Address to Bishops, Priests, Religious, Consecrated Persons, Seminarians, Catechists
Cathedral of Saint Dionysius in Athens
4 December 2021
I would now like to highlight a second attitude shown by Paul before the Areopagus, and that is acceptance, the interior disposition essential for evangelization. An attitude of acceptance does not try to occupy the space and life of others, but to sow the good news in the soil of their lives; it learns to recognize and appreciate the seeds that God already planted in their hearts before we came on the scene. Let us remember that God always precedes us, God always sows before we do. Evangelizing is not about filling an empty container; it is ultimately about bringing to light what God has already begun to accomplish. And this was the remarkable pedagogy that the Apostle adopted with the Athenians. He did not tell them: “You have it all wrong”, or “Now I will teach you the truth”. Instead, he began by accepting their religious spirit: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23). He draws from the rich patrimony of the Athenians. The Apostle dignified his hearers and welcomed their religiosity. Even though the streets of Athens were full of idols, which had made him “deeply distressed” (v. 16), Paul acknowledged the desire for God hidden in the hearts of those people, and wanted gently to share with them the amazing gift of faith. He did not impose; he proposed. His “style” was never based on proselytizing, but on the meekness of Jesus. This was possible because Paul had a spiritual outlook on reality. He believed that the Holy Spirit works in the human heart above and beyond religious labels. We heard this in the witness given by Rokos. At a certain point, children fall away from religious practice, yet the Holy Spirit continues to do his work, and so they believe in unity, in fraternity with others. The Holy Spirit always does more than what we can see from the outside. Let us not forget this. In every age, the attitude of the apostle begins with accepting others. For “grace presupposes culture, and the gift of God is embodied in the culture of those who receive it” (Evangelii Gaudium, 115). There is no abstract grace flying above our heads; grace is always incarnated in a culture.
Reflecting on Paul’s visit to the Areopagus, Pope Benedict XVI noted that we must have at heart those who are agnostics or atheists, but take care that, when we speak of a new evangelization, they not be put off. “They do not want to see themselves as a target of the mission, nor do they want to give up their freedom of thought and will” (Address to the Roman Curia, 21 December 2009). Today we too are asked to cultivate an attitude of welcome, a style of hospitality, a heart desirous of creating communion amid human, cultural or religious differences. The challenge is to develop a passion for the whole, which can lead us – Catholics, Orthodox, brothers and sisters of other creeds, and also our agnostic brothers and sisters, everyone – to listen to one another, to dream and work together, to cultivate the “mystique” of fraternity (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 87). Past hurts remain on the path towards such a welcoming dialogue, but let us courageously embrace today’s challenge!