In undertaking the mission of Christ, should emphasis be placed on planning and strategizing, or simply being docile to the primacy of grace, which is to be led by the Holy Spirit? Today, most of us spend much time meeting to brainstorm and formulate our pastoral plans. This is more so when most of our people are highly educated and trained in corporate planning and strategizing. Naturally, they bring in their acquired knowledge and skills from the corporate world to apply to the work of evangelization.
If we study the history of salvation, we will find that charismatic leaders and prophets did not plan much but simply responded to the times and the promptings of the Holy Spirit. All the battles during the time of Moses, Judges and the Kings, were engineered by God. He was revered as the Lord of Hosts, the Commander of the Army of Israel. The leaders were told simply to rely on God alone. Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still.” (Ex14:13f; cf Dt 3:22; Joshua 10:14; 2 Chr 20:17)
In the New Testament, Jesus’ mission was also done in the power of the Holy Spirit. Immediately after His baptism, He was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Mt 4:1) At the beginning of His mission, He was conscious that His mission was propelled by the Holy Spirit. Citing from the Prophet Isaiah, He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” (Lk 4:18) At His death, He surrendered His mission to the Holy Spirit. “Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!’” (Lk 23:46)
After His resurrection, He entrusted the mission to the apostles. He told them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samar′ia and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 cf Acts 1:4f) He bestowed upon them the Holy Spirit and sent them out on a mission. (cf Jn 20:21-23) Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles illustrate from beginning to end that the mission of the disciples was the work of the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, in today’s first reading, we read how St Paul allowed himself to be led by the Holy Spirit at every stage of his journey. He did not seem to have done much planning because he relied solely on the prompting of the Holy Spirit. St Paul seemed to have moved along as the Spirit inspired him. Docile to the Holy Spirit, he visited one town after another. They were “told by the Holy Spirit not to preach the word in Asia. When they reached the frontier of Mysia they thought to cross it into Bithynia, but as the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them, they went through Mysia and came down to Troas.” Finally, “one night Paul had a vision: a Macedonian appeared and appealed to him in these words, ‘Come across to Macedonia and help us’. Once he had seen this vision we lost no time in arranging a passage to Macedonia, convinced that God had called us to bring them the Good News.”
What about us? Do we have the confidence to allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit? Do we trust in the power of the Holy Spirit or in ourselves more? More often than not, we trust God as a last resort. We believe more in human planning and our hard work than the work of the Holy Spirit. Many of us would go into detailed planning for our projects and activities. Even when preaching a homily or giving a talk, we would prepare our power point, read from our prepared notes so that no mistakes would be made. We leave no chance for anything else to happen because we want to be in control. Only when things do not work out the way we plan, then we have no choice but to surrender our plans into the hands of God.
But this is not the way the Lord asks us to fulfill His mission. He told the disciples, “And when they bring you to trial and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 13:11) True enough, when the apostles were arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin, they spoke courageously before them. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man that had been healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.” (Acts 4:13f)
This is why St John Paul II in his apostolic letter said, “I have no hesitation in saying that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness.” (Novo Milennio Inuente, 30) “It is also clear however that the paths to holiness are personal and call for a genuine ‘training in holiness’, adapted to people’s needs.” (NMI, 31) “This training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer.” (NMI 32)
St John Paul II underscores the primacy of grace. He wrote, “If in the planning that awaits us we commit ourselves more confidently to a pastoral activity that gives personal and communal prayer its proper place, we shall be observing an essential principle of the Christian view of life: the primacy of grace. There is a temptation which perennially besets every spiritual journey and pastoral work: that of thinking that the results depend on our ability to act and to plan. God of course asks us really to cooperate with his grace, and therefore invites us to invest all our resources of intelligence and energy in serving the cause of the Kingdom. But it is fatal to forget that ‘without Christ we can do nothing’ (cf. Jn 15:5)” (NMI 38)
Truly, we must learn to rely on the grace of God more than ourselves. For as St Paul wrote, “And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” (1 Cor 2:3-5) The Lord assured St Paul in his weakness, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9) Hence, St Paul said, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9bf)
This does not mean that we discard the human talents that the Lord has given to us. Even St Paul made use of his intellectual ingenuity. He had Timothy circumcised because his father was a Greek. Although it was not necessary for Timothy to be circumcised to be a Christian, yet for the sake of expedience and receptivity by the Jews, he felt it would make it easier for them to preach the gospel as there would be less resistance. So by all means, we need to plan, strategize and be prepared, but we must also not constrain the Holy Spirit from blowing and acting beyond your expectations and planning. We must be ready to change when the Spirit moves us. If we are too rigid and fearful of responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we will reduce the effectiveness of His work in our lives. Indeed, in my ministry, how often the Lord led me to do things beyond my logic and planning. Many times, the talks I painstakingly prepared, and the homilies I wrote with much preparation were discarded at the last minute, even as I was delivering it, because I felt the Holy Spirit was leading me to speak on other matters. With an act of faith in Him, I responded and He often brought about the conversion of hearts more than I could if I had followed according to plan.
In the final analysis, to be able to respond to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we must be people of prayer. St John Paul II wrote, “It is prayer which roots us in this truth. It constantly reminds us of the primacy of Christ and, in union with him, the primacy of the interior life and of holiness. When this principle is not respected, is it any wonder that pastoral plans come to nothing and leave us with a disheartening sense of frustration?” (NMI 38)
That is why it is very important that whilst we should engage in pastoral planning and serious preparations for our talks and homilies, yet we need to bring all these into prayer. We must pray before we plan, during the planning and after the planning, even whilst we are executing the plan, because the Lord might want to surprise us as He surprised St Peter who said, “We have toiled all night and caught nothing” (Lk 5:5). “This is the moment of faith, of prayer, of conversation with God, in order to open our hearts to the tide of grace and allow the word of Christ to pass through us in all its power: Duc in altum!” (NMI 38)