The Liberation of the poor: the Vincentian Rule to Make the Gospel of Jesus Christ Effective (2)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincentian FormationLeave a Comment

Author: Santiago Barquín, CM · Translator: Charles T. Plock, CM. · Year of first publication: 2002 · Source: Hacer efectivo el evangelio y mundo actual, XXVII Semana de Estudios Vicencianos, Editorial CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes, Salamanca, 2002, p. 243-340..
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Evangelization is the communication of good news

In both the secular world as well as the religious world, the word “evangelize” has always meant the proclamation of good news, the proclamation of victory1. When the New Testament utilizes this word the Hebrew meaning of the word besar [besora] is implied … this word is found in Second Isaiah and in the literature that is dependent on it (Nahum 2:1; Psalm 68:12, 96:2). Here the meaning is the beginning of the era of well-being2.

Good news is communicated when all people are told that the era of well-being, the era of God, has begun and is becoming a reality. This was the message that Jesus of Nazareth communicated.

Evangelization, yesterday and today

José María Castillo affirms that the inculturation of the gospel message in the Hellenistic culture was accomplished at a great price and has had negative consequences on the church’s spirituality and mission3. As previously pointed out, Jesus proclaimed the coming of the era of God, the coming of God’s reign, the coming of the Kingdom of God (we will develop this point more fully in the following section, Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God). Then, however, with the second and third generation of Christians, preaching became focused on the person of Jesus rather than on the message that Jesus communicated and the message that Jesus entrusted to others to proclaim. In other words Jesus had proclaimed that something was happening, but the fullness of that event would only be achieved in the future. Therefore, at the time of the first Christian generation an event that was presently happening was joyfully proclaimed and this event was being accomplished in the person of Jesus Christ … but the event had not been fully realized, had not been culminated. As people forgot this last aspect, the concept and the reality of the evangelizing event became unfocused. J. Schmid has pointed out: In the Bible the gospel or the good news looks forward to that which must still occur. Jesus’ preaching reflects that reality (cf., Mark 1:14ff). The coming of the Kingdom of God constitutes the true theme of Jesus’ preaching (cf., Luke 4:43 = Mark 1:38; Matthew 4:23, 9:35, 24:14). But this foundational Biblical sense of the word “gospel” disappears in the other New Testament writings (the only exception is Acts 8:12 … the word is never used in any of John’s writings)4.

Therefore, in the Old Testament and in a large part of the New Testament, the proclamation of good news is done from the perspective of the future: it must still occur. That is precisely the perspective from which Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed the kingdom of God … indeed, it was this future perspective that constituted the real theme of Jesus’ preaching, a theme that disappeared (even though it was a slow process of disappearing) from the New Testament writings (the exception being the synoptic gospels). Jesus proclaimed the arrival of the Kingdom of God and took those first steps so that the Kingdom might be inaugurated. His Apostles evolved as they engaged in the process of evangelization, that is, they began by proclaiming the Kingdom and then gave witness to the fact that Jesus is the Lord. We can see that in a short period of time there was a clear shift in the message that was communicated. D. Mollat states: With the Apostles the good news is always the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12, 14, 21ff; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23). They proclaimed that “the promise that had been made to our ancestors” … that promise has been fulfilled (Acts 13:32). Good news is a grace of reconciliation, a gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:28, 3:26, 10:43, 13:38, 17:30). At the same time this is also “the good news of Jesus” (Acts 8:35, 17:18), the good news about the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 8:12), the good news of the Lord Jesus (Acts 11:20), the good news “of the peace through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:36). The resurrection of Jesus becomes the center of the gospel5.

In a few words then, during the first era of Christian preaching the proclamation of the arrival of the Kingdom was abandoned or almost abandoned and was replaced with the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the reality of salvation. This was not some form of erroneous preaching but this shift would have serious consequences.

What, then, is evangelization? What do we understand when we hear this word? Our culture and our language (language is a vehicle of culture) can help us clarify the meaning of evangelization. In the Dictionary of the Academy Real we read that to evangelize is “to preach the faith of Jesus Christ or the Christian virtues”6. In the General Illustrated Dictionary of the Spanish Language we read that to evangelize is “to instruct someone in the doctrine of the gospel, to preach the faith or Christian virtues7.

Do we not see some significance in these definitions? Specifically what is significant here? According to these dictionaries in order to understand the meaning of evangelization, we must first understand the meaning of two other words: instruct and preach. It is very interesting to take note of the concepts involved in defining those two words. To instruct involves “teaching and indoctrinating; a systematic communication of ideas; to inform another about the state/condition of something; to communicate some announcement and/or some rules of behavior”8. To preach is “to make something evident and clear; to give a sermon; to reprimand people concerning some vice or defect; to advise or make some observation to others in order to persuade them about something9.

If we then join those meanings to the significance that the majority of people give to the concept of salvation or to save (“to attain eternal glory”; “to go to heaven”)10 then we will understand José María Castillo’s denunciation and we will also discover the seriousness of this denunciation. He gives us the impression that many people (people who have lived before us as well as our contemporaries) are more concerned about personal virtue and the effort that each person must make in order to attain eternal happiness than they are about fulfilling God’s plan for the whole of humanity. An expensive price with negative consequences has been paid for this transmutation of the message. Preaching has hidden and covered over that which ought to be happy and joyful news and at the same time preaching has become a constant reprimand and denunciation of any number of personal, individual sins while neglecting to speak about other more serious sins, namely, those sins that deal with individual and institutional injustice, sins that assault the life and well-being of people and of humanity as a whole.

Not every evangelizer has participated in this disfigurement of the gospel. There have always been prophets and genuine evangelizers. But as a whole we have to say that we have been unfaithful to the command that Jesus gave us concerning evangelization. We find in Vincent de Paul an exception to this unfaithfulness (and he is not the only exception … indeed, we would not be just if we did not say this. In this regard Vincent reminds us: We can say that coming to evangelize the poor does not simply mean to teach them the mysteries necessary for their salvation, but also to do what was foretold and prefigured by the prophets to make the gospel effective (CCD:XII:75).

If Vincent spoke those words to the Missionaries it was because some of them thought that it was enough to teach people the mysteries necessary for salvation and therefore they did not have to be concerned about making the gospel effective, that is, they did not have to proclaim the message of the prophets.

At the present time we understand evangelization from the perspective of Pope Paul VI who pointed out: For the Church, evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new: “Now I am making the whole of creation new” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #18).

Evangelization should, primarily, transform people through their insertion into Christ. Then, new men and women, who have been transformed and renewed, will, in turn, renew all humankind and will establish a new and just society. The good news that must be brought to every situation is that the Kingdom of God has begun in Christ and with Christ and therefore, we have to make this kingdom a reality in the present moment … thus we prolong the kingdom in the here and now and at the same time we open the future to this same possibility. The good news, accepted and lived, will transform people and make them a new people in Christ. Therefore evangelization is carried on when the good news of God’s will is proclaimed and when humanity is transformed and renewed. People evangelize when they proclaim the fact that God has entered into this world in order to free people from slavery … people evangelize when they exert the necessary effort to make this Christ’s liberation effective, in other words, when they engage in the struggle to eliminate the unjust and sinful structures that surround and encompass humankind. This struggle demands the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brows (CCD:XI:32). In this way the regenerative effort of every evangelization endeavor becomes a witness, a witness which involves presence, sharing, and solidarity (Evangelii Nuntiandi, #21). It is then that we realize that the word that should accompany this witness is “the good news”.

Some years ago, in this same forum, R. Ortega clarified the meaning of evangelization. He stated: The Christians activity of evangelization contains a more profound realism then we are accustomed to … evangelization is not only preaching about spiritual activities or some spiritual doctrine and/or ideology, but rather evangelization is the proclamation (with signs and words) of the historical event that was accomplished by God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, this event being the establishment of his reign of saving justice in the world. Just as Jesus proclaimed and made the gospel real, so too then the proclamation of the good news is practically impossible without some explicit reference to the incarnation of the gospel, namely, the person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the gospel11.

R. Ortega then states: Therefore as it was during Jesus’ time, so now for Christians today the process of evangelization means that we restore the ideal of a Theocracy, that is, that we eliminate the obstacles so that the salvific dynamism of God fully liberates humankind, thus allowing humanity to become whole as Christ desired … namely, people are able to rise above all that enslaves them, including selfishness and unjust structures and all those human limitations. In this way we create a new people who, in Christ, achieve the maturity of a perfect being, that is, they achieve liberation12.

Summarizing we can say that to evangelize is to proclaim with signs and words the establishment of the Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus Christ. This establishment has to be brought about through the elimination of every form of selfishness, every form of injustice and exclusion and misery. Only in this way can all humanity, each and every human person, begin to break the bonds of slavery that they now experience.

Relation between evangelization, salvation and liberation

In the previous section we pointed out that with the passing of time we have failed to fully understand the meaning of evangelization. But we also said that at the present time the gospel concept and the meaning of evangelizing activity are being recovered. We pointed out that a sign of the degradation of the concept of evangelization can be seen in the language that was used at different periods in history. We return now to a reflection on language in order to analyze the present cultural context in which we live and thus we will attempt to discover if there is or is not some connection between the words evangelization, salvation and liberation.

We said that evangelization, in the context of our present culture, implies some form of “instruction or preaching about the faith and doctrine of Jesus Christ as well as instruction and preaching about Christian virtues”. In other words, to evangelize is “to teach dogmatic or doctrinal content and some principles regarding behavior so that people might go to heaven.”

Yet, what do we find in the dictionaries with regard to the concept of salvation. Salvation is “the action or the effect of saving or being saved”13. At the same time salvation is also defined as “the attainment of eternal glory and happiness”14. Thus the verb to save connotes the following meanings: “to free from a risk or danger; to make secure; to avoid some inconvenience, impediment, difficulty or risk; to give eternal praise and glory to God; to overcome an obstacle by confronting it and moving through it; to exonerate and prove the innocence of a person and thus free that individual; to achieve eternal glory and go to heaven”15. In a religious and theological sense we generally use the word salvation in the sense of attaining eternal glory, of going to heaven, of giving eternal praise and glory to God and also in the sense of a juridical exoneration of a person that allows such an individual to remain free. With which of these meanings are we most able to identify? Perhaps it is that of attaining eternal glory and going to heaven.

If we analyze the word liberation, we find that it consists of “some activity to set free; the cancellation of some charge that really or apparently deserves the imposition of some penalty”16. Reflecting on those meanings we might ask ourselves: does the cancellation of some charge only apply to those that merit some penalty. We know that fundamentally this cancellation ought to be extended to those persons who are unjustly weighed down by the burdens that we place upon their shoulders. This is certainly the biblical meaning that is joined to the declaration of innocence or the declaration of forgiveness. Why hasn’t this meaning become part of our understanding? Is this not because we, as Christians, have not emphasized this in our preaching nor in our activity? I am inclined to believe that such is the case.

In our culture, and as a result of what we have come to appreciate through our research, the words evangelization, salvation and liberation do not appear to be closely related to one another. Nevertheless, in the bible it appears that the objective of evangelization is to free and to save human beings from the slaveries and oppressions and injustices that afflict them. Let us confirm this reality. Without hurrying through this matter while at the same time not wanting to make people weary with a long list of references, let us reflect on two passages from the synoptic gospels. One is taken from the gospel of Saint Luke and the other from the gospel of Saint Matthew.

Luke gives us sensational news, news that is sure to provoke surprise, tension and a dramatic struggle. The scene can be viewed as a synthesis of the manner in which Jesus preached. Jesus is presented as the Messiah who creates a momentary enthusiasm among the people … an enthusiasm that will soon become doubt and rejection. What happened to those people can also happen to us … perhaps it happens to everyone. The text is as follows: Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16-21)17.

If the scope and the meaning of this text are intended to be applied to all Christians then it is even more significant for the followers of Vincent de Paul because Vincent assumed this text as his own personal plan for life and as the Magna Carta for all Vincentians.

Matthew presents Jesus as the long awaited Messiah who was foretold from of old. His actions confirm this fact and will ultimately reveal his identity and his presence in the midst of the world, in the midst of humanity … a presence that is meant to free people from the evils and the forms of exclusion that torture them: When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:2-6).

John’s messengers were not accustomed to hear and communicate such a message. Quite the contrary! Here, however, they are first made to see the saving, liberating work of God in the person of Jesus and then they come to understand that the long awaited good news has been proclaimed to them. Once again works, gestures and actions (rather than words that often fall on deaf ears) proclaim the truth in a more convincing manner.

The mission of Jesus was proclaimed and carried out in those texts from the gospel of Luke and Matthew. The good news, which was proclaimed openly to the people of Nazareth, became a reality when the word gave way to action … when those actions revealed the same reality that was proclaimed in word. Thus the good news was translated into liberation and salvation. In this way the word became the truth that proved to be true. If it is proclaimed that the blind will see, then this joyful news will become true when in fact the blind are no longer blind, but are able to see. The same must also occur to those who are lame and enslaved and imprisoned … with those who are infirm and oppressed, with those who are lepers.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ; this is his life and his mission. Through Jesus the realities of freedom and life have been shared with humanity. With Jesus the reign of God has begun and the unjust oppressive structures have begun to disappear. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth are the gospel of God, the good news of the saving presence of God. Therefore, to proclaim today the good news is to make real the effectiveness and efficiency of the gospel.

To liberate the poor is to make the gospel effective

Today the poor and the oppressed have to feel the loving presence of God in their midst. This applies to all those persons who are poor but primarily to those who are poor economically, as well as those who are exploited and dispossessed … the gospel of Jesus Christ must be made effective for them (CCD:XII:75). We are not dealing with some beautiful phrase that the poor are flattered to hear. Rather those words of Vincent de Paul are both a challenge and a demand that at times becomes burdensome and annoying because we do not find it easy to put into practice that which we so often proclaim and preach. Today when we hear the words, “to make the gospel effective”, we immediately realize that words are not enough … action is demanded.

Vincent understood this and taught this. I. Zedde commented on this Vincentian maxim, “to make the gospel effective”, and said: When Vincent stated that evangelization does not simply mean teaching the mysteries of salvation, he meant that preaching and/or teaching is not necessarily the only method of making the gospel effective, even though it is important. At times preaching and teaching can consists of words, words that are well constructed and studied … preaching and teaching can also be reduced to the presentation of some ideology or some oratory/literary technique or some mechanical verbal method. Vincent is saying that words are not enough and therefore action is necessary. People cannot remain on the level of listening and/or being receptors. The word must be practiced and lived in an intimate manner because this is the very reason for which the Word was sent and revealed. Therefore, Vincent stated that preaching is not enough … one must believe and practice that which is preached. One must also act and serve and go forth to encounter the neighbor in need. Just as there is the risk of stripping the word of its real meaning, reducing the word to utterances and private witness so too there is the risk of doing the same to any external act, including service on behalf of the neighbor. It was in this sense that Vincent frequently commented on Matthew 7:21 and Isaiah 5818.

Today the proclamation of good news to the poor demands that the messengers allow themselves to be penetrated with this same good news … they must embrace this news in the depths of their being and love this good news and make it operative, that is, they must engage in those actions that are required to make the good news the truth, to make the good news a saving and liberating gesture. If this does not happen, then, like love, the good news becomes a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1). In other words, the good news becomes something like the wind which does not alleviate or help but merely destroys and demolishes and ruins.

Today, to make the gospel effective supposes (according to Vincent’s request) that we fully commit ourselves to the task of building up the Kingdom of God in the manner that this work has been entrusted to us by Christ. Therefore, through our actions we must give witness to the fact that we are followers and disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. Here not just any action is sufficient rather we must engage in the same activity that Jesus did. Therefore, as Jesus of Nazareth presented himself as the living face of God who had become present in the midst of people … presented himself as their liberator, so then, the followers of Jesus must be the living and irrefutable image of God. Those people who love cannot allow those who are loved to be carried along by the whims of life and history. Because God is love (1 John 4:8), therefore, God is also the liberator. This is what J. Lois stated in this regard: The biblical God is understood as the savior who acts in human history … acts in a liberating manner and as a result, salvation is understood in terms of liberation. The Hebrew words “nasal” and “yasa” signify both liberation and salvation. When speaking about the faith of the people of Israel, as professed in the more important creeds (cf. Deuteronomy 6:20ff, 25:5ff; Joshua 50:34), salvation is understood as liberation and God is defined (in reference to the Exodus event) as liberator, as the go’el of the people (cf. Isaiah 43:14, 47:4; Jeremiah 50:34)19.

He then states: In the Neo-Testament writings the liberation of people is present as the objective that is pursued by God who acts in history. The Kingdom that comes is the offer of liberating salvation20.

Vincent de Paul called effective love those forms of service that involve effort and sweat. We can say that this is a process of giving birth to new life.

If God the Father frees people from harsh slavery then, so too, does the Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. This is corroborated by Jon Sobrino: Christ is seen, and this and other terms are used to describe him, above all as liberator, with the power to liberate from the various types of slavery that affect the poor of this continent, to give direction to this liberation and to inspire believers to be its active agents. From this point of view, this image is essentially soteriological for the present, but it also has a New Testament origin in a very precise sense: it retrieves the Jesus of Nazareth sent “to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim release to captives (Luke 4:18). From this central fact it revalues the whole life, action and destiny of Jesus in such a way that Christ the liberator — without any implication of ignoring the totality of Christ — is, first and foremost, Jesus of Nazareth, the so called historical Jesus21.

Jesus of Nazareth frees those who are poor from every form of slavery in which they are submerged — not only slavery to sin — and therefore, gives true meaning to salvation and/or liberation. Furthermore, Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, urges his followers to be active subjects of liberation/salvation. The action of the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth ought to be an activity that affects the slavery and injustice that exists in the world and their activity should confront the root causes of injustice so that these situations no longer exist. If people fail to engage in the struggle to eliminate oppression and slavery and injustice, then they lose their right to be called disciples of Jesus Christ … to be called Christian.

  1. J. Schmid, Evangelio, in J. Bauer (dir.), Diccionario de teología bíblica, Herder, Barcelona, 1967, p. 378; D. Mollat, “Evangelio”, in X. León-Daufour, Vocabulario de teología bíblica, Herder, Barcelonia, 1967, p. 274.
  2. J. Schmid, op.cit., p. 378; cf., D. Mollat, op.cit., p. 274-276; W. Grossouw, Evangelio, in H. Haag – A.v.d. Born – S. Ausejo, Diccionario de la Biblia, Herder, Barcelona, 1964, pp. 644-645.
  3. Cf., J.M. Castillo, El Reino de Dios. Por la vida y la dignidad de los seres humanos, Desclée de Brouwer, Bilbai, 1999. This aspect is examined in parts two and three of the above mentioned work.
  4. J. Schmid, op.cit., p. 379; cf., W. Grossouw, op.cit., p. 645.
  5. D. Mollat, op.cit., p. 275.
  6. Real Academia Española, Diccionario de la Lengua española, “evangelizar”, Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 1992. Hereafter this work will be designated with the letters DLE.
  7. Manuel Alvar (dir.), Diccionario General Ilustrado de la Lengua española, “evangelizar”, VOX, Bobliograf, Barcelona, 1987. Hereafter this work will be designated with the letters DGILE.
  8. This is a definition that has been formulated from the use of both dictionaries; DLE, “instruir”; DGILE, “instruit”.
  9. This is also definition that has been formulated from the use of both dictionaries; DLE, “predicar”; DGILE, “predicar”.
  10. Cf., DLE., “salvar” and “salvación”; DGLIE., “salvar” and “salvación.
  11. R. Ortega, Evangelizar a los pobres. Aporte bíblico a una mística vicenciana in Vicente de Paúl y la evangelización rural, 1976 , CEME, Salamanca, 1977, p. 181.
  12. Ibid., p.181-182, conclusión #2.
  13. DLE, “salvación”; DGILE, “salvación”.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid., “salvar” … this represents a summary of the definitions from both dictionaries.
  16. DLE, “liberación”. DGILE, “liberación” here there are other definitions that we have not set forth here because they do not help to clarify the context or the meaning of word in our cultural environment.
  17. All biblical references are taken from the New American Bible for Catholics.
  18. ltalo Zedde, Evangelización, in Diccionario de Espiritualidad Vicenciana, CEME, Santa Marta de Tormes (Salamanca), 1995, pp. 238.
  19. Julio Lois, Liberación, in X. Pikaza and N. Silanes (dir.) Diccionario teológico. El Dios cristiano, Secretariado Trinitario, Salamanca, 1992, pp. 788-795.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Jon Sobrino, The Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth, p. 12.

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