Giuseppe fixes his gaze towards me, his eyes revealing both confusion and sadness. “My grandpa died last month, and my mom has been depressed ever since. How can you believe in God when there is this kind of suffering?”
I wasn’t planning on talking about Daniela that day, but in the end I couldn’t think of a better witness of true joy and the meaning of life to share with these high school students. “You know that one of the happiest and most fulfilled persons I have ever met was a young woman terminally ill with cancer?”
As I began to describe the smile, the joy, and the beauty of my classmate, who passed away when she was just 34 years old, I could see that some of the students in the classroom were becoming teary-eyed. “I don’t have easy answers for you. But I do know that it is possible to be truly happy even in the midst of suffering, because my friend Daniela showed me what true joy is, a joy that came from her relationship with Jesus, who loves us so much that he suffered like us and died for us, to give meaning to our pain.”
Daniela has taught me many things, and reflecting on her life, I recognize a Christian witness that incarnates many of the values that Pope Francis underlines in his exhortation on evangelization. First of all, Daniela has made me realize ever more clearly the extreme importance of the personal encounter, because the first witness of the Gospel is the way in which we relate to others. Evangelii Gaudium speaks of the fact that today “a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them” (54). This indifference occurs not only on the level of global conflicts and economic problems, but is a temptation that can creep into the contests of our daily life: in the workplace, at school, and even within the family. Saying “no” to this culture of indifference means asking my classmate how he’s doing; it means taking time to listen to the struggles and fears that my daughter is grappling with; it means dropping a line to my colleague whose father just passed away.
“The Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction” (88). I will never forget the example that Daniela gave me in her own way of living this genuine contact and encounter with others. She was always attentive, always said hello and asked how you were doing, communicating peace and joy with even the smallest and simplest of her words and actions. As one of our classmates testifies:
Her eyes embraced me with familiarity, and she smiled at me every time we met. With much patience, she helped me to understand the lectures and the concepts that I didn’t comprehend. I never felt like a foreigner but rather a person just like any other; with her it didn’t matter if there was a difference in skin color, or culture, or age. She was never closed in on herself, but had a heart wide open ready to welcome everyone.
Each one of us is in need of being evangelized in this sense; each one of us needs to receive yet again that good news that our life is precious because God loves us and has saved us. Even a single loving gaze, a single word of encouragement can incarnate a fragment of the Word of God in the lives of others. If we truly life this “culture of encounter” we ourselves will be filled with life and joy, because “we achieve fulfillment when we break down walls and our heart is filled with faces and names!” (Evangelii Gaudium, 274).
Another value that Daniela’s life illustrates for me is the fact that we cannot presume to evangelize without sacrificing and interceding for our brothers and sisters. Sacred Scripture offers us the example of St. Paul, who prayed with great passion for the souls that were entrusted to him: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy … because I hold you in my heart” (Phil. 1,3;7). This “missionary power of intercessory prayer” is indispensable. But prayer in itself is not enough, because the Lord asks for the offering of our whole being. Jesus gives us a very powerful image: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). Daniela offered up her physical suffering and death at a young age, and I have already witnessed the fruits: many people who have encountered the Lord thanks to her life. The Lord does not ask all of us to offer a sacrifice at this level, but in order to generate spiritual life each one of us must die in a certain sense — to our selfishness, to our closed mindset, to our fears, to our pettiness.
This dynamic of death and life brings us to the very heart of our Christian identity: Jesus Christ in his paschal mystery, which is both the greatest scandal and the most powerful consolation that we can witness to the world. I can remember as if it were just yesterday the day of Daniela’s funeral. As I approached the altar to receive the Eucharist, I couldn’t hold back the tears. In that moment, I sensed from the depths of my heart the truth of our faith with certainty greater than I had ever before experienced; because when you are faced with death, with human suffering, with the loss of a loved one, you can find sense only in the cross, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As Evangelii Gaudium reminds us: “Christ, risen and glorified, is the wellspring of our hope … Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up … Such is the power of the resurrection, and all who evangelize are instruments of that power.” (275-276). The Pope continues: “Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation, even amid apparent setbacks: We have this treasure in earthen vessels. This certainty is often called ‘a sense of mystery’” (279). We must constantly come back to this wellspring that is the paschal mystery, because “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain” (I Cor. 15:14). This paradoxical experience of the cross which conquers death reminds us that as Christians, we cannot evangelize by trying to dispense easy answers, but that by means of personal encounter, we can be witnesses of a Love so great that we will never again be left indifferent.