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‘Sail boldly into sea of evangelization,’ pope tells clergy, religious in Lisbon

Pope Francis participates in vespers at Jerónimos Monastery in Portugal, Aug. 2, 2023. / Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Rome Newsroom, Aug 2, 2023 / 12:35 pm (CNA).

Acknowledging the discouragement that can be experienced by Catholic leaders in secularizing societies, Pope Francis on Wednesday urged a gathering of Portuguese clergy, consecrated people, and pastoral workers to stay in the boat with Jesus and revive their “restless” enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel.

“This is not the time to stop and give up, to drag the boat to shore or to look back,” said the Holy Father, who arrived in Lisbon earlier in the day ahead of his visit to World Youth Day.

The pope delivered the encouraging message in his homily for Wednesday vespers, or evening prayer, to bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians, and pastoral workers gathered in the church of Lisbon’s iconic Mosterio dos Jerónimos, a former monastery now used as a public ceremony hall and museum space.

His message drew significantly from both St. Luke’s account of the miraculous catch and Portugal’s own substantial missionary heritage.

“Now is the God-given time of grace to sail boldly into the sea of evangelization and mission,” he said.

Bishops participate in vespers with Pope Francis at Jerónimos Monastery in Portugal, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: João Cláudio Fernandes/Flickr JMJ Lisboa 2023

Fishing with Jesus

The pope began his homily by noting that, like the disciples after they fished all night without success, Church leaders in Portugal might be discouraged. Compared with other western European nations, many in the country of 10.3 million are still at least nominally Catholic, but the effects of secularization on belief and practice are deepening.

“There are moments in our ecclesial journey when we can feel a similar weariness, when we seem to be holding only empty nets,” the pope said, speaking off script about the dangers of “functionalism.”

“Whenever we feel discouraged, we can feel tempted to leave the boat and become entangled in the nets of resignation and pessimism.”

But pointing to Luke’s Gospel, Pope Francis emphasized that in these moments of disappointment, Christ wishes to join the faithful in the boat and to aid them in their task of evangelization. Instead of giving in to the temptation to give up, “we need to bring those struggles and tears to the Lord,” confident that “Jesus is ever ready to hold out his hands and lift up his beloved Spouse.”

“We are surely living in difficult times,” the pope continued, “but the Lord is asking this Church: ‘Do you want to leave the boat and plunge into disillusion, or will you let me enter and allow the newness of my words once more to take the helm? Do you want only to preserve the past which lies behind you, or do you want once again to lower the nets with enthusiasm for the catch?”

Pointing to great Portuguese missionaries such as Father António Vieira, a 17th-century Jesuit priest who founded missions in Brazil and fought against the exploitation of natives, Pope Francis said that evangelizers must be animated by an “eagerness to set out from the shores, not to conqueror the world but to make it exult in the comforting joy of the Gospel.”

Three choices

Drawing from Christ’s words in Luke 5:4, the pope told those gathered that embracing the call to bold and enthusiastic evangelization today requires making three choices.

First, he said, Church leaders must choose “to put out into the deep,” leaving behind melancholy, the “cynicism of irony,” and defeatism by renewing their trust in the Lord.

Pope Francis participates in vespers at Jerónimos Monastery in Portugal, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

To do this, the pope emphasized that words are not enough; prayer is essential, especially adoration, because being in the presence of the Lord is the only way “to truly discover our taste and passion for evangelization.” At this point, the Holy Father spoke off-script for nearly a full minute on the importance of adoration, saying Catholics are “lost” without Jesus.

From this place of prayer, the pope said those engaged in missionary work can overcome the temptation to offer a “ministry of nostalgia and regret” or to engage in ideology or forms of worldliness in order to focus on a single desire: “that the Gospel be preached to all people.”

The pope cited the example of St. John Brito, another 17th-century Jesuit Portuguese missionary, who went to India and adopted the language and customs of the local people in order to evangelize.

“We too are called to lower our nets these days and to dialogue with everyone, proposing the Gospel message, even if it involves risking a few storms,” the Holy Father said.

Noting that Christ’s command to “let down your nets” is delivered in the plural, Pope Francis also emphasized the need to choose “to work together in offering pastoral care.” The pope urged those gathered to never treat their ministry as a “private possession” but as part of the Church’s collaborative mission.

Pope Francis said the disciples working together to achieve a great catch of fish is an illustration of the Church’s “synodal” character, which emphasizes common participation, belonging, and mission. He said that reflecting this is the aim of the ongoing universal synod, which will hold its first assembly this October in Rome.

“On the boat of the Church, there has to be room for everyone: All the baptized are called on board to lower the nets, becoming personally involved in the preaching of the Gospel,” said the pope, at several points interjecting his prepared remarks by repeating the word “everyone.”

He also added that the “Church grows old” when dialogue, co-responsibility, and participation are lacking.

Pope Francis participates in vespers at Jerónimos Monastery in Portugal, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Vatican Media

“I would put it this way: Never a bishop without his priests and the people of God; never a priest without his brother priests; and all of us together, as Church — priests, consecrated men and women, and the lay faithful — never without others or without the world,” said the pope, making a distinction between “worldliness” and being engaged with the world. In turn, the Church is called to “spread a climate of constructive fraternity” beyond its own walls, he said.

Finally, the pope said that Church leaders must choose “to become fishers of men,” pulling people out of the “adverse powers” of the sea and helping them “to return to the place from which they have fallen, to save them from the evil that threatens to overwhelm them, to revive them from every form of death.” The pope went off script to repeat his often-mentioned warning that “proselytization,” as opposed to evangelizing through proposal and invitation, is not Christian.

Acknowledging the darkness present in society today in the form of apathy, uncertainty, and social isolation, the pope said the Church must cast “the nets of the Gospel” into the midst of a multicultural society, not condemning others but “bringing to men and women of our time an offer of new life, the life of Jesus.”

First day complete

Pope Francis concluded his homily by saying that he hopes the Church in Portugal can be a “safe harbor” for those caught in life’s storms, encouraging those gathered to not have fear but to lower their nets, and again insisting that the Church must be for “everyone.” 

He entrusted those gathered to Our Lady of Fatima, but also to Portugal’s patron, St. Anthony, who was born and lived in Lisbon but is more widely associated with the Italian city of Padua, a fact the pope acknowledged with a quick joke that got an appreciative laugh from the Portuguese assembly.

The pope’s celebration of vespers marked the conclusion of official schedule for his first day in Lisbon, which also included separate meetings with the president and prime minister of Portugal as well as a meeting with local civil servants and the diplomatic corps.

Pope Francis will participate in World Youth Day activities Thursday and will remain in Portugal until the farewell ceremony on Sunday before returning to Rome.

This report was based on the prepared text of Pope Francis’ homily. It will be updated as needed when an official transcript is issued by the Vatican press office.

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