Last week, we celebrated the First Holy Communion of 65 young children. How beautiful it was to see the faces of our “little ones” filled with grace as they received Jesus in Holy Communion for the first time. May they always stay so close to Him.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord into heaven. In other parts of the world it was observed last Thursday, but for over ten years, our state has joined the majority of the U.S. in observing it on the Sunday that follows.
This Sunday is also a day that is tender to the hearts of all: Mother’s Day. So many thoughts and sentiments of love for our mothers, whether here on earth or in heaven, are expressed in so many different ways. They are the ones who teach us how to live and grow and become the people that the Creator wants us to be. It’s our mothers who nurture us in the best way they know. Included here, is our mother, the Church. She has offered us the real way through the difficulties of this life. Like any good mother, she understands the many needs of her children, even if her own children aren’t willing to recognize or to acknowledge it. She is there when we are hurting and in need of consolation and solace. She offers us many opportunities to grow in love and to extend that love to those around us who need it. Beyond that, she is a great teacher, showing us how to get along with others when we don’t always want to do so. She helps us to learn how to grow in grace and wisdom.
The art of growing in God’s grace is the key to growth in the Church. Building a culture of growth in the Church starts with inviting people to experience the love of Jesus. This growth looks not only to build up the number of followers of Jesus, but also – and more importantly – for Christ’s followers to grow in the depth of their relationship with Him and in their commitment to observe all that he has commanded us to do.
Grace is really a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the love of the Holy Trinity. As Pope Francis explains, “Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of our God who nurtures creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.” These individual masterpieces of God’s creation do not exist in isolation, but are intended by God to be built up into a flourishing community that thrives and grows.
Growth begins with the recognition that the Church “is missionary by her very nature.” So, any growth in the Church surely isn’t a matter of popularity. Sometimes, as members of the Church, we stand for virtues and principles that are contrary to popular culture, and this challenges the self-centered paths and comfortable ways of the world. Some may think that this hinders the growth of the Church today. But, confronting error and standing up as a witness to the truth has also attracted many followers over the centuries to Christianity. Overall, if we are not growing, we are either stagnant or moving backwards.
While we would hope that the graces present in the Church – especially in the Holy Eucharist – would be enough to overcome many obstacles, we still must recognize that, insofar as these obstacles impede the interior disposition of the members of Christ’s Body, they impede the path towards greater holiness.
So, what helps people to remain in the Church and actively grow in the faith? There are five thresholds, or stages, that individuals pass through in their journey from unbelief to intentional discipleship. It starts with an initial trust of an individual believer — someone with whom they have entered into a relationship and whom they trust to be authentic and truthful. Next comes curiosity about spiritual matters, when the person begins to ask questions about Jesus and the Church. This leads to openness, a willingness to allow God to move and work (but not a desire to actively pursue a relationship with him.) Then we move from openness to active seeking. This is a crucial step, for it is at this point that the person moves from a passive reception of information about Jesus and the Church and towards an active seeking. It is often at this point that people will come forward and begin to inquire about attending Mass or even joining the process for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Then the person then makes a commitment to intentional discipleship. For the unbaptized this is expressed in the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil, while for those already baptized it can be expressed as an intense conversion or even reversion experience.
In his recent Apostolic Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, Evangelii Gaudium, our Holy Father Pope Francis reflected on ways in which everyone is called to contribute to the growth of the Church. He said, “Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus. We no longer say that we are ‘disciples’ and ‘missionaries,’ but rather that all of us are always ‘missionary disciples’.” So, I’m asking each of you to see yourself as a missionary disciple in assisting me in the important work of growth in our parish and in our diocese. May we all grow in holiness as disciples of Jesus, committed to Him and his Church, with the goal of attaining eternal happiness with Him at the end of our earthly journey. May we gratefully recognize that all that we have is a gift from the Lord, and respond with generosity by sharing those gifts with others and supporting those works which helps others to deepen their relationship with Him, so that they may become missionary disciples themselves, stewards of the gifts that they, too, have received.