7 July 2019
Last weekend we celebrated the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul, the great evangelists of the first days of the Church who tirelessly spread the message of Christ across the whole world as it was then known. Today we hear the story of seventy two disciples who were sent out by Christ ahead of him. On another occasion he had sent out the twelve apostles to do something similar, and since the apostles represent the ordained priesthood, it seems fair to conclude that this passage, mentioning 72 other unnamed followers of Christ, refers in a special way to you, the lay people of the Church, who are also sent out to prepare the way for Christ and bring people the good news in your daily life.
In the 1930s, nearly 100 years ago now, an amazing French laywoman known as Marthe Robin, who spent much of her life bedridden but was used in extraordinary ways by God to renew the Church, prophesied about the future of the Church. As her close priest collaborator later recounted, “she announced especially a new Pentecost of love that would be preceded by a profound renewal of the Church marked by a missionary zeal where numerous lay people would participate in the apostolate.”
Although these words were very similar to those used by Pope John XXIII when he called the Second Vatican council thirty years later, at the time they were revolutionary. Surely it was for the clergy to take the Gospel out to others: the laity were there, in the notorious words of one writer, just to pay, pray and obey.
How times have changed, and not just because of a shortage pf priests. We now realise that evangelisation, in every sense of the word, is part of that royal priesthood of all Christ’s faithful in which you the laity share. But still we may feel the task is beyond us: how can we compare with the great apostles Peter and Paul? How can we, who sometimes feel shaky in our faith, and not at all sure we would have answers to all the questions people may ask us, claim to take the Gospel to others? So let’s look a little more closely at what our Gospel reading today actually says.
Firstly it tells us that we do not go our under our own steam, but we are sent out by Christ. This refers to an important moment in the Mass, or rather the very end of the Mass, when we don’t just slink away, so to speak, but we should wait for those all-important words the priest utters: ‘Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life’ or, ‘Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.’ It’s hard to exaggerate how important this instruction is: it’s saying, ‘You have been taught by Christ as his disciple in the readings and the homily; you have been given intimate communion with him in receiving his body and blood; now go and share these priceless gifts with others: they are not to be kept to yourselves.
It is the Church which sends us out: we don’t go out, as it were, on a mission of our own devising or because we have decided it’s a bright idea: Christ himself sends us, and that’s emphasised also by the fact that the disciples were sent out not individually but in pairs. This emphasises the need for charity if we are to bring the good news to others. No doubt going out in pairs there were many possible causes for dispute: one would want to walk fast, another slow; one would want the window left open at night, the other to close it. If you can’t get on with your neighbour and work with others, you won’t be able to bring the message of Christ’s love to others.
We notice also that their mission was a modest one. They didn’t have to go out and make hundreds of converts. They were simply sent out ahead of Christ, like John the Baptist, to prepare the way for him. Surely we can all do that with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us through our baptism and confirmation. How were they to do it? By bringing peace, by offering healing and deliverance from evil, and above all by bringing joy. Again we can all do these things. A priest was telling me the other day that a woman phoned him up in great distress because her little boy had a fever, and she knew this priest believed in healing through prayer. But instead of going round to her house himself, he simply said, ‘Don’t you know that a mother’s prayers are very powerful? Haven’t you got some blessed oil or holy water? Take them, anoint him and pray with him yourself.’ Half an hour later, having done that, she phoned him back in great excitement: the fever has completely gone and he’s hungry again, he wants to eat.
There’s also a great note of rejoicing in today’s readings, the first reading and the Gospel. Sure there are things to be ashamed of in our Church in recent years, as there always have been: St. Peter and St. Paul had plenty of things in their past to be ashamed of. But our faith is a cause of great joy to us; it brings us countless blessings which we want to share with others. Pope Francis is continually stressing that joy is the best witness to others of what Christ has done for us, and rather provocatively he says, ‘You can’t bring the good news to others if you look like you’ve just come from a funeral.’ People want to know how our faith sets us free to be the people God made us to be, not how it imprisons people or makes them gloomy and anxious.
Look ahead to this week and realise that no encounter you will have is a chance one, even the routine ones at work or at home that take place all the time. Picture Christ himself sending you out from this place of light and joy to bring the Good News to all those you will meet, the news that Christ himself wants to come to meet them: then you will be truly preparing his ways.