5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
"Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” (Lk. 5:1-11)
In this week’s Gospel, we hear about how Jesus invited the first disciples to follow him in his campaign to tell others about the love of God. We who have worked in and for the Church have cited this text and its message about catching people as inspiration for the work of evangelization, to spread the Word—the “Good News” about Jesus, the Son of God, and His mission of love.
The metaphor of letting down our nets in such outreach is especially rich. Jesus must have been very impressive to Simon, who after a long night of fishing for naught obediently rowed out away from the shore so that Jesus could teach the crowd from Simon’s boat. Even more, when Jesus told him to go further out and let down his nets, though he protested at first, Simon did as he was told.
I can’t count how many times I or others showed similar reluctance when someone, no matter how inspiring they may have been, presented an idea or strategy for evangelizing that had been tried and failed. “Been there and done that” is the expression. In some situations, perhaps a dose of caution is appropriate. Sometimes though we have stopped listening to the Spirit and are attending only to our own thoughts and experiences. Old, failed strategies may work under new and different circumstances. Only through prayer can we get beyond ourselves to hear and be directed by the Spirit and go deep.
What does it mean to “put out into the deep water” when telling others about God? I think it’s about going where there is possibly a fruitful catch. Yes, we need to continue to preach to the choir; they need to hear it, too. But it’s also about going beyond where the water is safe—into the deep where there is a risk. Going into the deep means associating with sinners as well as saints. It means getting beyond ourselves to connect with those who haven’t really heard the Gospel as good news. It may demand that we listen before speaking, earning trust, seeing the good that’s already working, valuing the perspectives, and experiencing the humanity among those to whom we reach out.
We also must do what St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel daily and only when necessary, use words.” Is the love of God evident in our actions, attitudes, manner of being? And what is our metaphorical “net” made of? Is it compassion, mercy, and love? Does our net feed the hungry? Does it advocate for justice? Does our net honor and respect the very people to whom we are reaching out? Or is our net made of self-referential, trite words?
For more than 40 years, my wife Terri and I have toiled on behalf of black families, primarily Catholic, through our outreach to relationships and marriage.
As leaders and trainers in the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI), a federally funded program that ran from 2004 to 2009. Our program was a collaboration with Family Ministries of the Archdiocese of Chicago for providing a curriculum and training, Catholic Charities for case management, the State of Illinois as the fiduciary agent, the City of Chicago for job training, and the Administration for Children & Families (ACF), the federal funder of the multimillion-dollar project. We enlisted and trained other black Catholic married couples to facilitate classes for economically poor, low-skilled black couples with children and in “serious” love relationships. We saw the HMI as an opportunity to tap into new resources to fuel our current efforts to share the good news about committed love. It was also a great opportunity for Catholic parishes serving in the Roseland community on Chicago’s Southside to reach out to these couples after the 10-week program was completed.
We were determined to counter the attitude from ACF that the problems in our community stemmed from the prevalence of single-parent (predominantly mothers) households. The solution was about teaching these couples healthy relationship skills and getting them to consider committing to each other.
However, far too often the measure of success from ACF was tied to the number of marriages the program spawned. And the area Catholic parishes were not interested in going into the messy deep waters of relationships with black couples and the “baby-mama/baby-daddy drama” that comes with them. They had already given up on encouraging marriage among this population.
In its five-year run, our program served over 100 couples. Outcomes varied in terms of couples marrying. The program didn’t track the couples beyond the program. Still, we know of several couples who married. Some couples, because of their newly
acquired relationship skills, saw clearly that marriage was something they wanted but not with each other. Yet, they were determined to co-parent their children and use their newly-acquired relationship skills. We witnessed more transformation in this program than we had in 30+ years of facilitating Catholic marriage preparation and enrichment programs, even though we couldn’t present the program from a religious or spiritual stance.
Nonetheless, it was a very successful endeavor. Terri and I, and our team of facilitator couples saw a transformation in ourselves, as well. We all gained greater appreciation and respect for a segment of our community that was tossed aside by systemic injustice, poverty, and poor education. We learned to see people through fresh eyes of hope and respect and not the lens of their dysfunction. We saw in those couples their holiness—what the area parish leaders closed their eyes to. The experience reshaped our ongoing national ministry to marriage into a ministry of accompaniment. We challenged the leaders in the government and especially the Church to see single parents not as the problem to be solved but rather as symptoms of an unjust society, and as heroes and heroines trying to fill the way too many gaps in family life in the margins.
In this program, we set out to deep water and lowered our net. And the catch was great. Sadly, however, not even one of the congregations lining up to accompany these couples beyond this learning experience was Catholic. It was an evangelizing opportunity that our Church eschewed.
Today, in the age of awakening to white supremacism in our nation and our Church, we all must be in the fight for racial equity and inclusion. Otherwise, the richness of Scripture and Tradition is lost. For the Catholic Church in the United States, going into the deep must include, if not begin with, leading the fight for racial justice through the Social Mission of the Church. We must boldly go beyond the familiar and into the messiness of the margins to let down our nets of love, compassion, respect, and honor. Without such a net, no matter how deep we go, our efforts to evangelize become only a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal—just noise.
Authored: Andrew Lyke is a retired ministry consultant. Between 1999 and 2009, he was the Coordinator of the Marriage Ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago. Andrew and Terri designed the Arusi Retreat for Black Catholic Marriages and lead retreats across the United States and the Caribbean. They are the authors of Marriage On A Lampstand: Exploring a New Paradigm for Modern Christian Marriage (Heavenly Light Press).