The persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem resulted in the Church of Jerusalem going out of herself to other cities. If not for the persecution, the Christian Church would not have grown because it would have been domesticated and reduced to another sect of Judaism. So divine providence used such events for the spread of the gospel. One of the cities that the Jewish Christians went to announce the Good News was Antioch. “A great number believed and were converted to the Lord. The church in Jerusalem heard about this and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. There he could see for himself that God had given grace.”
Barnabas, whose feast we celebrate today, played a key role in the spread of the gospel to all the nations. Indeed, without Barnabas, Paul, who was then called Saul, might have been left as an unknown figure as many did not quite trust a former persecutor of the Church. Barnabas might not have been the chosen apostle to the Gentiles, but he was certainly instrumental in rehabilitating Saul in the Christian community, giving him credibility and confidence. It was his initiative to bring Paul to help him in his ministry. “Barnabas then left for Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. As things turned out they were to live together in that church a whole year, instructing a number of people.” Without his graciousness and encouragement, Saul would not have entered the Church to assume leadership.
Barnabas, whose name means “encouragement”, was truly an encouraging person towards all those who were growing in faith. He was not afraid to take risks, as in soliciting Paul for help. He encouraged Paul to work with him in instructing the Christians at Antioch. “He was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith.” Barnabas was a true example of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. He patiently formed the early Christians in faith. “He urged them all to remain faithful to the Lord with heartfelt devotion; and a large number of people were won over to the Lord.” He was aware that just because one is converted to the Lord does not mean that he would stay faithful to Him unless he continues to grow in the faith through study, reading the Word of God and sharing the faith with each other.
What is significant is that the community that Barnabas formed was not a conclave of Christians where they were only concerned about themselves. A sign of a true, living and loving Christian community is when they reach out and proclaim Christ to others, and form new communities. This is the danger of many so-called Christian communities. They become exclusive elite club members, absorbed in themselves and admitting only those who are good. This is the saddest part of the Catholic Church because we are at most parochial-minded, even if we are considered “good Catholics.” We are not reaching out to each other in the parish, much less to non-Christians. A look at the statistics of our conversion rate will show that we are a maintenance Church. With 383,000 Catholics or more, we have slightly over a thousand adult baptisms a year. We are not a vibrant, evangelistic and missionary Church. We are quite contented to take care of our own parishes instead of growing new parishes and building new churches and new communities. We rarely build new churches, for after so many years, we are only 32 parishes. This clearly indicates that we are not growing fast enough to establish new communities.
In the early Church we see Barnabas and Paul being sent out as missionaries. “One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, ‘I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.’ So it was that after fasting and prayer they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” They were receptive to the Holy Spirit prompting them to share the Good News with people elsewhere. Indeed, the Church must be missionary-minded, always finding new ways to establish new communities. We must avoid being a complacent Church that is inward-looking and protectionist. We must be ready to welcome new people into the Church and in our ministries. “Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: 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. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.” (Gaudium Evangelii, No. 49)
Pope Francis challenged the Church to go forth. “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.” (Gaudium Evangelii, No. 20) What are these peripheries? It is not just a geographical periphery but also existential periphery. We must be bold and creative. “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way’. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” (Gaudium Evangelii, No. 33) This is what the gospel is inviting us to do when the Lord said to His disciples, “As you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils.”
We must open our doors to the world.Jesus instructed His disciples, “Whatever town or village you go into, ask for someone trustworthy and stay with him until you leave. As you enter his house, salute it, and if the house deserves it, let your peace descend upon it; if it does not, let your peace come back to you.” There is no coercion on our part but just offering the gift of the Good News. Indeed, Pope Francis is insistent that “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason.” (Gaudium Evangelii, No. 47)
This requires us to trust in Jesus and rely on Him alone. Jesus told the disciples, “Provide yourselves with no gold or silver, not even with a few coppers for your purses, with no haversack for the journey or spare tunic or footwear or a staff, for the workman deserves his keep.” This mission cannot be accomplished without the Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit, “One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, ‘I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.’ So it was that after fasting and prayer they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” Like the apostles, we are sent by a praying, spirit-filled and anointed community, regardless whether we are priests, religious, missionaries or laity involved in the mission. We too must pray and discern how the Spirit is asking the Church today to renew herself and to go out to offer everyone the life of Christ
So let us without fear join the psalmist in singing “a new song to the Lord for he has worked wonders. His right hand and his holy arm have brought salvation. The Lord has made known his salvation; has shown his justice to the nations. He has remembered his truth and love for the house of Israel.” Let us go forth as Church, out of our comfort zones, to the existential periphery to announce the gospel of the Lord. The Lord reminds us, “You have received without charge, give without charge.” “An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast. Such a community has an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of its own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.” (Gaudium Evangelii, No. 24)
Let us be generous in our contribution and support, whether in financial resources or time, to those whom we have sent out as missionaries to proclaim the gospel, those who labour in our diocese and beyond. It is not enough to send them out without supporting them with our prayers and resources. “The Church which ‘goes forth’ is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.” (Gaudium Evangelii, No. 24)