“FISHERS OF PEOPLE”, (Third Sunday of Easter, Year C) by Fr. Robert Manansala, OFM

Some days ago, the newspapers carried the Social Weather Stations survey results indicating that in the Philippines, on a national scale, religious affiliation to the Catholic Church has gone down from 85% in 1991 to 81% in 2013 and church attendance among Catholics has dramatically declined from 64% to 37% in the same time period. The said SWS survey results contain other findings, but, I think, these two matters of religious affiliation and church attendance are the most important.

I do not know your reactions to the results of the said survey, but we know that the results have generated a lot of controversies. Some have agreed with the results; others, including some church leaders, have tried to debunk them.

What is my personal reaction to the survey results? Listening to the readings for this Third Sunday Easter vis-à-vis the SWS survey results and the attendant reactions has given me a new challenge – and that is the need for the renewal of our witness and of our efforts in doing our share in the task of integral evangelization or of bringing the good news of the Lord. Put it this way, whether the SWS survey results are accurate or not, we should be challenged to renew our zeal and efforts in being credible and effective “fishers of men and women.” I think this is the main challenge of the readings, especially of the gospel, today.

Why do I say that we should be challenged by the survey results? I lived, ministered, served and studied in a number of countries for a span of 9 years before returning to the Philippines in 2010 and I have personally seen these dwindling religious affiliation and church attendance in some of them. I saw a former church in England converted into a restaurant. One very rich man in Amsterdam, The Netherlands bought an unused church and transformed it into his private palace. Some dioceses have preferred to burn decommissioned churches down instead of allowing these to be later used for very secular and even sacrilegious purposes. While in some churches where I said Masses, the attendance was encouraging, in others all I saw were the reliable old people.

In a world becoming more and more globalized, these dwindling religious affiliation and church attendance can indeed take place in the Philippines, if they have not yet taken place. Thus, the SWS survey results should encourage and challenge us to begin again and to recommit ourselves to the call of being “fishers of people.” This is a challenge not only to us religious and church leaders, but to all of us baptized Christians. Brothers and sisters, we are the Church, not only the Pope, bishops, priests and religious, although we have a big responsibility in the Church.

There is a story about a mother who was trying to help prepare charity goods and religious items to be sent to a far-flung mission country. Her four-year old son insisted on making an offering of his own, a little leaflet titled, “Come to Jesus.”

The young boy wrote his name on the leaflet with the little prayer, “May the one who gets this soon learn to love Jesus.” When the child’s leaflet reached the mission country, it landed in the hands of a non-Christian teacher.

The teacher took the leaflet without looking at it. Upon reaching home, he thought of the leaflet, took it out and read the writing on the outside.

The little child’s prayer so touched him that he got interested to know about the Christian faith. Later he requested to be baptized and became a great evangelizer of his own people.

We have here a young boy becoming an evangelizer and a missionary in his own little way. As baptized Christians, we are called not only to follow the Lord Jesus but also to share Him with or to bring Him to others, starting with our families – in our own ways and according to our life circumstances. There is a need for us to transition from being disciples or followers of Jesus to being apostles or to being sent to others in order to make them disciples of the Lord as well.

The gospel passage today shows Jesus unrecognized by a group of disciples when he appears to them for the third time. They have been fishing all night, but their efforts are fruitless or to no avail until Jesus appears to them and gives them directions on how they should conduct their fishing. The disciples follow the directions of Jesus and then, amazed by the sight of a big catch, the beloved disciple John recognizes, “It is the Lord.”

We have here a case of obedience preceding fruitfulness and recognition. It is in obedience to Jesus that the efforts of the disciples become fruitful and it is in the same obedience that they recognize it is the Lord.

On their own and relying only on their own efforts, the disciples can do nothing; with Jesus, things change. Fruitless fishing turns into a big catch. Without God in our lives, we are nothing. Without God in our efforts, we are bound to fail, to get disoriented, to be fruitless. As followers of Jesus, we cannot just rely on our selves and on own efforts. We must allow the Lord to really be with us and to accompany us, to be the center of our lives and of our efforts, to be obedient to Him and to His words, teachings and example and to do things according to his will and directions. Thus, the first challenge of renewed evangelization is to renewed conversion to the Lord, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote in Porta Fidei.

Indeed, it is only in loving obedience to the Lord that we truly discover Him and that we become fruitful disciples of Him. Albert Schweitzer makes this point in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus. He says: “Jesus comes to us as one unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side, he came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: ‘Follow me!’ and sets us to the tasks which he has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, he will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall in they own experience who he is.”

Aside from loving obedience that helps us to recognize the Lord, the quality of love for the Lord is also fundamental. In a number of instances, the beloved disciple John is always the first one to recognize the Lord. When we love, we are able to see things that others may not see. Sometimes we hear people say, “Why do you love this person? What do you see in him or in her?” Others may not understand precisely because they do not see what the one who loves sees. In terms of relationship with the Lord, someone said, “When we love, we touch the face of God.” Those who truly love the Lord see and reflect God’s face. And when we truly love the Lord, we embrace His mission wholeheartedly. We always see new opportunities and horizons instead of walls and roadblocks to advance and spread this love of Jesus.

This fishing incident appearance of Jesus also highlights the universal mission of the followers of Christ. The success of the efforts of the disciples guided by the Lord is described in terms of a big catch of 153 fish. This number is obviously a symbolic figure. St. Jerome has given us the best interpretation of the meaning of the number. According to him, Greek zoologists had classified 153 species of fish. Patricia Datchuck Sanchez, commenting on St. Jerome’s discovery, says: “As disciples mandated by the risen Lord the disciples were sent to bring to salvation all peoples (all species) regardless of race, religion or heritage. The fact that the net resisted tearing or breaking attests to the all-embracing nature and capacity of the Reign of the Kingdom of God.”

The Lord does not only commission the disciples to be “fishers of men.” He also assures them of his support, nourishment and sustenance. In the passage we find Jesus welcoming the disciples and providing them a breakfast of fish and bread. This meal breakfast has clear allusions to the Eucharistic banquet.

The experience of the Lord in the Eucharist sends us on a mission in the world. Then, we go back to the Eucharist to be again strengthened by the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, our Lord becomes our Divine Host and our Food and Drink, our nourishment, as we continue our journey as followers of the Lord in the world. Indeed, the Eucharist is our Food for the journey.

Finally, we find the rehabilitation of Peter and the verification of the love of the Lord by the love and care of others. Earlier in the gospel, Peter had denied Jesus three times. In the risen Jesus three-fold question to Peter, “Do you love me?,” and in Peter’s three-fold affirmation of his love, Peter is reinstated or rehabilitated.

This rehabilitation of Peter does not only remind us that the Lord gives us so many chances and new beginnings even after we have committed terrible mistakes and faults. It also reminds that those who claim to love Jesus must take care of His sheep, of His lamb. They must love and take care of others. If indeed we love the Lord and others, we bring the Lord to them and we bring others to the Lord.

Our beloved Pope Francis I, shortly after his election, said: “We are called to follow in his footsteps. To step outside ourselves so as to attend to the needs of others; those who long for a sympathetic ear, those in need of comfort or help. We should not simply remain in our own secure world, that of the ninety-nine sheep who never strayed from the fold. But we should go out, with Christ, in search of the one lost sheep, however far it may have wandered. Going out in search of others so as to bring them the light and the joy of our faith in Christ.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also said: “Being tepid is the greatest danger for Christians…We pray that faith becomes like a fire in us and that it will set alight others.”

St. Francis of Assisi, as he was dying, after long years of dedicated service to the Lord and the Church and of living and preaching the gospel faithfully and radically, told his followers, “Brothers, let us begin again for until now we have done very little.”

Whether the SWS survey results are true and accurate or not, brothers and sisters, let us begin again for until now we have done very little.

About Fr. Robert and his reflections