Only once in Evangelii Gaudium does Pope Francis exhort the church to ‘go out into the peripheries,’ but like many things the Pope says, that one phrase has ignited passion and missionary zeal, and a few deep questions.
“The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth”. Abraham received the call to set out for a new land (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” (Ex 3:10) and led the people towards the Promised Land (cf. Ex 3:17). To Jeremiah God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go” (Jer 1:7). In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth”. Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.” (EG20)
Taking up the theme of Evangelii Gaudium in the USCCB’s Convocation of Catholic leaders, bishops, priests and lay evangelizers from around the country explored what it really means to “reach all the peripheries.”
Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles explained the peripheries as multifaceted, “The Church is called to go out into the peripheries where there is pain, injustice, sin, and misery. The peripheries are cultural and existential, sociological and geographical. They are where there is material or spiritual poverty. They are the new mission territory.”
So how do we get to the peripheries the Church is calling us to bring the joy of the Gospel to? The journey is simple, and not very long, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
Here are 3 road maps to the peripheries and what you can do on arrival. In all three, the most important thing is to go. To leave your land like Abraham (Gen 12:1-3) and be willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of the call, for the sake of the other in front of you, for the sake of Him who loves you.
ONE: Leave your comfort zone and be present to someone else. On a Sunday in November we were in a park in downtown Atlanta, handing out socks, gloves and blankets to the homeless people who congregate there.
The members of our family fanned out and approached people with a smile, gifts offered in out-stretched hands. I walked up to man who was sitting on a bench despondently and asked if he was ok. He politely told me he wasn’t feeling well and needed medication for the effects of the drugs he was taking to combat HIV. After I asked him if he had access to this medication he said no, that he received free treatment from the hospital but it didn’t cover the over-the-counter remedies he needed for the side effects. Calling my 18 year old son over to accompany me, I invited him to walk with me to the drug store so we could talk to the pharmacist and help him. On the 6 block walk I asked him about his story. Leo had graduated with a degree in linguistics from the University of Michigan and went on to get a Master’s degree in translating American Sign Language. In the 80’s he went to Madrid to translate for the United Nations, and in his words, ‘made some big mistakes- that’s how I got the virus.’
This man, who was better educated than I was and now lived in sickness on the street, turned to my son and told him to make the right choices, and that he was glad to have the chance to share his lessons with someone. Stephane looked him in the eye and thanked him for sharing his wisdom. With tears, Leo told us that he felt human again. His experience of living on the street had stolen his dignity and sense of worth. A 15 minute walk during which he could teach a young man some life lessons healed him more than the medication the pharmacist gave him to ease his physical discomfort.
- Go serve the homeless, talk to them, remind them of their dignity as a human being by the way you interact with them.
- Go on a mission trip. Encounter those who are in need and see Christ present in them. Allow them to be missionaries to you by the experience of Christ’s love they share with you in their own circumstances.
- Engage with those who disagree with you or with the Faith, even if makes you uncomfortable. Dialogue, not to argue with them, but to love them sincerely and simply, and show them the love of the Church they believe has rejected them. Help them see Christ present in them and their lives- he is there.
- Get to know a family of immigrants. Kids are great at this. Have an immigrant family in your church over for dinner and enter each other’s lives.
TWO: See the peripheries in the pews and on the sidelines of the soccer fields. These are hidden and lonely peripheries dressed up behind the walls of big smiles and impressive accomplishments. There is a lie in our culture that says having a perfect life is possible, and that if you don’t, you simply haven’t tried hard enough. Only through true friendships can we help someone know that they are valued and loved with their problems and crosses, not in-spite of them.
We live in a success-centric culture, and there is stigma and shame attached to woundedness, failure, poverty. Shame sends people to the peripheries- they see themselves as and become, the fringes of a ‘perfect culture’ they don’t feel they fit into. Love brings them home. Love that sees them not as their ‘issues’ but as human beings with dignity who need the accompaniment of people who won’t recoil at their mess- whatever it is, and will walk with them to help them recover their dignity and more importantly, the knowledge of their identity as beloved children of God.
It seems like since I hit 40, I have been surprised every few months by the break-up of friends’ marriages that had looked perfect on the outside. It made me sad to think that we had missed the chance to develop real friendships that could be a support to each other when crosses came, helping people to find strength and depth through them, instead of being decimated. We need to enter the lives of people around us and be real and honest with each other. We need to share our joys and our struggles, and allow others to accompany us as well, instead of being self-sufficient for fear of others’ opinions or fear of being a burden. Struggles with careers, marriage, addiction, children’s decisions contrary to the faith, depression and myriad others are not punishments for a lack of effort in life. They are crosses Christ allows so we can grow closer to him. What about the periphery of those (many of us) caught in the trap of pride? Isn’t that an inaccessible fringe where the walls are so high that people are afraid to come out from hiding behind them to admit their frail human condition?
Christ asks us to accompany each other so we never carry those crosses alone or hidden in the shadows of shame.
- Don’t be afraid to share your own crosses with humility so that others can see its ok to be real with you. But always, point to the reason for your hope, even if you don’t know how He will solve your situation. (1 Peter 3:15)
- Build friendships with people outside of your comfort circles, and make them friendships that are a place of joy and communion so that they can also be a rock when storms come.
- Encourage your friends to go deeper with Christ, at their own pace from wherever they currently are personally, by sharing your love of God, books and videos, etc… that may help them, inviting them to go on retreats and missions with you.
THREE: See the peripheries in your family and in yourself. We don’t have to go far to find a periphery. We just need to open our eyes. The Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, Carl Anderson, made it more personal at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders in July, “Where there is suffering, Jesus is there. And where Jesus is, we must be also. Jesus is already at the peripheries. The question is if he will be there alone or if we will go there with him… If we go deep enough into the peripheries, the boundaries between us begin to disappear and we may see that we ourselves are the first periphery, not our neighbor.”
Why do we resonate with the people on the periphery in the gospels? The woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, Peter in his denial, Zacchaeus? Because they reflect a truth about ourselves. That we are more than the sin or the circumstance that weighs on us and that in Christ we find freedom and a real identity. We need to look within ourselves and accept the things that are imperfect as doors that Christ wants to walk through as he enters our hearts more deeply. But the door needs to be opened from our side (Rev 3:20)… He stands and knocks on the door of our soul through the sufferings we face, the failures, the problems, the uncertainties. These crosses are often the uncomfortable rhythm of his knock at our door. They are the summons to open ourselves to Him more deeply.
Our own interior periphery, whatever it is, should make us compassionate and resonant with the suffering of others, whether it is in a physical, cultural or existential periphery that may look different from our own, but has the same effect of showing us our fragility and dependence on Christ’s Mercy. We go to the peripheries to remind each other that we are human and beloved by God.
- Ask God to show you what you may be hiding from yourself or from him. We all have wounds and weaknesses. This reality doesn’t make us insipid, and it doesn’t define who you are. Spend time before the Blessed Sacrament regularly, allowing God to be present to you, to love you and to heal you. Find your true identity in Him by the experience of his love for you.
- Use spiritual reading that can help us see truths about who we are and who Christ is. A few good books among MANY others) are: Life of the Beloved and The Prodigal Son by Fr. Henri Nouwen, Human Frailty, Divine Redemption by Fr. Marco Rupnik, Consoling the Heart of Jesus by Fr. Michael Gaitley, The Way of Perfection by St. Teresa of Avila.
- Go to confession regularly. Be attentive to what the Holy Spirit shows you to confess, and also be attentive to the truth that when we give Christ our sins, he rejoices as our savior. Find your identity and strength in the joy of your savior.
- Read Evangelii Gaudium and ask our Lord to show you the peripheries he is summoning you to go to.