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The New Evangelization: What Does It Look Like?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles ) | Nov 14, 2013

As I mentioned in my latest Insights message (Evangelization Forever!), we should end this Year of Faith not with some sort of boxed memorial, but by making what we have learned the basis of a new era of Catholic evangelization. That is the challenge before us, and I think we really have made some progress toward that goal. At least I hope I have. Let me try to explain.

If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times: People are frustrated by an inability on the part of the Church to put its finger on exactly what form this New Evangelization ought to take. My own explanation may ramble a bit. I am trying, just as you are, to put it all together. Moreover, what I have learned has come as much from Providence as from formal exercises in defining and encouraging evangelization during the course of the year.

The Francis Effect

Perhaps the greatest Providential sequence during this current Year of Faith was the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis. Some would like to argue about how “great” this is; I am not one of them. I defend my position by pointing out that, whatever we may think about this or that, everything that happens is in fact Providential. Ideally we ought to be considering this reality more or less continuously. But when something really startling happens in the official life of the Church, we need to engage ourselves in Providential hyperdrive. In His Providence, God has caused something to happen. In His Providence, then, we are to reflect on it and learn from it.

I am not going to dwell (again) on how to interpret Pope Francis, but by now there can be no question that this pope wants to lead Catholics away from a restrictively institutional and functional perception of the Church. In other words, he wants the Church to position herself more to offer a continuous invitation to life in Christ than to defend her prerogatives, and more to embody mercy than to argue policy. I suspect every pope during my lifetime has been slowly moving the Church toward this goal, and would have assented to this characterization as stated. But it seems to be the charism of Pope Francis not so much to write measured explanations as to distill and crystallize them into action.

In any case, surely God has sent us signals in the retirement of Benedict and the election of Francis, signals to which we are supposed to respond as people of Faith. These signals are not the sole basis for the following reflections, for it would be supremely foolish to base anything entirely on our reading of the signs of the times, which readings are as fallible as they are necessary. But I venture to hope that others will see the “Francis effect” in my reflections, and will regard them as improved by that effect.

The Culture Wars as an Obstacle to Evangelization

One realization I have been groping toward for several years, which has crystallized for me this year, is that the so-called culture wars are a serious obstacle to evangelization. The mode of engagement is simply all wrong. While the name “culture wars” captures much that is valuable about an important aspect of the struggle in which we find ourselves, it excludes too much more. We have fallen into a “culture wars” view of our responsibilities primarily because Christian culture has collapsed so rapidly around our heads over the past fifty years or so. This has led to the illusion that we are at some sort of balance point in history in which it is just as likely, or almost as likely, that we will win the culture back, primarily through politics, as that we will lose it irrevocably.

Nothing, I think, is farther from the truth, and by now we ought to be able to recognize this huge and unassailable fact. What we had in 1950 (and had as late as 1950 only because of the trauma of two heart-stopping world wars) was a culture whose public habits were formalistically Christian despite the fact that a vibrant Christian faith had long since ceased to inform them. Christianity has been weakening in the West for hundreds of years, progressively having less and less real influence over the hearts and minds of men, with Christian sentiment retaining a place in our public life only in a continuously less coherent and demanding way. Our public habits in 1950 were already largely a hollow shell; the underlying culture had long since ceased to support them.

It cannot be surprising in retrospect that they were so easily swept away as soon as aggressive secularists realized the law was supremely vulnerable. Nor can we any longer cling to the illusion that this rapid degeneration of law and politics between 1950 and the present has been a very close thing. Rather, it has been an inexorable shift toward making law and politics reflective of a firmly-established secular and post-Christian culture.

This does not mean that there is no longer anything good, anything redeemable, in Western culture. But it does mean that there is something very wrong with the dominant perception of contemporary Western Christians as being involved in a culture war or a series of culture wars that can be won politically, as if there is a Christian culture out there that can be retaken if we just get the right number of votes, rather than just a thoroughly and depressingly secular culture which must be re-evangelized from the ground up.

Born of an essentially mistaken political calculation, the “culture wars” metaphor is almost totally inimical to evangelization. This perception of our situation and of our duty reflexively causes us to fill our agenda with arguments against, with efforts to defeat, with the perception of persons as either enemies or allies, and with all the exaggerations, half-truths, and myopia that are inescapably a part of both politics and battle. In fact, popular as they have sometimes been, I would argue that war images in general have rarely served the Church well. The Church in this world is not called “militant” because she is military or at war (except with the world, the flesh and the Devil in a spiritual sense)—and certainly not at war with any particular human faction—but because she must still struggle in the service of the Good.

Now hopefully I have taken enough positions in the culture wars over the years for readers to understand that it is not my purpose to run from a fight, where a fight can accomplish something, or to denigrate political activity, where political activity can accomplish something. The assessment of possibilities will vary, as do our individual talents and callings. Nor do I have any interest in pretending to divest Catholicism of its moral content, which should be so deeply internalized in each of us as to eliminate any possible uncertainty, defensiveness, or shrillness of tone.

No, my point is a larger one: As a meta-category—as a way of organizing our thoughts about the Christian place in the world—the notion of “culture wars” is seldom helpful. We’ve fallen into it largely through a misperception of history; it seriously obscures the processes by which cultures are formed and strengthened; the ideological baggage it carries with it tends to reduce our sense of reality to politics (which is the great error of secularism); and the habits it inculcates almost inescapably impede evangelization.

Culture Is a Living Thing

If all this is true of the “culture wars” metaphor, it ought to lead us to a deeper consideration of the relationship between evangelization and culture. Consider, for a moment, the caricature of a newly converted Fundamentalist who feels compelled to ask everyone he meets whether they have a personal relationship with Jesus, or insists on calling people to give up their sins and accept the Word of God every time he has an opportunity to address a group. There is a certain laudable courage here, which most of us should seek to build up in ourselves, but there is also a near-total insensitivity to personal situations, particular needs, and the exigencies of background, place and time. There is little or no engagement with the person, who is treated more as an object than as the dynamic subject he or she really is.

That’s a form of evangelization, I suppose, and at times it may hit its mark. But what we might call “real” evangelization, or evangelization in a deeper and more authentic sense, is always both personal and cultural. It is informed by the process of getting to know the other persons, and it must be shaped to the kinds of receptivity that have been enhanced or stunted in them by the various levels of culture that have formed and conditioned them—personal, familial, social, intellectual, political, and even artistic.

Our lives in the context of family and friends make this a little easier to see, for only the stunted among us operate in “culture wars” mode all of the time. For most of us, our own Christian spiritual growth has had a deep impact on our family life, gradually creating an atmosphere of comparative tranquility and love despite our own brokenness and any particular stresses and strains. Now at one time or another we have also encountered among acquaintances, friends, family members, or friends of family members someone who is very confused but still welcome in our midst.

It is easiest for me to relate to this in terms of someone one of my children might have brought home from college to share a holiday, but we all have our own experiences. I have known Catholic fathers in such situations who would immediately start “preaching at” the hapless visitor, but that is relatively rare. More often, the attitude is one of welcome and warmth, with a deep respect for the feelings of the guest. There may be exploratory discussions of sensitive topics as occasion suggests, and there is a clear readiness to go deeper if the desire arises. The atmosphere is, in short, invitational.

But note that it is not invitational only at the intellectual level. At its best it is invitational at the cultural level. The person in question has now experienced the warmth, the peace, the joy, and indeed the fundamentally spiritual moorings of your family life. He or she has been made to feel welcome in what is really a very special setting. For in this little culture—given the dysfunctional character of so many families today—the guest may have experienced an attractive family dynamism quite different from anything he or she has been able to share in the past. The family wishes to extend that opportunity, and the newcomer may well want to experience it again, or at least to talk with your son or daughter about “how lucky they are”.

This is just an illustrative example. But luck has little to do with the formation of sound family culture, or of a vibrant community of Catholic friends, or of a social setting characterized by deep respect and an implicit desire for virtue. These settings, when not at all forced, possess their own strength and serenity. They create bonds, they foster love, they enkindle an interest in the Good, and they help others to recognize their thirst for God. In such contexts, the very best sort of evangelization can proceed, even when the larger culture is inhospitable to it. It is just here that it becomes most obvious not only that culture is a living thing—a vibrant expression and extension of the human person—but that both culture and evangelization itself must consist of something more than mere words; they must manifest and even embody life in Christ in all decisions, relationships, talents, opportunities, callings and achievements.

Service and Evangelization

Catholic culture, then, is primarily built from the Catholic person out, sustained and fostered by the sacramental culture of the Church, and through the Church by the Person of Christ Himself. But when we come to ask ourselves what we should regard as the hallmark of this culture, the single most important ingredient which the Catholic person is bound to express and which, at the same time, is most attractive to others, we realize that the answer is love. And this answer brings us to the chief habitual and cultural manifestation of love in any society, and that is service. In any society from the family on up, sacrificial service in response to particular needs is the embodiment or enculturation of Christian love.

In the past, some readers have expressed alarm at a point I have made several times before, that if Catholics want to transform culture they must be prepared to pay twice. In the context of the modern State, in which Big Brother is expected to provide almost everything through programs based on taxes, truly personal engagement with those in any kind of need is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. To take a slight liberty with the Gospel, State programs will always lack the “one thing needful” (Lk 10:42)—both the focus on the Person of Christ which Saint Luke expresses, and the intense personal focus of another Christ on the one in need. This is the exchange that occurs when Christ meets Christ in two human persons who can be fulfilled only in Him.

To overcome this dreadful lack, if Catholics truly wish to serve others, they must set up other mechanisms which afford a much more personal contact with the ones who are to receive this service. Just as service takes time, talent and resources in the many things we do for others in the course of our daily lives—from honoring a spouse to helping a co-worker in a time of crisis—so too do more regular programs of service and support come at a cost. I mean at a double cost, because we have already paid our taxes. Most serious Catholics know this only too well when it comes to educating their children. My advice is that we get used to it in every significant area of life.

Such service is a sustained act of Christian love (in fact, a habit of Christian love), which accepts people as they are, assisting and working with them in the solutions to their own problems. This provides a remarkable opportunity for the exchange of values and of faith. Clearly no Christian should take advantage of the dependency of another person for purposes of evangelization, for this would be mere proselytizing. In fact, the Christian ought to regard service to others as an opportunity for mutual enrichment. Those who serve are also gifted by those they serve. But in such service a culture is extended which invites collaboration, internalization and inquiry.

This is so true that it is almost an axiom that the shortest route to evangelization is through service. Of all possibilities, service creates the most frequent and fruitful opportunities to open others to God. In fact, the very reason that a truly Christian service is both so important and so attractive is that it engages the whole person, including and often especially the spiritual yearnings and wounds which lie at the very core of the person, which are generally neglected everywhere else. This renewal of the habit of personal service—one might also call it the life-giving exchange of love—will, I think, be the first key to unlocking the New Evangelization.

But it will be no key at all, unless it happens. It needs to happen both in our daily encounters and in the associations and organizations through which we build our extended Catholic culture. Here again, it is not so much about pointing the finger at the corruption of State programs or even of official Catholic service organizations (the Culture Wars, again!) as it is about developing the habits of effective service in oneself and one’s associations, that these habits of love may spread throughout the Church and the world.

A Merciful Conclusion

In presenting what I have written here, I am well aware that we need to hear the insights of others on this question, especially practical insights on how to extend this newly kindled spirit of evangelization in a more than purely personal form. There is also another important area which I at first wished to include in my own portrait, and that is the role of what we often call High Culture, or the Arts. Paradoxically, we do not do much with the arts at CatholicCulture.org, perhaps mostly because I am not as well-equipped to deal with them as I would like, and perhaps also because we have ourselves been unduly influenced by the idea of warfare, in which works of the imagination seem like luxuries, both unwarranted and inessential.

But surely not only the true and the good but also the beautiful should play a role. The artist, no matter what his medium, seeks to penetrate more deeply or more acutely into reality through craft in the service of imagination. Nonetheless, instead of attempting to tack on here something that is in some way central to both human and Divine culture, I think it best to save my initial exploration of this question for a shorter essay to follow.

What I have been trying to do here, then, is to answer the first and most basic objection of many willing Catholics who encounter this concept of the New Evangelization: The objection that nobody can explain what it is supposed to look like. What I have suggested is that it is not supposed to look like a war or an argument. Rather, it is supposed to look like an invitation which is both personal and deeply cultural at the same time—reflected in everything one does and makes, from the family on up. The New Evangelization will reflect the serenity of Christian hope, avoiding whatever is self-conscious, defensive, pugnacious or shrill. It will proceed not so much through logic and proofs (though these should be offered gently and without rancor when requested or needed), but through the deeper reasons that love alone possesses.

By this I propose, among many other things, that the evangelizer will manifest an unshakable calm, a genuine interest in the experience of the other, a devotion to heartfelt service, and once again that uniquely Catholic quality of interaction which does not condemn but always offers an invitation to “something more”, even to the point of martyrdom—the “something more” for which all men and women so deeply yearn. Here again we see a “crystallization” from Pope Francis and his emphasis on mercy. It is a mercy to offer this “something more” to others, just as it has always been an incomparable mercy that it was offered to us.

The new evangelization about which I am writing is called “new” because we must introduce it again into a territory once Christian, into a culture now possessing all the drawbacks of thinking itself “post-Christian”. But it is “evangelization” for the same reasons it always was. I mean that it is a sharing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is always and above all an initiation into the mercy of God.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: pvanderl7463 - Nov. 17, 2013 9:48 AM ET USA

    Thank you so very much for this seminal work on evangelization. You are so "spot on". You have captured the essence of Pope Francis. You have given us guidelines and goalposts for our own evangelizing efforts in service. I pray this essay is widely read and understood. It is inspired!

  • Posted by: geraldodoire7287 - Nov. 15, 2013 7:24 PM ET USA

    This is a very perspicacious piece, Dr Jeff, concerning the negative effects that the "cultural wars" have had on the efforts of the Church to re-evangelize society for many decades. In effect, the "political" nature of these struggles have prevented many people from recognizing the overall biblical context in which e.g. pro-life arguments are framed and thus initiatives to infuse wider society with Christian values become fragmented and impotent.

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