The Parable of the Sower
(Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23)
Introduction to Mass
Today's gospel reading is a very familiar story - the parable of the sower. It was Jesus' own experience that only a minority responded to his announcement of God's Kingdom with a faith that persevered. So he warns his disciples, and us as his modern-day disciples, to expect the same experience of apathy and lack of interest, and to be happy with the same poor results from our evangelising efforts.
We begin Mass this Sunday by acknowledging the ways that the gospel message hasn't taken very firm root in us, and we ask God to forgive us and strengthen our faith.
From the earliest days of his pontificate Pope John Paul II emphasised the fact that every individual Catholic has the job of announcing the gospel message and trying to spread the Christian faith – “evangelisation” as we call it. When John Paul referred to the countries of Europe, where Christianity has been influential for centuries, he talked about the urgent need for a New Evangelisation, sometimes calling for a re-evangelisation of societies where Christian belief used to play a central role.
Of course if we’re going to use a term like “re-evangelisation” I think we need to be clear what we mean. For example it would surely be a mistake for Catholics in the European countries to hark back to a supposedly idyllic situation where Christianity had more influence than it has now with a view to somehow trying to conjure it up again, or restore or re-impose that situation.
Apart from anything else, there are some aspects of the old Christian Europe that we shouldn't want to conjure up again: the close alliance between the Church and secular power, for instance, and the easy recourse to violence to suppress dissenting minorities. The discrepancy between the actual content of the gospel and the behaviour of churchmen during the period of Christian dominance is one of the stock reasons people give for rejecting the Christian faith, even if they’re not always being completely sincere or well-informed in their objections.
The main thing is that when it comes to the preaching of the Christian faith, as with a lot of other things, we can't just go back and restore something which used to exist but which has now disappeared. Romantic memories of the past and nostalgia are no basis for proclaiming the gospel and forming communities of committed believers.
Having said all that, that's not to say that we can't learn anything from the past and the past history of the Church. I personally happen to think, like a lot of other people, that in our present state of affairs, living in a society where Christian beliefs and Christian moral values don't mean anything to ninety percent of the population, that we can learn a lot from looking at the past, because the Church community has been in this kind of situation before.
Obviously there was a time in our own country, for example, when Christianity had never been heard of, and Christian missionaries arrived to "evangelise" the heathen - great figures like St. Columba and St. Aidan and St. Cuthbert and St. Ninian, in the sixth and seventh centuries.
But even there, of course, with these great missionary figures, it's possible to get a sort of romanticised picture. Some of the stories of these saints' lives give the impression that they just went wandering around delivering powerful sermons in village squares and so on, and that everybody immediately cast off their pagan ways and rushed forward to be baptised. One of the historians of that period wrote that "Churches were built in several places, the people flocked gladly to hear the Word of God, and the English were instructed by their Scots teachers to observe a regular and disciplined Christian life".
The larger picture, I think, is much more complicated, much more interesting and much more instructive. There were lots of factors at work when these great figures were evangelising different parts of Britain. And the most important factor is that they didn't achieve anything overnight.
Preaching the gospel in those days was a long haul, and there were plenty of set-backs. Very often their work was undone, and a new set of missionaries had to start all over again. There were very few mass conversions. What happened more often was that the king decided he wanted to be Christian, and everyone else, all his subjects, had to follow suit. The success-rate, as it were, of genuine conversions to the Christian faith, was always very small.
That brings us back to the gospel reading for today and that very familiar parable of the sower. Christ predicted that the task of proclaiming his message would meet with little success relatively speaking, and in fact he knew this from his own experience of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
As a parable about the activity of "evangelisation" the parable of the sower predicts something like a ninety percent failure rate. Most people are interested in other things. Other distractions absorb their attention. They might show a bit of interest to begin with, and a bit of commitment, but that soon fades away. Christ, as I say, knew about this from his own experience, and he warned his apostles to expect the same, so there's no reason why we should be demoralised when we experience it as well. We just have to stick at it, the way people like St. Aidan and St.Cuthbert did.
What they did, in the circumstances of their time, was that they started little monasteries, little communities of dedicated Christians, little centres of Christian faith. They won people over by the example of their way of life, rather than by any big preaching campaigns.
I don't think that today you can have monasteries and people living like monks as the basic form of Christian life, but at the same time I don't think it's too idealistic to think that our parishes could carry out the same kind of role.
If people want to know what the Christian message is about, they should be able to look at the Christian community and get an accurate picture. We should be little centres of Christian faith as well, little communities of dedicated Christians.
We don't have to live like monks in the seventh century to be good and holy, and to support each other in our faith. Those are basic Christian options we are all obliged to make, and if we want to be evangelisers and to put ourselves in the role of sowing the seeds of the gospel in the face of a lot of indifference and apathy, I don't think, myself, that we need to aim at anything more grandiose than that.