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The New Evangelization: Down with Optimism, Up with Hope

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 10, 2012

The current Synod on the New Evangelization is not optimistic about the state of the world. This, I am prepared to argue, represents a seismic shift in episcopal perceptions over the past fifty years. In the second half of the twentieth century, the Catholic hierarchy in the West seemed possessed by what can only be called a foolish optimism, almost to the point of believing that human culture would evolve all on its own to a better and more spiritual state. Let’s look back a bit before going forward.

For a wide variety of cultural reasons, the world seemed full of promise in the 1960s when the Second Vatican Council was meeting in Rome. The Church reflected this sense of promise in the Council’s determination to recognize any good that existed in the human family generally and especially among non-Catholic Christians, with the hope of stabilizing and building upon that good in the full light of Christ. The key Conciliar document on this point is the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes).

At the same time, it would be wrong to accuse the Council of an unbridled optimism, as many have done. No, the chief Conciliar difference was an emphasis on connecting with the good rather than condemning the bad, a policy which had borne little or no fruit in the preceding centuries. Rereading Gaudium et spes nearly fifty years later reminds us that the Council fathers saw very clearly the tensions, corruptions and failings in human persons and human institutions which desperately needed to be purified by Christ. This, in fact, is a constant theme in the document. Consider, for example, this passage:

Sacred Scripture teaches the human family what the experience of the ages confirms: that while human progress is a great advantage to man, it brings with it a strong temptation…. For a monumental struggle against the powers of darkness pervades the whole history of man. The battle was joined from the very origins of the world and will continue until the last day, as the Lord has attested. Caught in this conflict, man is obliged to wrestle constantly if he is to cling to what is good, nor can he achieve his own integrity without great efforts and the help of God’s grace. That is why Christ's Church, trusting in the design of the Creator, acknowledges that human progress can serve man's true happiness, yet she cannot help echoing the Apostle's warning: “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2)…. Hence if anyone wants to know how this unhappy situation can be overcome, Christians will tell him that all human activity, constantly imperiled by man's pride and deranged self-love, must be purified and perfected by the power of Christ’s cross and resurrection. (#37)

Nonetheless, a sort of debilitating optimism about human progress did infect the Church in the second half of the 20th century. It was not so much the result of the Conciliar texts as of the dominance of Modernism in the Catholic intellectual establishment, including the episcopate, evidenced in the late 1960s. This came primarily through the Catholic academy, where Modernism was kept largely hidden until the long-term Western cultural shift toward secularism was finally publicly admitted and praised among the cultural elites (who had generally felt the need to appear pious in the preceding generation). As soon as the world was ready to acclaim and lionize those who could “explain away” or “water down” the demands of Faith in the face of prevailing secular trends, the stage was set for intellectual influence to proceed primarily in the wrong direction throughout the Western Church.

Resistance to that trend required a Christian seriousness which simply was not possessed either by Modernists or by episcopal leaders who had come to take their dominance for granted. This is the situation that was inherited by Pope John Paul II, who engaged in a long struggle to restore the episcopate and reestablish a proper understanding of the Second Vatican Council. With small but clearly discernible results beginning after 1985, an authentic renewal of the episcopate has developed slowly since that time. There can be no question that this renewal was paradoxically accelerated after the abuse scandal broke in 2001.

Therefore, as the Synod on the New Evangelization begins, I find it welcome—but happily no longer surprising—that the problem of secularism both inside and outside the Church is being identified loudly, clearly and repeatedly (see Leading prelates speak about mounting worldwide secularization). Take for example the remarks of Cardinal Péter Erdõ, president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences:

Europe must be evangelized. It needs it. De-Christianization is accompanied by repeated juridical, as well as physical, attacks against the visible presence of the manifestations of faith…. The vast majority of cases of violence and of discrimination because of religious belief are acted out against Christians, especially Catholics, in Europe.

These remarks signal the death of Western Catholic optimism about the world.

Or consider the words of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the dean of the College of Cardinals, who reflected as follows on his recent rereading of the Book of Revelation:

[I was] able to reflect on the reality of evil in the world, as on the mystery of man’s freedom, who although he sees the light, sometimes prefers to remain in darkness. Similarly I wished to meditate on the pages of the Apocalypse that describe to us the devastating presence of Satan in human history. But it is always comforting to read in the same Book of Revelation how in the end it is the victorious power of Christ which shines over all human misery.

In fact, it is not now but only at the end of human history, Cardinal Sodano reminded the Synod, that we will have a new heaven and a new earth. Until then, “we are not the first to work in the vineyard of the Lord nor will we be the last.” Cardinal Sodano here expresses the triumph of supernatural hope over human optimism.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who is the Synod’s relator-general, referred even more forcefully to a “tsunami of secular influence” in the Church (see In major synod address, Cardinal Wuerl rues secularism and poor catechesis, analyzes new evangelization). He made this point in his relatio ante disceptationem (report before the discussion), which will shape the Synod’s deliberations:

This current situation is rooted in the upheavals of the 1970s and 80s, decades in which there was manifest poor catechesis or miscatechesis at so many levels of education. We faced the hermeneutic of discontinuity that permeated so much of the milieu of centers of higher education and was also reflected in aberrational liturgical practice. Entire generations have become disassociated from the support systems that facilitated the transmission of faith. It is as if a tsunami of secular influence has swept across the cultural landscape, taking with it such societal markers as marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong.

Cardinal Wuerl went on to say that “secularization has fashioned two generations of Catholics who do not know the Church’s foundational prayers…, do not sense a value in Mass attendance…, fail to receive the sacrament of Penance, and have often lost a sense of mystery or the transcendent as having any real and verifiable meaning.” All of this has left them “ill-prepared to deal with a culture that…is characterized by secularism, materialism and individualism.”

Wuerl also noted that today’s evangelizers must be characterized by four qualities, “boldness or courage, connectedness to the Church, a sense of urgency, and joy.” And “when we speak of courage,” he said:

we must also recognize the need for institutional witness in those particular churches that enjoy the presence of institutional expressions of the Church—colleges, universities, hospitals, health care ministries, social services and other types of outreach to the poor. There must be a recognition that these institutional expressions of the life of the Church should also bear testimony to God’s Word.

It used to be that only lay persons and marginalized priests were willing to speak with such realism. For large numbers of bishops to speak this way is a sea change.

It is easier, of course, to say such things in Rome than at home, and still easier to say them than to act accordingly. But as our news coverage has demonstrated over the past several years, more and more bishops are now saying these things at home as well as effecting the long, slow changes to make them stick. Yes, clearly, there is a long way to go. In particular, success demands a thorough reform of Catholic universities which has hardly yet begun. But if there were no heavy lifting to do, there would be no need for the keen sense of crisis we see and hear at the Synod.

What is clear now is that twentieth century secular Catholic optimism is gone. The idea that all we need is a few magic programs is dead. The bishops now seem to know that the Catholic future lies in hard personal work, work that there can be no reason to do without hope in Christ. As Cardinal Wuerl expressed it: “The New Evangelization is not a program. It is a mode of thinking, seeing and acting. It is a lens through which we see the opportunities to proclaim the Gospel anew. It is also a recognition that the Holy Spirit continues actively to work in the Church.”

To this I would add only one thing: The New Evangelization is also a sacrifice. It is a good thing that the tired worldly optimism is gone, for evangelization is not possible without redemptive suffering. And redemptive suffering is not possible without hope in Christ.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 11, 2012 10:37 PM ET USA

    By our baptism we Catholics are incorpated into a sea of undying love. So many souls admittedly ignorant of fundamental truths, fundamental prayers and this vocation of love face death. There must be a supernatural hunger for souls, a limitless fraternal charity in Christ Jesus for our brothers and sisters, and this must animate our prelates. This Mystical Body of Christ is a sign of contradiction to the world, and yet it is only through her true Christian love that there is any real hope.

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