Previous Next

The Refreshing Power of Zeal: Enthusiasm, Passion, Fire

User Rating: 5 / 5

Star ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar ActiveStar Active

During the 1960 USA electoral campaign to choose the democrats’ candidate for President (which John F. Kennedy eventually won), there was Adlai Stevenson, the intellectual of the group. I heard this story from him. Two great orators of all times: Cicero, Roman, and Demosthenes, Greek. When Cicero spoke people said, “How well he speaks.” When Demosthenes spoke, people said, “Let us march.” Demosthenes convinced the intellect and moved the will and emotions or passions. He had zeal!


Law professor Anita Bernstein says that there is today “zeal shortage” (cf. David Horner and David Turner). Is there “zeal shortage” in the Church, religious congregations and in some – or many – of us believers? Is there, perhaps, lack of zeal and instead some or much sloth? It appears that many Christians today profess a faith “light.” There is lack of motivation to pursue good. Caught up in the web of modern life – a consumeristic society in a culture of waste -, Christians know that they are asked, with many other women and men of good will too; they are asked by their humanity and faith to witness a zealous life style of respect for all and compassion for the poor, This is the life style of Jesus as proclaimed by the Sacred Scriptures.  




Horner and Turner, who have studied well the nature of zeal and sloth, state: “Irrational, unbalanced, and violent forms of zeal are simply and radically incompatible with biblical zeal.” I suggest that integral good zeal entails pursuing the good with passion, with enthusiasm, with fire (cf. Rom 12:11; 2 Pet 1:3-11).


God’s Zeal. He has zeal for his people (Is 26:11; cf. Is 9:7), a zeal with fire (Zeph 3:8). The Lord asks Elijah: What are you doing here Elijah? The prophet answers: I have been very zealous for the Lord. (cf. I Kgs 19:10).  The word of the zealous prophet was like a burning torch: “Then the prophet Elijah arose like a fire, his word burned like a torch” (Sir 48:1). The Psalmist is consumed by zeal: “My zeal consumes me because my foes forget your words” (Ps 119:139); “It is zeal for your house that has consumed me” (Ps 69:9). Seeing a Jew offer sacrifices to gods, Mattathias “burned with zeal and his heart was stirred” “with righteous anger” (I Macc, 2:24).   


Jesus’ zeal. He moved people with the fire of his merciful love. He was meek. His words and deeds matched perfectly.  When announcing the coming of Jesus, John the Baptist tells his disciples: Jesus will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11) – with fire! Jesus presents John the Baptist to his disciples as a burning and shining lamp: “He was a burning and shining lamp” (Jn 5:35). After the co-traveler sat at table with them, blessed and broke the bread, he left them. Then the two disciples to Emmaus realized that the traveler who had joined them on the road was the Risen Lord. Both commented: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?” (Lk 24:32).  


The apostles’ zeal. The Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples on Pentecost. A strong wind filled the cenacle and tongues of fire rested on their heads (Acts 2:1-4): wind to carry the Good News everywhere; tongues, to preach the truth zealously; fire, to burn human selfishness and to warm up the heart with love. Peter, the head of the apostles, is zealous for what is good (I Pet 3:13). Paul asks Christians “never be lacking in zeal”: “do not lack in zeal, be ardent in spirit, and serve the Lord” (Rom 12:11).  And John in Revelation says to those who are lukewarm: “Be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:19).



There is good and bad zeal, and anti-zeal. In general, good zeal is passionate love for God, working for his Kingdom with enthusiasm, passion, and fire.  


Bad zeal may be zeal by excess or by defect or deficiency (in moedio virtus: virtue stands in the middle). Excessive zeal: either because the means to achieve a good goal are bad, violent, or because the end is bad (fanaticism, including religious fanaticism). There is misdirected zeal (too much passion for nothing) (cf. David Horner and David Turner, on Zeal). It is the misdirected zeal of Paul, when he was Saul, prosecuting and empoisoning Christians (cf. Acts, 22:3-16). It is the bad zeal of terrorists, violent crusaders (including those who kill abortionists).


Anti-zeal, sloth, “acedia” is the opposite of zeal. Sloth is closely related to apathy, melancholy, indifference. It is, in spiritual language, spiritual laziness and sadness: the sadness that blocks a believer, a Christian “light” from pursuing spiritual things. Acedia is opposed to love of oneself, joy, compassion, - to zeal for God and souls. It is a capital sin, one of the seven deadly sins, which are heads (“caput”) of many other sins. Sloth is the seventh and last capital or deadly sin. To conquer it, one needs the virtue of zeal - diligence, fervor, passion, fire.


Good zeal, or simply zeal, is the middle way between excessive zeal and defective zeal. It is loving zeal, a passionate commitment to goodness: to a good cause or end through good means. It may be defined with Horner and Turner as “a disposition to pursue what is good – rationally, fervently, and diligently, motivated by and expressed by love”; as “commitment to an ultimate concern.” I like to connect directly and closely zeal with enthusiasm, passion, and fire.


Zeal: enthusiasm, passion. Zeal is a characteristic of love. Greek etymology of enthusiasm means “to be full of love,” to do service for humanity, for the Kingdom of God with enthusiasm, with passionate zeal. It means to do it “with head and heart, with mind and will.” We do it so, according to the expert in spiritual theology Anselm Grun, “when we put in it [in our work] our heart, when we let our love go through it.” The German writer quotes Blaise Pascal: Nothing is more unbearable for a person than being without passion …    


Zeal: fire. In the recitation of the Prayer to the Holy Spirit, Christians pray: Come, Holy Spirit, fill the heart of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. The fire of love! If we are not close to God, to the fire of his love, we cannot put fire on the hearts of other people: a humble prayer life puts us and other people on fire. Quotes to ruminate: “Only one who has fire within may fire up others” (St. Augustine).  Truly, “a fire can only be lit by something that is itself on fire” (John Paul II, Ecclesia in Asia). “The day you no longer burn with love, many others will die of the cold” (St. Bonaventure). Hard to be on fire? “If you are what you ought to be, you will set the whole world on fire” (St. Catherine of Siena). I love the great preacher the Venerable Fulton Sheen. He always preached or taught standing – never seated. Why? Fires cannot be started seated.


Zeal: anger? Clearly, Jesus was meek, humble, and patient. In one instance, Jesus becomes angry with those who had converted God’s Temple in a marketplace. Angrily, he cleanses the Temple area of money changers and animal sellers. His cleansing of the Temple (Jn 2:13-22) is a rare act but not to defend himself but justice and the needy who were exploited in God’s house. Right after the Resurrection of the Lord, the disciples understood the forceful clearing out of the tables of merchants and money changers: “the disciples remembered the words of the Scripture: I am eaten up with zeal for your [God’s] house” (Jn 2:17). This exceptional show of zeal by Jesus is holy zeal. Jesus pervading attitude, however, is clearly the attitude of an infinitely meek and merciful person. And so must the attitude of his followers be: “Blessed are the meek” (Mt 5:6).  Truly Jesus got angry then, but He is the only one who can ask: Who can accuse me of sin? Of course, nobody! Hence, we ought to be most careful. St. Paul advises us: “Be angry but do not sin. The sun must not go down on your anger” (Eph 4:26-27).




Zeal of the First Christian Communities. Their zeal was characterized by their missionary dynamic enthusiasm, an enthusiasm grounded on holiness. Followers of the Name today proclaim Jesus, and try hard to do it with passion, with passionate love for him and for people.


Zeal in evangelization. Following his predecessors, Pope Francis underlines continually the need of zeal, enthusiasm, and joy in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. He cautions us: beware! It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a life style which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power, or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary enthusiasm! (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, EG, 80).


Missionary enthusiasm (all Christians are missionaries) is essential part of the evangelizing mission: preaching the Word with boldness, with enthusiasm, with passion, with fire – the fire of the Holy Spirit. It means living our Christian lives with zeal, “a zeal for souls.”    


Zeal for souls. It is “a zeal inspired by Christ’s own charity, which takes the form of concern, tenderness, compassion, openness, availability and interest in people’s problems” (John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, RM, no. 89). The famous Dominican preacher Lacordaire tells us that the first Dominicans - like many others - “had received in their hearts that wound [love] which has made all the saints eloquent.  No orator can exist without this asset of a passionate soul.”


Let us then proclaim Jesus with our life and with our words, and try hard – with ardent hope - to do it zealously with fire,  and enthusiastic and passionate love for him and the people. I remember the words composer Joaquin Rodrigo of Concierto de Aranjuez fame used to repeat to his students: “Music must move (conmover) people. If it does not, something is failing.” Likewise preaching ought to move people to Jesus, the Good News of God. Otherwise, something is lacking! Perhaps a little more zeal and enthusiasm and passion – and fire! No wonder that Dominican brothers and sisters recite daily a moving Prayer for Vocations in which they ask God to send them holy and zealous preachers.