First Things First

By Brad Bursa

In a splendid little book entitled The Moment of Christian Witness, Hans Urs von Balthasar provides the following observation:

Every Christian plan of the future will, and must, be valueless if it does not remain Christian, that is, oriented toward Christ. For Christ is not a “program” that can be surveyed or drawn off and bottled and simply taken with one on a “future operation.” Only in the openness of contemplation and listening prayer is there revealed to us ever anew what Christ, in whom we have our origin, means and wants. Every action that is not rooted in contemplation is doomed to sterility from the start.¹

He goes on to highlight what is, for most of us in ministry, a significant temptation. He notes that “a theology that develops from catchword principles is always a theology that levels out, mitigates and cheapens, and finally liquidates and sells out.”² I believe you could say the same thing about evangelizing or catechizing methods. In the world of evangelization, these catchwords (i.e. briefly popular or fashionable words or phrases that encapsulate a particular concept) or “buzzwords” have been all the rage for many decades and are quite present today. From “anonymous Christian,” “shared praxis,” “gospel values,” “liberation,” “solidarity,” and “justice,” to “new evangelization,” “intentional discipleship,” “missionary discipleship,” “accompaniment,” and so on, these concepts can, in certain cases, become cheap idols. They do, however, look good on posters and websites, and sound nice in talks or at staff meetings. But, what do these words even mean? What, or who, do they refer to? Ironically, they can amount practically to an atheistic web with Christian accents that we spin for ourselves by our own devices and in which we now find ourselves trapped. When we lose focus, we grow weary, frustrated, and cold. Our little pet projects once so shiny, new, and riding on the latest buzzword, suddenly seem to be dull, boring, and grinding to a halt.

“Every action that is not rooted in contemplation is doomed to sterility from the start.” Well, if von Balthasar is right, and we have good reason to believe him (cf. Jn. 15:4-5), then perhaps we should all put first things first and stop reading this post and allow ourselves to be encountered once again by the Love that always initiates, that always goes before us, that always makes us new (cf. 1 Jn. 4:19). Perhaps, before we look all around us and try to figure out what everyone else is doing and what we can “bottle” and take with us, we dare to open ourselves vulnerably in contemplative prayer and see what happens and where He leads us. Perhaps…


¹Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Moment of Christian Witness, trans. Richard Beckley (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 119.
²Balthasar,
The Moment of Christian Witness, 121. 


Brad Bursa, PhD., is the Director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s Office for Youth Evangelization and Discipleship. Prior to his current post, he was the Director of Youth Ministry at St. Gertrude Parish in Cincinnati, OH where he helped transition high school ministry to a discipleship approach. He received his doctorate in Theology from the University of Notre Dame Australia and lives in Cincinnati with his wife and five children.

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