Ten Keys to Effective Evangelization
One of our supporters wrote recently to ask what was supposed to be “new” about the New Evangelization. He had found that many people seemed to be waiting for Rome to issue instructions on a new kind of evangelization, different from the past, which would somehow solve the problem of evangelization. But this is a misunderstanding. The New Evangelization is called “new” because it is directed at people in once-Christian cultures. Individuals within those cultures may need to hear about Christ almost as if for the first time, but taken as a whole, we can see that these once-Christian peoples and once-Christian cultures need to be evangelized “anew”.
It is perhaps unfortunate that many Catholics have come to expect that their duties will always be encapsulated in “a program”. But in general, this habit developed because of the weakness of the Church and the Faith in the West over the past few generations, a weakness by which “programs” somehow came to replace spiritual growth and commitment. I note with gratitude that our bishops are beginning to realize this. For example, when the USCCB announced its campaign of prayer and fasting for marriage and religious liberty earlier this month, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco said: “It’s not meant to be another program but rather part of a movement for life, marriage, and religious liberty, which engages the New Evangelization and can be incorporated into the Year of Faith.”
Yet vestiges remain. Just this week Baltimore’s Archbishop Lori emphasized at a conference in Rome the need for collaboration among the bishops in North, Central and South America to make evangelization effective. There is nothing objectionable in Archbishop Lori’s call for collaboration, especially insofar as he recommended that we all turn to Our Lady of Guadalupe. But in fact collaboration at the episcopal level has very little to do with evangelization—and will not make it effective—unless each bishop labors to renew the faith in his own diocese. It is here that a new evangelization must begin, as each seeks to transform nominal Catholics into holy Catholics. For one of the most important aspects of authentic holiness is a sense of mission.
These considerations prompt a modest exercise. I wish to offer ten points which will lead to authentic spiritual renewal, a keen sense of mission, and effective evangelization. In enumerating these points, I will move from goals, through disciplines of renewal, to tools of evangelization. I make no claim that the list is exhaustive. After all, even the number ten is something of a gimmick. But I believe all of these points must be incorporated into what we might call an effective Christian life, a life that evangelizes—a life that draws others to Christ.
What sort of person do we desire to become if we are to be effective evangelizers? It goes without saying that this effectiveness will necessarily depend on the grace of God, and so we must open ourselves to grace as widely and deeply as possible. Our Lord’s life must flow through us to others. For this purpose, concepts like faith, hope, charity and holiness come to mind, but they are perhaps too vague to be useful, so I will first focus on four “ways of being” which define what we want to become.
1. Personal Relationship with Christ: This will surprise nobody, but it still needs to be stressed. It is very easy to become what we might call a Catholic by rote, that is, somebody who follows a kind of minimal set of rules, living the Christian life in an essentially prescriptive way. Such a person frequently asks, “What do I need to do to at least make it to purgatory?” Or “What does the Church require of me to be a ‘good Catholic’?” It is often observed that this attitude was far too widespread among the laity in the first half of the twentieth century, and that an important part of the purpose of the Second Vatican Council was to shake the Church out of this sort of complacency. In any case, our Christian life must be defined and motivated first and foremost by a personal love of Jesus Christ.
2. Personal Relationship with the Church: Any significant theological reflection will reveal that this point is simply another side of the first point. The Church is the Body of Christ, united by Christ’s assimilation of us to Himself in the Eucharist, and inseparably joined to Christ the Head. All that Our Lord offers to draw men and women into union with God is made available through the Church. This is a consequence of His saving passion, death and resurrection, the fruits of which are specifically actuated by her sacraments and, in a different way, by her Magisterium, which safeguards Revelation so that we “may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). This fundamental ecclesial reality is often obscured by the sins and weaknesses of the Church’s members, but we must never permit it to be obscured in our own spiritual perception. In other words, the second point is like unto the first: Our Christian life must be defined and motivated by a deep personal love of the Church.
3. A Different Way of Living Morally: This too may go without saying, and yet it is easily overlooked by Catholics who do not lead what we call an “examined” life. Our moral behavior must become the behavior of a Christian, that is, of a saint. How we live in our daily life—in our personal and sexual relations, in our speech, in our social attitudes, in our use of time, in our priorities—must be marked by Christian, that is, saintly values. Obviously, if we are serious about the first two relationships, Christlike ethics will follow. And if this difference in moral living really becomes a “way of being” for us, it will be noticed. We need frequent self-examination in light of the Commandments and the teachings of the Church, extending their implications into every dark corner of our old habits and self-love, in order to develop the robust moral habits of a Christian.
4. Different Attitudes, Responses and Emotions: There is more to the difference I am describing here than avoidance of serious sin. As we mature in the Christian life, we find (or ought to find) that we do not react to news, entertainment, surprises, victories, defeats, stresses and strains as our neighbors do. Our ears do not perk up at the prospect of gossip; we do not thirst for the same popular entertainments; our fashions are not dictated by celebrities. If we are struggling with some difficulty, we are not sad or short-tempered. Should we be humiliated in some way, we are not downcast. Contradicted, we take no offense. Victorious, we deflect credit and never gloat. Boasting is to us a shameful reminder of the weaknesses of the “old man”. We do not seek to avoid responsibility. In the calm, inner-directed stability of our “being”, we become more pleasing to God and immensely more attractive to others.
Disciplines of Renewal
The four points above certainly qualify as a tall order. How do we habituate ourselves to these “ways of being”? I am not interested here in what the Church, or the bishop, or the priest “ought to do” to make this happen. Each person’s spiritual perfection will bear fruit in the realm of his own life and responsibilities. But how does each and every Christian grow in these ways? In response to this question, the answer will not be so surprising, and it certainly will not be new. It is the perennial three-fold path:
5. Prayer: Put simply, the Christian life cannot be lived without prayer, and plenty of it. I include in this category the all-important regular reception of the Sacraments of the Church, which have a special power to fill us with the life of Christ—but a power than we can effectively utilize only if we have the right dispositions. And the right dispositions grow through prayer. It is through prayer that we learn to know God, to know ourselves, to recognize the difference, to discern God’s will generally and particularly, and to increase in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Among other forms of prayer, Eucharistic adoration should play an important role, for obvious reasons. In any case, to put the matter very simply, Christians pray; if they do not, they are not really Christians. Eventually, they learn to pray always, practicing the presence of God, but most often they must set aside specific time for prayer, in accordance with their vocational duties. Even Our Lord went off frequently to pray. See also the advice given in Lk 21:36, 1 Thes 5:17 and Eph 6:18.
6. Spiritual Reading: Here we have the most accessible form of spiritual instruction and direction, the practice of slowly reading and meditating on Scripture and the works of the great saints and doctors approved by the Church. Our interpretations of these things, through our deep love of the Church, will always be subject to correction by Church teaching, a sound spiritual director, or at least a perusal of the Catechism. Nonetheless, spiritual reading should be both an important foundation of our prayer life and a vital means of spiritual, intellectual and moral formation. We should never be far from a good spiritual book, with which we can focus our minds, combat distractions, and open ourselves in a safe and constructive way to the movement of the Holy Spirit in prayer. For nearly all souls, spiritual reading immensely accelerates spiritual growth. God works in us in many other ways, of course, but for a literate person, it takes an extraordinary action of God, really an extra miracle of grace, to compensate for an unwillingness to take advantage of solid, prayerful spiritual reading. On this see also 2 Tim 3:16.
7. Charitable Works: Works of charity are at once a spiritual discipline and a fruit of our love of God and neighbor. Here I treat them primarily in the former sense—as a means to the end defined in our first four points. Charity always involves personal sacrifice; there is, after all, nearly always something that we would rather be doing. We must cultivate the discipline of charity as a part of our habituation to the Christian life. For this reason, I include within “charity” those penitential exercises which we ought to perform out of love for God, to curb our passions, strengthen our wills, and “make up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” (Col 1:24). And although our left hand ought not to know what our right hand is doing (Mt 6:3), Our Lord did call attention to charity as an important aspect of evangelization: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35).
Particular Tools for Evangelization
Perhaps all of the foregoing is too obvious. But perhaps that is part of the point. There is no magic bullet for evangelization, no particular program to guarantee results, no decree to be passed down from on high to generate mass conversions. If we are waiting for something like this, we will wait in vain. I will not deny that at different times and places, new forms of effective witness have been developed and implemented which have born great fruit in particular situations. Hopefully we can find equally fruitful ways of reaching out to people and getting their attention in our own time. That is a discussion for another day. But a more pressing question is simply this: What important tools of the Christian life ought each one of us to sharpen so as to improve our results in spreading the Gospel?
8. Knowledge of Scripture: The two great sources of Revelation are Scripture and Tradition, but while Tradition benefits people spiritually insofar as it is lived and handed on, as it seeps into our bones over time, Scripture has a direct and immediate spiritual power as the Word of God. This is not primarily a matter of proof-texting. That is something one might do in apologetics with Protestants, who already accept the authority of Scripture but misunderstand the fullness of Divine Revelation on various points. Here I am referring to something like what happened to the eunuch for whom Philip interpreted the words of Isaiah (Acts 8:26-39). There is salvific power in Scripture. We do well to work it into our discussions, helping to explain the Word of God made flesh by the Word of God in Scripture.
9. Traditions and Customs: In our secularized societies, we have lost much of the warp and woof of the Christian life in our daily personal, familial and community habits, customs and celebrations. I am referring here to traditions with a small “t”, both the kinds of little practices and customs which populate the liturgical year section on CatholicCulture.org and the larger habits of family prayer, meals in common, hospitality, rules of Christian courtship, and all such methods of more easily incorporating a guiding spirituality into work, recreation and life as a whole. Those who are admitted to our circle will observe such things. Practical questions will frequently arise, and we must provide answers. For example:
“With our children, we did not allow ‘dating’; we promoted and allowed only wholesome group activities with opposite sexes until such-and-such an age.” Or “Here is a grace you can say before meals, and one you can say after, ensuring that all come before the opening grace, engage in family conversation, and leave the table only after the closing.” Or “We have a Eucharistic procession in our parish on Corpus Christi—it promises to be a beautiful day, why not join us?”
Just so: Our faith should be reflected in a thousand concrete ways, both small and large. By excluding its beneficent influence from any segment of life, either out of laziness or fear, we lose immense opportunities for both ourselves and others.
10. The Skill of Detachment: Let me close with something that might seem a bit unusual. I believe all effective evangelists need to recognize (and live in accordance with) sharp distinctions between, on the one hand, all that is definitely revealed by God as essential to Christ and, on the other hand, all of our favorite opinions on such things as politics, culture, entertainment, private devotions, personal dress, and a hundred other things which prevent our interacting with others as the potential kindred spirits that they really are. St. Paul put this eloquently: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). If we want to preach the Gospel, we cannot insist that our prescriptions on everything from foreign policy to sacred music must also be received and accepted as oracles of God. How often we get in our own way, putting others off because we intrude so much of ourselves into every discussion! The goal in evangelization is for us to speak in a way that enables others to hear, not us, but Christ. For this to happen, detachment from our own prejudices, preferences and opinions is essential.
Not Done Yet
A word to the disappointed: I know you did not find a new formula here, a new discovery of how to “make evangelization work”. As I said earlier, if this is what you are looking for, you are looking for something that does not exist; you are relying on programs in an area in which we must rely on Christ's desire to use our poor efforts as a conduit of grace. Nonetheless, two caveats are in order.
First, it would be wrong to conclude that nothing more is necessary. The unique challenge of what the Church is calling the new evangelization is that it must take place in a culture in which Christianity is partially known yet widely rejected as an affront to civilized behavior. Our culture frowns on the introduction of Jesus Christ in any but the most private circumstances. We have been raised in and formed by this highly secular culture, and we have imbibed its prescriptions. Speaking of Christ, of Faith, of Church is really not quite the thing. It simply isn’t done! Not by a gentleman, anyway. Self-evidently, evangelization cannot occur unless we can overcome this inculturated reluctance in ourselves. Only if that is overcome can we explore possible specific paths or tactics of evangelization which might bear fruit (as we began to do in Evangelization Ideas). Obviously there is more work to be done regarding practical methods, but only the spiritual growth outlined above can lead us to break the barrier of respectability which our culture has established between man and God.
Second, if evangelization ultimately depends on the kind of growth and commitment outlined above, it would still be wrong to argue that we should not involve ourselves in Christian witness until we are perfect. We will never be perfect; nor does Our Lord require perfection before we dare to preach. For His part, He loved all of us while we were still in our sins, and even with all of our sins, by His sacrifice Our Lord has made us as worthy to speak His name as others are to hear it. This essay is about how to become more effective at evangelization, not about how to begin. We must remember that we are not trying to promote ourselves. Rather, we are trying to promote Jesus Christ—partly for the reason that He is more than willing to make up for all of our deficiencies.
This brings me back again to the last of the ten points, detachment. Self-detachment is part of knowing the difference between who we are and who God is. After all, it is not we ourselves who are the way, the truth and the life. In a previous essay on the three most important characteristics of an evangelizer, I stressed humility, hospitality, and trust in God. This is the way to begin. Let people criticize our own weaknesses, as long as they criticize them in the light of Christ. Let them shoot the messenger, as long as they get the message.
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Posted by: koinonia -
Dec. 16, 2012 9:07 AM ET USA
Truly inspired words. Catholicism is beautiful, and these words express beautifully the missionary vocation of the Christian in the world today. Thus, an admirable expression of true Catholic charity. Gaudete in Domino semper!
Posted by: Justin8110 -
Dec. 13, 2012 6:33 PM ET USA
Excellent points to consider Dr. Mirus. The one that resonates most with me is the one about becoming more immersed in Holy Writ. Regularly praying with the Psalms and reading the New Testament over and over has really been a blessing to me.
Posted by: Randal Mandock -
Dec. 13, 2012 1:17 PM ET USA
Dr. Mirus' list of the 10 keys is great. The list explains what it means to _be_ Catholic. Indeed, the first step in effective evangelization is to live one's daily existence as a Catholic; i.e., a modern-day apostle of Christ. "To know, love, and serve God in this life..." This is our Catholic heritage and our Catholic duty. The keys list the time-honored ways of doing this as Catholics. As Dr. Mirus points out, the 10th key is crucial. Catholic detachment lies at the heart of evangelization.