Tag Archives: evangelism

Philippine Epiphanies

14 Sep

Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim
till all the world adore his sacred Name.
~ G.W. Kitch­in and M.R. New­bolt

“The BBC,” the voice-over asserted. “The world’s radio station.”

It was a spot on “All Things Considered” the other day – our local NPR station carries the BBC daily from midnight until 5 a.m. – and it brought on a flood of memories.

I used to listen to those broadcasts driving home after evening shifts as a new nurse, but I’d already developed an affection for the BBC decades before while in the Philippines as an intern with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Jeff, another intern, and I were assigned to a mission up in Mountain Province – literally out in the “boondocks” (a Filipino word) – and the radio was our one routine connection to the outside world, a kind of electronic comfort food.

In the late evenings, after the dishes were done and the chores complete, the missionaries would fire up their shortwave radio, and we’d all gather round to listen in. It was the summer of “Ebony and Ivory,” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, as well as John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” – constants on Voice of America every time we tuned in. The BBC was always meatier fare, and Carabao in rice field, near Baler, Aurora, Luzon, Philippineswe’d look forward to updates about the Falklands conflict as well as other international happenings, all while swatting mosquitos, shooing away geckos, and cooling ourselves with jury-rigged fans.

What an eye-opener that summer was – showering in swimsuits under drenching rain, enjoying strong, fresh coffee near the very tree that produced it, carabaos wandering freely about outside our nipa hut day and night.

And the people, of course. Filipinos are known the world over for their cheerfulness and hospitality, and we experienced it firsthand. The villagers could always scrape up a meal for Jeff and me when we came around visiting – even if it meant, as it did on one occasion, serving rice and “wild bird” (which turned out to be bat meat). The local folks were often initially shy in the presence of us Westerners, but once that stage was passed, they loved to hear about our lives back in the States – especially snow. It seemed like the Filipinos in our mission area could never hear enough about snow, and the postcard of the snowcapped Rocky Mountains I’d brought along from home was a huge hit.

The welcome and embrace of the Filipino people was the best part of that summer intern experience, but the actual missionary endeavors we’d come to further turned out to be quite troubling – at least for me. After the Wycliffe organization had accepted my internship application, I set about learning as much as I could about the land I’d be traveling to and the people I’d be evangelizing. I dug into the history of the Philippines, as well as the current political tensions during those waning days of Ferdinand Marcos’ reign. I also researched the cultural and religious character of the multi-island nation, with its minority Muslim population in the south and the rest overwhelmingly Catholic.

Wait, Catholic? Weren’t they already, well, kinda’ Christian already? Why was I going all the way across the ocean to bring the Gospel to people who already knew it quite well?

I kept these unsettling thoughts to myself as I completed Wycliffe’s orientation at their Texas Summer Institute of Linguistics early in the summer, and continued to quietly harbor them as I traveled with my fellow interns overseas. It never occurred to me to share them with anybody associated with the trip – why invite scrutiny? I figured at some point I’d just “get” it, and the perplexing dimensions of our journey – a handful of zealous, young Christians flying to a country full of Christians to teach them about Christianity – would dissipate and fade away.

But it didn’t. In fact, when I got to Manila, and before we were shipped up to our rural mission placement, the question became all the more disturbing. I encountered evident faith and piety at every turn in that crowded city, and I witnessed a passion for Jesus and his Blessed Mother that made my cautious evangelical sensibilities seem anemic by comparison.

Further investigation was clearly warranted, but I had to act fast. Our days in Manila were few, and they revolved around jet-lag recovery, a few touristy jaunts, and more orientation. So I got up my courage and approached the Wycliffe staffer assigned to our team.Manila_Cathedral_Facade

“About worship on Sunday…,” I tossed out vaguely.

“Did you have something in mind?” she asked.

“The Cathedral,” I replied, then adding cautiously, “I’d like to find out more about the local culture.”

She was surprised by the suggestion, but she agreed to accompany me there. The other interns turned down the offer to join us, choosing instead to worship with the missionaries at the compound. I didn’t mind. It was already a quixotic quest, and having to share it with the Wycliffe staffer was going to be awkward enough.

After a jeepney ride or two, we got to Manila Cathedral, and nothing could have prepared me for the cross-cultural jolt I received there. Even if I’d arrived in the Philippines a lifelong, born and bred Catholic, I would’ve still gaped at the Cathedral scene: People coming and going indiscriminately, in and out of pews, in and out of the building; worshippers praying at side altars, lighting candles and saying rosaries; folks talking and laughing and wrangling children inside the church, men (mainly) talking (and smoking) outside the church. All of that while the priest and his retinue were praying the Mass in the clouds of incense up front around an elevated altar.

I was captivated.

What’s more, I was convinced. The practices and postures were foreign to me as an evangelical Protestant, and the Sabbatarian informality made me very uncomfortable, but I knew these people were already Christians, and I had very little to offer them. Moreover, I suspected (rightly, as it turned out) that I’d encounter the same level of passion and piety in the mission area to which I was being sent to evangelize. Yet, even then, I was yearning to receive evangelization myself from those people, to know Jesus as familiarly as they did, to know his mom and his friends, to feel at home in his house. It was all backwards, and the summer ended up a disaster as far as the internship was concerned.

It wasn’t a total loss, however, because the experience planted seeds – seeds of curiosity and longing that, in time, led to my reception into the Catholic Church. Plus, it was an object lesson in an organic missiology that seemed revolutionary to an impressionable Protestant missionary intern at the time – the idea that drawing others to Christ could be accomplished simply by living out the faith, regardless of whether the Gospel was verbally proclaimed or not. Avant-garde, to be sure, and radically effective as well.

It was the missiology at work in the lives of people like St. Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day – to proclaim Jesus by being Jesus. It’s the philosophy of Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association today. And it was Tamanrassetthe guiding light of Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the hermit of the Saharan desert who converted no one, but whose remarkable life of heroic witness continues to inspire so many today. Of his missionary approach, he wrote:

In order to save us, God came to us and lived among us, from the Annunciation to the Ascension, in a close and familiar way. God continues to come to us and to live with us in a close and familiar way, each day and at every hour, in the holy Eucharist. So we too must go and live among our brothers and sisters in a close and familiar way.

This is precisely what the Church teaches us with regards to how the Church goes about doing missionary work. Here’s the Catechism’s summary of that teaching in its section on Missionary paths:

By her very mission, “the Church . . . travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God.” Missionary endeavor requires patience.

Yes, it requires patience, but not like we might think. It’s not the patient waiting for the heathen to respond positively to our Gospel proclamation, but rather the patient perseverance required in our own personal conversions. Here’s Bl. Charles again:

Everything about us, all that we are, should ‘proclaim the Gospel from the housetops’. All that we do and our whole lives should be an example of what the Gospel way of life means in practice, and should make it unmistakably clear that we belong to Jesus. Our entire being should be a living witness, a reflection of Jesus.

In that sense, we’re to be like mini-BBCs, don’t you think? Broadcasting Jesus wherever we go – around the world to the boondocks of the Philippines, if we’re so called, but even more importantly, right here at home.

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A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

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Of Eunuchs, Emmaus, and Holy Water Fonts

11 May

Baptism is enough, it is sufficient to evangelize.
~ Pope Francis

Katharine made her First Holy Communion last Sunday – a momentous event, a holy moment! Naturally, she received some gifts to mark the occasion: A scapular (the plastic bothered her; I’ll get her a cloth one), a child’s Bible, and a beautiful ceramic holy water font. The font clearly caught her fancy, and she asked me that same evening how we could get the “special” water for it.

Fortunately,BoyAtHolyWaterFont-b I already had a small bottle of holy water in the house, so we hung up the font near her bed, filled the reservoir, and then dipped our fingers to bless ourselves. She went to bed very content – happy to have received Jesus in one Sacrament earlier in the day, and then encounter him again in that mini-Sacramental reminder just before sleep.

My guess is that she’s been using that font pretty regularly since then because of what happened a couple nights ago. After donning her PJs, Kath sought me out, holding up one hand very solemnly above the other. Without saying anything, she touched her wet fingers to my forehead, made the sign of the cross, and then headed off to bed. It was a blessed moment, come and gone so quickly, and so profound: My daughter, blessing me, and giving me such an intimate reminder of my baptismal dignity.

That profound encounter came to mind as I listened to the first reading last Thursday about St. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. You remember: The seemingly chance encounter on the road; an explication of opaque biblical texts; an entreaty to linger followed by the administration of a sacrament; and finally, a miraculous disappearance that paved the way for an apostolic journey.

Then it dawned on me: I’d just heard the same basic story on Sunday! Only then, it was Luke telling about the two disciples who ran into Jesus on the Road to Emmaus.

Cradle Catholics will have grown up hearing the Emmaus story as an image of the Mass: The Lord’s explaining the Scriptures parallels the Liturgy of the Word, and then, in Emmaus itself, there’s a meal that concludes with the breaking of bread in which the disciples “recognized the Lord” – an obvious parallel to the Liturgy of Jan_Wildens_Landscape_with_Christ_and_his_Disciples_on_the_Road_to_Emmausthe Eucharist.

The implications of those parallels are made plain in the sudden disappearance of Jesus precisely at the moment he was recognized – the moment, that is, when his bodily presence became almost redundant since he had become truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. In other words, those disciples in Emmaus had nothing on us: We have Jesus here today in our Tabernacles just as much as they did around that Emmaus dinner table!

But, back to Philip and the eunuch – the similarities with the Emmaus story are striking, and many scholars have commented on it. Besides, both stories were recorded by St. Luke – the Emmaus story in his Gospel, and the Ethiopian eunuch story in his Gospel sequel, the Book of Acts. Coincidence? I don’t think so. And, as I mentioned, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what Luke was intending in the Emmaus narrative, but what about the Ethiopian convert? And why the parallels?

Here’s a few thoughts inspired by Kath’s holy water font.

First, Luke uses the eunuch story to teach us about baptism – that we’re all utterly unworthy of the divine life it transmits to us, and there’s nothing we can do to earn it. It’s totally free – like Kath coming to me and bestowing her blessing that evening. Completely unexpected; a startlingly fresh gift. “Look, there is water,” the man asks Philip. “What is to prevent my being baptized?”

Apparently not anything! Not the brevity of his catechetical formation, not his pagan background, and not even the fact that he was mutilated and made impotent – something that would’ve prevented his being fully admitted to God’s family under Mosaic law. The adoption of this complete outsider into the body of believers marks the newfangled Way of Christ as radically open – extravagant, even. As extra(c) National Trust, Anglesey Abbey; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationvagant as God himself!

But there’s a responsibility that comes with the gift, and that leads to my second point – the disappearance. When Christ disappears in the Emmaus story we understand that to mean that the Lord had become present in the Eucharist. So, in the Acts narrative? When Philip vanishes? What else can Luke mean than that the apostolic authority has now become manifest in the newly baptized!

What? He can’t be serious! The foreigner had barely covered a rudimentary overview of the whole Judeo-Christian enterprise, and now we’re to see him on the same level as an Apostle appointed by Christ himself?

Yes, indeed. Luke records that the eunuch “continued on his way rejoicing.” And we, who also have been baptized, are called to that as well. And every single one of those cute little infants we baptize in our churches on Sunday mornings. They’re all called to be apostles – we’re all called – to spread the Gospel, to preach the Faith. Even the Pope says so:

Do we believe in this? That baptism is enough – sufficient to evangelize? [All of the baptized must] announce Jesus with our life, with our witness and with our words. When we do this, the church becomes a mother church that bears children. But when we don’t do it, the church becomes not a mother but a baby sitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep.

And that leads to my final point: The whole eunuch thing – what’s that all about, right? Very awkward. Like trying to talk to junior high boys about St. Paul’s teaching on circumcision. (NOTE: I’ve tried this – forget it. It’s impossible. If you ask me, just skip to the Parables and forget about circumcision until they get into college.)

Nevertheless, awkward or no, the eunuch must be dealt with. On a superficial level, Luke notes that the Ethiopian official is a eunuch simply because it was the case – it was noteworthy in Luke’s mind, perhaps as a way of identifying the actual individual in question. We have to keep in mind that the Ethiopian eunuch and other biblical characters aren’t just literary devices utilized by authors to make theological points. Although it’s true that Scripture doesn’t record events the same way the New York Times would today, those whom God inspired to compose Holy writ were still jotting down actual occurrearticle-2538097-1A97C26800000578-298_634x645nces involving actual people. It’s God who orchestrated events to reveal truths; the human writers just recorded and reflected on them.

That being the case, the fact that this early catechumen-turned-neophyte in Acts was a eunuch takes on a deeper meaning which Luke draws out. Obviously, a eunuch is infertile by definition, and yet, once baptized, this eunuch immediately sets out to proclaim the Gospel and plant seeds of faith. Tradition even goes so far as to associate this early convert with the foundation of the very ancient church in Ethiopia. The infertile transformed into the fertile that should be me, too!

Ah, but there’s risk involved in being an apostle – a risk of humiliation and shunning, even a risk of death. It’s no accident, I think, that this story of the pagan Ethiopian convert shows up in Acts on the heels of Luke’s mention of the martyrdom of St. Stephen and its aftermath:

And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria.

Baptism is an infinite boon folded in with a dire warning: Beware! Danger ahead! And yet, new life as well. More life than you can possibly imagine! So much life that the risk of martyrdom will pale in comparison! The Catechism, quoting Vatican II, teaches us as much:

“Reborn as sons of God, [the baptized] must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church” and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God.

Thus, when my daughter dips her fingers in the font to cross herself or me? It’s no small thing. It’s a reminder of baptismal grace, to be sure, but also a reminder of apostolic burden: Be a missionary; proclaim the Word; make Jesus present wherever you find yourself, no matter the cost!

Next time I dunk my own fingers in Kathy’s holy water font, I’ll think twice, and pray for strength – for both of us.

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Versions of this story appeared on Oblation and Catholic Exchange.

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