and the mystery are always made present.
A Yes that the Virgin Mother was able to give in the fullness of time, in that humble village of Nazareth, so that through this interaction the new and definitive covenant could begin what God had prepared, in Jesus, for all mankind.
It always does us good to turn to look at the Blessed Virgin. Even more so for those of us to whom is entrusted, in one way or another, the task of guiding the lives of many brethren, and thus united, to be able to say Yes to the invitation to believe.
But catechesis would be seriously compromised if our experience of faith were to leave us confined in and anchored to our familiar world or in the structures and spaces that we have been creating over the years. To believe in the Lord is always to enter anew through the door of faith that makes us go out, to set out on a journey, to leave our comfort zone…. We must not forget that the first Christian initiation that occurred in time and in history climaxed in mission … that it took on the characteristics of visitation. With complete clarity the account of Luke tells us: “Mary arose and went with haste… full of the Spirit.”
The experience of the Faith situates us in the Experience of the Spirit, marked by the ability to set out on a journey…. There is nothing more opposed to the Spirit than settling down and closing oneself in. When one does not enter through the door of faith, the door shuts, the Church closes in on herself, the heart falls behind, and fear and the evil spirit “sour” the Good News. When the Chrism of the Faith dries up and becomes rancid, the faith of the evangelist is no longer contagious but has lost its fragrance, many times becoming a cause of scandal and estrangement for many.
Someone who believes is a recipient of that beatitude that runs through the whole Gospel and resounds throughout history, now on the lips of Elizabeth: “Blessed is she who believed,” and again directed to Thomas by Jesus himself: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe!”
It is good to realize that today, more than ever, the act of believing must allow the joy of the Faith to shine through. As in that joyous encounter of Mary and Elizabeth, the catechist must imbue his or her entire person and ministry with the joy of the Faith. Allow me to share something of what we bishops of Argentina wrote a few months ago in a document in which we sketch some common pastoral guidelines for the three-year period 2012-2015:
Joy is the door for the proclamation of the Good News and also for the consequence of living in faith. It is the expression that opens the way to receive the love of God who is Father of all. Thus we note in the Annunciation of the angel to the Virgin Mary that, before telling her what was going to happen to her, he invites her to be filled with joy. And this is also Jesus’ message when he invites people to trust and to an encounter with God the Father: rejoice. This Christian joy is a gift of God that springs naturally from the personal encounter with the Risen Christ and faith in him.
Therefore I gladly exhort you with the Apostle Paul: “Rejoice, rejoice always in the Lord….” May the catechesis that you serve so lovingly be marked by this joy, the fruit of the nearness of the Risen Lord (“the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord,” Jn 20:20), which also allows others to discover your goodness and your readiness to respond to the Lord’s call….
And never allow the evil spirit to spoil the work to which you have been called. An evil spirit that has very concrete manifestations that are easy to detect: anger, ill treatment, closed-mindedness, contempt, negativity, routine, murmuring, gossip….
In the Visitation the Virgin Mary teaches us a different attitude that we must imitate and embody: nearness [cercanía].
She literally set out on a journey so as to shorten distances. She did not remain at the news that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant but went a step further. She was able to listen with her heart and therefore to be moved by this mystery of life. Mary’s nearness to her cousin involved leaving her comfort zone, not remaining self-centered: quite the contrary. The Yes of Nazareth, as always with the attitude of faith, was transformed into a Yes to putting it into action…. And she who by the work of the Holy Spirit was made the Mother of the Son, being moved by that same Spirit was transformed into a servant of all for love of her Son. A faith abounding in charity, capable of taking the trouble to embody the pedagogy of God, who is able to make nearness his identity, his name, his mission: “and his name shall be called Emmanuel.”
The God of Jesus revealed himself as a God who is near to man and a friend. Jesus’ style is distinguished by cordial neighborliness. We Christians learn this style in our personal encounter with the living Jesus Christ, an encounter that has to be the ongoing resolution of every missionary disciple. Overflowing the joy over this encounter, the disciple seeks to draw near to all so as to share his joy. Mission is relation and therefore it unfolds through nearness, through the creation of personal ties that are maintained over time. A friend of Jesus makes himself near to all, goes out to the encounter, creating interpersonal relations that stir up, awaken, and kindle an interest in the truth. From friendship with Jesus Christ springs a new way of relating to our neighbor, whom we always see as a brother. (Argentine Episcopal Conference, Pastor Guidelines for 2012-2015)
A nearness that, I am certain, is made present many times in your catechetical encounters with the various age-groups that you guide as they advance in faith (children-youth-adults). But still we can be affected by distant professionalism, the misplaced effort to make ourselves “knowledgeable experts,” the weariness and fatigue that lower our defenses and harden our hearts…. Let us recall the beautiful passage from the First Letter of Paul to the Christians of Thessalonica: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess 2:7-8).
Furthermore, though, I ask you not to see your field of evangelization as being limited to those who are to be catechized. You are privileged to spread the joy and beauty of the Faith to their families. May they become an echo in your catechetical pastoral ministry in this Church of Buenos Aires that wishes to live in a missionary state. [“Cat-echesis” and “echo” are related words. – Translator’s note]
Look once and a thousand times to the Virgin Mary. May she intercede with her Son that he might inspire the appropriate gesture and word that will allow you to make Catechesis a Good News for everyone, always keeping in mind that “the Church grows, not by proselytism but by attraction.”
Be aware of the difficulties. We are in a very odd moment of our history, including the history of our country. The recent National Catechists Congress held in Morón was very realistic in pointing out the difficulties in handing on the Faith in these times of so many cultural changes. Perhaps on more than one occasion weariness may defeat you, uncertainty may confuse you and even lead you to think that the faith cannot be presented today, and that we should be content just to transmit values….
For this very reason, our Pope Benedict XVI invites us to enter together through the door of faith. To renew our faith and in the faith of the Church to follow, doing what she knows how to do in the midst of lights and shadows. This is a task that does not originate in a strategy of conservation, but rather is rooted in a command of our Lord that gives us our identity, relevance, and meaning. Mission springs from a certainty of faith. From that certainty which, in the form of kerygma, the Church has been handing on to human beings over the course of two thousand years.
A certainty of faith that coexists with the thousand questions of a pilgrim. A certainty of faith that is not ideology, exaggerated moralism, existential security… but the living and irreplaceable encounter with a person, with an event, with the living presence of Jesus of Nazareth.
Therefore I urge you: live this ministry with passion, with enthusiasm.
The word enthusiasm (ενθουσιασμóς) has its roots in the Greek “en-theos”, that is to say: “that bears a god within.” This term means that, when we allow ourselves to be led by enthusiasm, a divine inspiration enters into us and makes use of our person to manifest itself. Enthusiasm is the experience of a “God active within me” so as to be guided by his power and wisdom. It also implies the uplifting of the mind to something that inspires interest, joy, and admiration, provoked by a strong interior motivation. It is expressed as passion, fervor, boldness, and determination. It is opposed to discouragement, disinterest, apathy, coldness, and disappointment.
The “God active within” us is the gift that Jesus gave us on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit: “I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49). In this way what was announced by the prophets is fulfilled: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you” (Ezek 36:26-27). (Argentine Episcopal Conference, Pastor Guidelines for 2012-2015)
We know that the enthusiasm, the fervor to which the Lord calls us cannot be the result of a movement of our will or a simple change of mind. It is a grace … an interior renewal, a profound transformation that is founded and relies on a Presence, who one day will call us to follow him and who today, once again, becomes for us a way, so as to transform our fears into ardor, our sadness into joy, our confinement into new visitations….
While thanking you from my heart for all that you do as a catechist, for your time and your dedication, I ask the Lord to give you an open mind, so as to recreate dialogue and encounter among those whom God entrusts to you, and a believing heart so as to follow, exclaiming that He is alive and loves us as no one else does. I have a picture of Mary Help of Christians that says, “You who believed, help me!” May she help us to follow by being faithful to the Lord’s call….
Do not stop praying for me that I may be a good catechist. May Jesus bless you and may the Blessed Virgin take care of you. Affectionately,
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J.
Buenos Aires, August 21, 2012
Translated by Catholic World Report
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