Reaching out to the stranger

By Father Matthew Hawkins

Parochial vicar, St. Benedict the Moor Parish

At the end of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Jesus’ eleven disciples went to Galilee and climbed the mountain where He said he would meet them.  St. Matthew writes, “Then Jesus approached and said to them, ‘All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

Our hearts are moved when we read this passage because we recognize in it something that is at the core of who we are as Christians, and what we are called to do. A Christian is a person who is sent, not someone who has turned in on himself or herself in fear of the world. The very meaning of the “Mass,” which we celebrate, is “the sending,” which is derived from “dismissal.” At the end of the Mass we say, “Go forth…”

It is often said that the Church does not have a mission; rather, a mission has a Church. Missionary activity is not just something we do, it is something we are. On July 13, we celebrated the anniversary of the establishment of St. Benedict the Moor as a personal parish in Pittsburgh for African American culture. The parish was originally established in 1889. The anniversary of this personal parish is not only important for the city’s African Americans, it is important for all Catholics in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The reason is simple: few African Americans are Catholic, and few Catholics are African American. We should never be satisfied with this. There are historical reasons that help to explain how this evolved, and there are contemporary circumstances that perpetuate this state of affairs, but we all have a responsibility to address it. Part of the effort in addressing it is by presenting the message and the liturgy of the Catholic Church within the historical and cultural context of the African American experience, just as we do for every other culture or nationality.

When Jesus said, “make disciples of all nations,” he was giving us the formula for evangelization—the Body of Christ will never be complete until it engages all cultures and peoples on the earth. The Church has something to offer them, and they have something to offer us. Each culture that the Church engages contributes something new and powerful to our worship experience. We learn from them, and they learn from us.

In 2014, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a manual entitled Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers. It was part of an effort to help those involved in ministry, at all levels within the Church, to work more effectively with diverse populations. The document described “four pillars” of evangelization, pointing toward an understanding of evangelization that “is not directed only to the salvation of individual souls, but to entire societies and cultures.” What is it, in our culture and our society that makes it so difficult to achieve the apostolic vision of racial and cultural diversity in our worship sites? What is it, in our religious institutions that makes this difficult?

The document identifies three impediments to evangelization in the United States today—secularism, individualism, and materialism. In our secular society, people are finding it harder and harder to set aside time, in stillness and silence, to enter into communion with God. In our individualist society, people have become increasingly focused on the self-gratification of individuals so that they have lost sight of the fact that we grow and mature in relation to one another. We grow and mature by being part of a family and part of a community. In our materialist society, people have reduced “reality” to the things that can be weighed, measured, and counted. We have lost the sense that we live in a sacramental world. We have lost a sense of the sacred.

Values built upon secularism, individualism, and materialism make us afraid of “the stranger.” We tend to turn inward and live in protective silos. But this is not the path that Jesus marked out for us. It is not the path that we learned from the apostles. And it is not the path that leads to vibrant, revitalized, and flourishing parishes.

The missionary character of the Church is such that “being sent” is not optional; it activates our life in Christ. Knowledge of Christ is not an abstract concept—it is a lived experience. We cannot know the Christ of sacred scripture if we do not know Christ in our brothers and sisters, whom we still regard as strangers.