The corporal works of mercy play an important part in discipleship. When acts of service are planned to intentionally proclaim the Gospel and treat all people as if they were Jesus in disguise (see Matthew 25:34–40), they are a catalyst for initial and ongoing conversion.
In her wisdom, the Church outlines a systematic and comprehensive process of evangelization and faith formation that nurtures conversion. This process of evangelization includes the following five stages.
- Initial proclamation of the Gospel
- Initiatory catechesis
- Mystagogical or post-baptismal catechesis
- Continuing or perfecting catechesis
When I outlined these stages during a catechist in-service, one of the catechists approached me afterward. She said that she finally understood why her daughter would never read the life-changing book that she had given her or watch the eight-session DVD series that she herself found so interesting. She presumed that her daughter was at the stage of initial catechesis when she was still at the pre-evangelization stage. Now that she knew better, she would do better. She said that she would adapt to where her daughter was in her journey and spend more time listening and walking with her rather than trying to teach her. Rather than formal catechesis, I suggested that her daughter might be better served in her faith journey by serving others. Months later, this catechist shared with me that serving others had transformed her daughter and helped her to become more disposed to hearing the message of the Gospel and applying it in her own life.
Service work provides an important bridge in the conversion process as we carry out the work of evangelization. It is a particularly effective strategy in helping those in the pre-evangelization stage of discipleship become more active in their faith journey. Within the evangelization process, pre-evangelization is the most passive stage in terms of connection to any kind of formal religious affiliation. Those in this stage tend to have some link with the Catholic Church but are not actively practicing their faith. Many faith formation parents, for example, are in this stage of pre-evangelization. They have a connection to Catholicism but have not consciously decided to follow Christ and go deeper.
The pre-evangelization stage builds upon basic human desires for security, love, friendship, and acceptance—desires that ultimately find their fulfillment in God. Fundamental questions of life are explored: Why do I exist? Where does everything come from? Why is the world the way it is? What is my purpose in this world? Friendship, witness of life, and listening are appropriate pastoral methods to apply here, and this is why service is so important. Not only does it build up the Kingdom one member at a time, but those who serve others in a tangible and real way become the hands and feet of Jesus.
Young people are attracted to a Church that seeks to make a difference rather than one that exists solely within the walls of the parish, as Pope Francis reminds us: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (Joy of the Gospel, #49) In our faith formation classes, we can model what it means to live as a disciple, and that involves serving others, for it is in the grit of life that we see grace. It is in weakness that real strength is revealed. It is in serving others that we become more fully alive.
How might you incorporate service opportunities into your classroom as a way to help those in a pre-evangelization stage of faith?