Father William Byron, S.J.

Father William Byron, S.J.

Churchgoing Catholics heard Jesus speak to them from the Gospel of Luke on a mid-August Sunday this year. He said, “I have come to set the earth on fire” (Lk. 12:49).

He was speaking metaphorically, of course, when he said he came to light a fire on the earth. He had no scorched-earth policy. He did not want to destroy the earth by fire. But he surely did want to “fire us up” with enthusiasm for his Gospel, to “ignite” our zeal for the spread of his Gospel and the salvation of our brothers and sisters in the human community.

He wanted to spread a fire of love and concern for the poor in our world. He was something of a firebrand for justice and he surely wanted his followers to be enthusiasts for justice, too.

He may even have thought of the faith that was his gift to us as something like a bed of embers that required fanning from time to time, fanning that would raise the flame of faith to a higher intensity through prayer. I can’t say for sure. I just want to call attention to the firelike enthusiasm Jesus had for the spread of the Gospel.

And I’m wondering about the degree of intensity of our personal enthusiasm for the cause of Christianity in our world, for the spread of the word and way of life that Christ brought to our world. He chose to establish a church as the vehicle for his mission. What is our enthusiasm for that church today?

And it is fair to ask, what is our church’s enthusiasm for the cause of Christ? That may sound strange, but we have to wonder if we are getting too comfortable, too detached from the urgent problems of hunger, poverty and human need that were real concerns to the heart of Christ.

How fired up is our church today to continue the work Jesus began — preaching the good news to the poor, healing the sick, saving sinners, sanctifying all? Is the fire going out in Catholic education, Catholic health care, Catholic social services? Are there seats on governing boards of Catholic hospitals, schools, colleges and service agencies waiting to be filled by people with the needed skills and resources if only they were sufficiently enthusiastic to want to serve in this capacity?

Are volunteer service opportunities failing to attract Catholic hands and hearts because Catholic ears no longer hear Jesus saying, “I have come to set the earth on fire”?

Where is the fire today? Where are the Catholics who want to be priests for parishes, nuns and brothers for schools, nurses for Catholic hospitals and assisted living communities, trained professionals for Catholic social service agencies?

In an altogether different and quite secular setting, I remember that when then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan dismissed the first chancellor and 12th president of the University of California, Clark Kerr, Kerr said he left the university just as he came into it — “fired with enthusiasm.”

Football coach Vince Lombardi was famous for saying, “You’ve got to come to this team fired with enthusiasm or you’re going to find yourself leaving this team fired with enthusiasm.”

That message has to get through today to contented Catholics who seem not to be noticing that the quality of Catholic service is declining and the level of commitment to Catholic institutions needs to be shored up with both professional and volunteer Catholic commitment.


Jesuit Father William J. Byron is professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.