It is now several months since Congress XI in Indianapolis has ended. More than two thousand participants cooperated with the Holy Spirit so that they may continue to be properly equipped and empowered to evangelize. Unfortunately, I could not attend this historic assembly because I was recuperating during my medical leave, which has now ended. However, I am a witness that the impact of those days continues to reverberate throughout the Church and among Black Catholics in the United States in particular. The joy that was experienced in Indianapolis has spread throughout the nation after diocesan delegations returned to their homes. Now it is our task to fulfill the Pastoral Plan of Action issued by Congress XI. 1 As Advent draws near, this article will describe the liturgical season and its relationship to selected sections of the Pastoral Plan of Action.
Celebrating the Advent Season
There are three perspectives to consider as we observe the Advent season. First, we are preparing for the celebration of Christmas, which is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh. The Eternal Son of God came to share in our humanity from the first moment of His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 1:26-38). God in Christ came to share in our humanity so that we may have a share in divine life (cf. John 10:10b; 2 Peter 4:1).
The significance of this great exchange of gifts must be our focus. God offers Himself wholly and unconditionally so that we can be liberated from the power of sin and death. This divine gift empowers us to live in relationship with God and within the human family in ways that are truly human. We have been created in the Divine Image (cf. Genesis 1:26-27; Colossians 3:10). Therefore, we seek to offer ourselves wholly and unconditionally to God. When we continue to hold on to those things that hinder up from doing so, God looks at us with love and invites us to let them go (cf. Mark 10:21).
The second perspective is to recognize the many ways in which Christ comes to us now. The offering of Holy Mass, moments of prayer alone or with others, participating in faith sharing groups, reflecting on Sacred Scripture, being engaged in serving others, and the witness of our brothers and sisters who are striving to live according to our common baptismal vocation and their distinctive vocation within the Church 2 are several ways in which the presence of the Lord is already here.
The last perspective of the Advent season reminds us to remain alert in preparation for the coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ in glory. The African American spiritual, "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning," reminds us, "children, don't grow weary, for the time is drawing nigh." 3 Despite the efforts of some to make predictions, Jesus teaches that we will not know the day or the hour of this event (e.g., Matthew 25:13). The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that when that day comes, "We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which [God's] Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God's justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by his creatures and that God's love is stronger than death." 4
Life and Dignity of the Human Person
Celebrating the Advent season reminds us that God has given us a great dignity and a glorious destiny. A reflection of the second section of the Pastoral Plan of Action, "Life and Dignity of the Human Person," is appropriate. 5 We are to respect the inherent dignity and worth of the human person at every stage and in any condition of life. This is good news to proclaim whether we are supporting someone in a crisis pregnancy, devising strategies to insure that our Catholic schools grow and prosper, reaching out to those who are ill, affirming the contribution of our elders, providing a hand up for the poor, or fighting against violence in our neighborhoods. As the Pastoral Plan of Action notes, these and other efforts are reflections of a "comprehensive approach to life issues" that Black Catholics advocate for the good of society. 6
The National Black Catholic Apostolate for Life is supported by the major Black Catholic organizations in our country. In addition to this resource, parishes can work with diocesan respect life offices and the national pastoral plan for pro-life activities.
The Catholic Church in the United States sponsors spiritual, educational, health care, and social service institutions that promote the dignity of human life for the benefit of millions, whether they are share our faith or not. Let no one fool themselves with believing that the Catholic Church is only concerned about getting a baby born.
Engaged in Parish Life and Evangelization
The Advent season is also a prime opportunity to reach out to those who are inactive or alienated from the practice of their Catholic Christian faith. In addition, other persons have fundamental questions about believing in God and belonging to a faith community. Even secular media outlets will mention the significance of Jesus Christ and Christianity in December. Therefore, let us consider the fourth part of the Pastoral Plan of Action, "Engaged in Parish Life and Evangelization." 7
The Church exists to evangelize (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). Consider the ways in which the parish community can reach those persons who have not worshiped in a church since Easter. Many parishes have been successful in identifying them in a non-threatening way, offering a warm welcome and an opportunity to learn more about the parish. Does your parish have a plan to speak to these persons whom the Lord will place in our midst? If not, how can you influence your parish to do so?
We are celebrating the Advent season during the "Year of Faith," which Pope Benedict XVI has called the universal Church to observe from October 11, 2012 - November 24, 2013. October 11th was the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the twentieth anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Holy Father writes,
"We want this Year to arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope. It will also be a good opportunity to intensify the celebration of the faith in the liturgy, especially in the Eucharist, which is 'the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; ... and also the source from which all its power flows.' At the same time, we make it our prayer that believers' witness of life may grow in credibility. To rediscover the content of the faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed, and to reflect on the act of faith, is a task that every believer must make his own, especially in the course of this Year." 8
The Advent season is a special time of reaching out to those who are in need, such as providing food and gifts for those who cannot afford them. There are also people who will feel empty because what the world defines as the "holiday spirit" does not satisfy them. They will need to meet Christians who are filled with the Holy Spirit in preparation for the holy days. The beneficiaries of your witness may ask about the reason that you have joy whether times are delightful or difficult. They may wonder about your motivation for giving to others even though you may be struggling. Now is the time to "be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you a reason for your hope" (1 Peter 3:15b).
The Pastoral Plan of Action invites us to become familiar again with documents on evangelization to help us to think about this mission:
Pope Paul VI,
Black Catholic Bishops of the United States,
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,
Faith Engaged during Advent
Our Lord Jesus Christ came to share in our humanity to heal the wounds of sin and division. The depth of God's love for us is shown in a marvelous way. God desires that the crown of His creation will flourish and live in true freedom. Placing our hope in God will never leave us disappointed! "[T]he love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:5). Love invites us to give of ourselves to others so that they will live according to their great dignity and fulfill their glorious destiny in Christ. Advent reminds us about the wondrous news of the incarnation of the Eternal Son of God. It is our privilege and responsibility to show how our celebration of Advent is connected to the concrete circumstances of life. Continuing to implement the Congress XI Pastoral Plan of Action is a valuable tool for remaining engaged in our faith during this season and every season.
Rev. Raymond Harris, J.C.L., a priest of the Archdiocese of Baltimore since 1994, has served in parochial, university chaplaincy, and seminary formation ministries. Today, he serves as the Associate Pastor of Saint Agnes Parish, Catonsville, and Saint William of York Parish, Baltimore City. He completed studies for a licentiate in canon law at The Catholic University of America in 2012 and serves on the Metropolitan Tribunal of his archdiocese.
Scriptural citations and endnotes are given as suggestions for further reflection.