This past week was one of extremes, tremendously positive on the one hand, and in one instance, one that was anything but, although it was still an encounter filled with beauty - in terms of what one is able to learn of oneself. The purpose of this reflection however is to speak specifically to something that has been a trend throughout our journey within the community, (a journey that has brought us now to 2,188 homes) and that something was viscerally crystallized today in 5 successive encounters with members of the Charlton Baptist Church.
In Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation ‘Joy of the Gospel’, he writes that “We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” Truly, a remarkable statement from a remarkable individual that speaks to the very essence of whom Jesus Christ is, and, who He calls each of us to be. Today, as we encountered these 5 consecutive Baptist families, we were struck by the genuine love in their eyes, the burning flame of hope in their hearts, and a peace within their beings that spoke to the clarity with which they see Christ in everything they do and everyone they meet. It was, in every sense of the word, a true encounter with the Risen Christ.
As with other Baptists we’ve met, we were struck by their openness and willingness to not only ask for prayer, but to offer prayer for us, and to engage in prayer with us. There was a clarity about the genuine “Joy of the Gospel” held within their hearts that is inspiring, invigorating, and absolutely contagious. Their approach to a relationship with Christ is not complicated, nor is it bogged down in dogma, doctrine, or devotions; it is in every sense of the word based upon a simple idea, LOVE, for as Christ commanded: “love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13:34).
Certainly, this is not to suggest that dogma, doctrine, and devotions don’t have a place or lack importance, as each is of course a significant component of our faith as Catholics. But it is meant to suggest that when we place too much emphasis on any part of that triad (dogma, doctrine, devotions) and in so doing fail to genuinely, unashamedly and unconditionally “love one another as [He] loves us” then we equally fail to fully recognize the true message of Jesus Christ and are thus simply unable to experience the Joy of the Gospel. When our unconditional love is limited to those who love us unconditionally, or is predominantly directed towards those who pray as we pray, or engage in devotions we observe, or participate in the prayer groups or faith-based endeavors we attend, then we are in that moment, in those times no different than the publicans, “For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46).
This Joy of the Gospel that we have witnessed so often with our Baptist brothers and sisters is a simple, yet truly genuine beauty, a treasure that we as Catholics can sometimes lose sight of when we become too deeply embedded in dogma, doctrine, or devotions. St. Paul himself warned of such in 1 Corinthians 13:1-8,13 when he wrote:
“If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails…So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
For all of those we encountered today and throughout this journey, we pray that our hearts may be opened to loving them unconditionally, and for our Baptist brothers and sisters who so inspired us today and previously, we thank them for helping us to remember how truly beautiful it is to experience the 'Joy of the Gospel'.