Mary, Mother of Evangelization
by Cardinal Godfried Danneels
By way of introduction
During an interview, Pope Francis speaks of the missionary Church and said: “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives … let us strive to be a church that finds new roads, which is able to go out of herself and go to those who do not attend, who are gone or indifferent. … We must proclaim the Gospel on every road, preaching the good news of God’s Reign by caregiving, also by our preaching about all kinds of illnesses and injuries. “(Studies Review, October 2013)
And in his Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” (“The joy of the Gospel”) the Holy Father develops this idea. Towards the end he speaks of Mary as mother of evangelization and he tells us. “With the Holy Spirit, there is always Mary among the people. She was with the disciples in the invocation of the Spirit (Acts 1: 14) and thus made possible the missionary explosion springing from Pentecost. She is the Mother of the Church’s evangelizing and without her we cannot fully understand the spirit of the new evangelization.” Nr. 284).
I propose to deepen the intimate connection between “The Holy Spirit – Mary – the Church” precisely in view of the announcement of the Good News, the proclamation of Jesus Christ.
The Spirit, Mary and the Church: this is the constellation under which we are invited to live the Gospel and to bring it to the world of our contemporaries. Evangelization, in fact, has nothing to do with an advertising campaign; it is not a matter of technique or strategy first. It is rather the long adventure of a birth, by which the human world receives God as Father and the Church as mother. It took the shadow of the Holy Spirit and the “yes” of Mary that the Son of God became man. It is this same double presence that is so essential for Christ’s bringing men and women to birth in their dignity as children of God.
Has nothing happened so far?
The call for a “new” evangelization often raises the question: “Has nothing been done for the Gospel up to today? All the labor performed by the Church – and often at great cost – was that not “evangelization”? Are we worn out from doing nothing for all these centuries?”
Of course not! Yet the evangelization to which we are invited today really is “new”. What has changed ‒ and radically ‒ is the area where our message must be sown. Faith is often relegated to the narrow field of privacy, and many of our contemporaries believe they can live without God.
Today, the situation is not the same and the proclamation of faith must take other paths. The land where the good grain of the God’s Word must be thrown bristles with new obstacles, yet the germination strength of germination that seed has not diminished: today as yesterday the Holy Spirit is there.
Evangelizing: “a work from on high”
The farmer must watch over his field well, accurately assessing the obstacles as well as favorable elements and adapting his tools. This enormous work is most useful.
For a rich harvest, however, seed, field knowledge, and technical skills are not enough. Any farmer knows this: the quality of the crop depends primarily on the sun and the rain. Likewise for evangelization, it is the work of the “power from on High,” the Holy Spirit. He who sows for the Reign of God knows it: true fertility can only come from above. Again, it is God who makes the ground fertile and gives strength to the seed so it can germinate. On the day of the first Pentecost, it was the Holy Spirit who gave Peter the strength to proclaim the Gospel. Thus, those who want to preach the Gospel must first have gathered in the Upper Room with Mary to receive the fire of the Spirit.
“With Mary the Mother of Jesus”
When the Church – that of yesterday or of today – gathers in the Upper Room, Mary is there. Acts points out: there they were, “Mary the Mother of Jesus.” Mary is there. How, indeed, could a birth take place where the mother is absent? How could Christ be “born” again in his Church without Mary? It was also at Cana when the disciples began to believe in him; she was at the foot of the Cross, when the Church was born from the pierced heart of Jesus: this is where Christ was with Mary our mother, telling her, “Woman, behold your son!” She could not be absent on the day of Pentecost, when Peter and the other apostles, delivered from the anguish that gripped them, were born to their new existence as witnesses to the Easter faith.
The Marian dimension in all evangelization
In the Reign of God, new life is the result of a confident “yes”, of a heart converted to obedience. Isn’t Mary the one who gave the total “yes” of faith? It is she who first committed to take the path of humble surrender to the will of God, by which every person comes to new life. So in some fashion we are all born of Mary, one by one. It is within her “yes” that we welcome the Gospel; it is by virtue of this “yes” that our testimony bears fruit.
In the light of faith, indeed, evangelization cannot be reduced to simple human labor, a propaganda technique: to evangelize is a much more a mission to the world, it is the work of childbirth. It is to enter into the motherhood of Mary, the new Eve, who becomes the true “mother of all the living” engaging the total Body of Christ. All evangelization therefore participates in this way in the mystery of Mary.
The “yes” of Mary does not belong to the past. It stretches out until the Body of Christ reaches its full stature, until God is “all in all.” That’s why it’s hard to evangelize without Mary. But there are still other reasons.
A fully human evangelization
Sometimes we are tempted to consider evangelization as a kind of advertising campaign, recruitment for our Church. This danger is still there. Mary warns us against this drift. She reminds us: It is Christ ‒ living person ‒ whom we are called to bring to the world. The one we are announcing is Jesus, our “brother in humanity” fully human among humankind. Mary brings us constantly to the realism of the humanity of Jesus.
Similarly “Mary is also a guarantee of humanity in the Church, and in the world. She is wife and mother. Like all mothers, she has a sense of people and of their diversities She has a refined sense of the concrete, of the practical, of life. Marie treats each person individually, one by one. She humanizes the world of technology and the struggle for life.” (Cardinal LJ Suenens, A New Pentecost? 1974, p. 243).
Evangelize with humility, wisdom, and balance.
If we give Mary her rightful place in our preaching, we will evangelize with humility. The evangelization of Mary is not by words, but by surrender to God with one’s whole being. It is this deep humility that will preserve our preaching from pride. It is what will keep us from preaching ourselves instead of proclaiming Christ. All evangelization consists of a humble availability to the Word of God and the power of the Spirit: it is what allows us to evangelize as a good stove heating by radiation.
According to the Fathers of the Church, it is through Mary that the Church evangelizes with balance and wisdom, for it is she who overcomes all heresy. We invoke her, correctly, as the “Seat of Wisdom”. She helps maintain, within authentic Christianity, reserve and discretion with regard to supernatural interventions of the Lord.
Visited by the angel, favored by a most direct approach to God, she retains her balance, she does not forget to remember her poverty as a humble servant of the Lord. She peacefully comforts her cousin Elizabeth.
Mary is essential for the work of evangelization: she gives it humanity, humility, wisdom, and balance. The more the world groans in labor pains for the Reign of God, the more the Mother of Jesus carries the church as her child.
“Like tongues of fire”
Where Mary is, there also is the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes over the community that met with her in the Upper Room. Whoever wants to evangelize cannot do so without the Spirit of Jesus. But, you say, “how do we know it is in me?” The action of the Spirit in us is discernible only by faith. It is in our awareness of being baptized in our faith in Jesus Christ, rooted in the certainty of having received the gift of the Spirit who inspires our actions and our words.
The one who is converted is revealed in all weakness; but feels no disappointment nor bitterness. He or she knows that one is loved by God with an infinite love. This experience of the Spirit is none other than God’s forgiveness, the gift of love that remakes us beyond our faults, beyond our mediocrity.
Understanding the Scriptures
Here is another fruit of the Spirit that ripens in the heart of those where he lives: the Spirit leads them to discover and read Scripture at a much deeper level. Indeed, the experience of the Holy Spirit is usually associated with a new understanding, with a deeper and more fruitful understanding of the Gospel. Certain words or deeds of Jesus, who hitherto had little impact and were not really understood, suddenly make sense.
In “Evangelii Gaudium”, Pope Francis tells us that “the Word of God invites us to recognize that we are one people,” ‘You who once were not a people, and who are now the People of God’ (1 Peter 2: 10). To be authentic evangelizers, we also need to develop the spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives, to discover that it is a source of greater joy. The mission is a passion for Jesus, but at the same time, a passion for his people.
When we stop before Jesus crucified, we recognize his love that makes us worthy and sustains us; but at the same time, if we are not blind, we begin to see that the gaze of Jesus expands and moves, full of affection and zeal towards all his people. Thus, we rediscover that he wants to use us, to become ever closer to his beloved people. He takes us from the people and sends us to his people, so that our identity is not understood without this membership”. (nr. 268).
He is alive.
The day when the Spirit invades our conscience and our heart, he gives life to what was dead, warms what was cold. From that day Jesus becomes, for us, a living person. Indeed, when the Holy Spirit has awakened our hearts and we experience the Lord alive in us, we are brought into a true dialogue, that of prayer. So prayer wells up within us; it becomes frequent, joyful, long … within us and as we talk to others.
For if the Lord has become for us a living person, if we are driven by a confident faith raised by true love … when Christ is discovered at this depth, as Peter and John ‘we can no longer remain silent’ (cf Acts 4:20). In fact, our joy will overflow from our hearts.
Evangelizing to make free
True evangelization makes humans free. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” says St. Paul (2 Cor 3:17). He added: “You, my brothers and sisters, it is to freedom that you were called” (Gal 5:13).
This force makes us free because it pushes us from within to do well, makes us act out of love, and therefore guarantees our freedom. This force is the Holy Spirit.
To evangelize is not to gather under the rule of a law imposed from the outside. Quite the contrary, it is the communication of the Holy Spirit, which make us free in respect to all who dress slavery under the false guise of a certain freedom. Christianity is not a law, even if it offers laws. It is not a moral, even if it contains morality. By the Spirit of Jesus, Christianity is rather the gift and wonderful that God made us with his presence. This gift allows us to act freely.
A brave Spirit
The most spectacular fruit of the Spirit, in the hearts of the disciples, is courage. On the day of Pentecost, at a stroke, everything is turned upside-down. Wounds are healed by the balm of the Spirit. Peter and the Eleven leave their homes and speak courageously to the Jews as free men.
The courage to reach out to the world and to witness to Jesus Christ – whatever the cost – is the gift of the Spirit to the Church. We need this because our courage is more often for the internal use of the Church. True courage, however, witnesses before those who are far from the Church, or who do not share our faith, or are actually hostile toward it.
The announcement of the Gospel, a community task
If these are many individuals who evangelize, their task lies in the context of the Christian community. Those who preach the Gospel “on their own”, unconnected with the Church, cut off from the source of life, are deprived of essential food.
To remain truly a “Christian community” ‒ any parish, school or movement ‒ must live in its own way and as much as it can animated as were the early Christians. The narrative of Acts (2.42 to 47 in particular) describes what gives a community its Christian identity.
The community does not invent its own message: it remains faithful to the teaching of the apostles; it is united in prayer; it maintains bonds of communion with all other Christian communities; it lives in solidarity with the poor, and is hospitable. It is particularly faithful to the Eucharist. It lives the Good News of Jesus Christ; and it knows and explicitly testifies in its life the focus on Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and also to all the pastors it sends.
It works as well for the liberation of all people both within itself and outside. It accepts every day to be challenged by the Word of God, in repentance and prayer. Finally, it asks God to bestow the fullness of truth about the charisms it needs to grow and bear fruit in the world.
To finish these few guidelines about our mission as baptized, I would like – once again – to refer to the Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium,” in which the Holy Father highlights the tenderness of Mary, mother of evangelization:
“Mary is the one who can turn a cave for animals into a house for Jesus with poor swaddling clothes and a mountain of tenderness. She is the little servant of the Father who rejoices in praise. She is always attentive that the wine is not lacking in our lives. She is the one whose heart is pierced by the spear, the one who understands all human troubles. As mother of all, she is a sign of hope for the people who suffer the pains of childbirth until justice is born. She is the missionary who is near us and accompanies us throughout our lives life, opening our hearts to faith with maternal affection. As a true mother, she walks with us, fights with us, and bestows constantly the love of God so close to us.” (Nr. 286).