What It Means to Center Evangelization on Christ
My effort to pinpoint The One Very Substantial Key to the New Evangelization elicited some very interesting comments. In several cases, the comments were at the same time critical and not critical, or perhaps I was simply not sure of the point. (When I’m unsure of the point for a Sound Off! comment, I typically will not post it.) But they did get me thinking.
You’ll recall my thesis that the new evangelization must be Christocentric if it is to succeed. A book could be written about what that means, but you’ll see some ideas emerge in what follows. The first critical (or perhaps not so critical) point made was that Christ himself failed, just like the Church has failed, just like we have failed. I’m pretty sure the writer was trying to say that not even Our Lord was able to win everyone over, and that’s true. Our Lord really does allow for free will.
At the same time, however, it is not true that Christ failed. In the first place he succeeded admirably in His purpose of demonstrating His love and giving us all a chance to respond, and of course He is not done yet. He has chosen to commission a Church to carry on His mission, and to associate all of us in the harvest He has in view. So while we might say, in a certain sense, that Christ failed and that we too are doomed to failure, in a deeper sense there simply is no failure at all with Christ. For in the economy of salvation, as St. Paul said, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Rom 8:28).
The Wages of Sin
The second critical (or perhaps not so critical) comment took the opposite tack. Without stopping to consider Our Lord’s own difficulties in eliciting a positive response, this writer asserted that there is no mystery at all about why evangelization so often fails today. The answer, he said, is found in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Rom 2:23-24). Paul said this to Jews who boast in the Law, but it is not unreasonable to apply it, at least in an accommodated sense, to Christians who preach one thing and do another. Consider the entire passage:
But if you…boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth, you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast…. [as above, Rom 2:17-24]
There is no question that all of us draw fewer people to God and the good than we should because we represent God and the good so imperfectly in our own lives. And yet here too there are distinctions to be made.
The first thing to notice in this context is that a recognition of our sinfulness does not invalidate the point I made about centering the New Evangelization on Christ. In fact, it reinforces it, for to center our role in the New Evangelization on Christ, we must rather obviously first center ourselves on Christ. And the second thing to notice is that a recognition of the sins and hypocrisies of the Christian community, including our own sins and hypocrisies, cannot serve as an excuse. To suppose that evangelization cannot be successful so long as any Christian is guilty of sin is to suppose that evangelization is never possible, and that Our Lord has rather deliberately led us on a wild goose chase.
Nonetheless, of course, the problem of sin is very real, and real in a threefold sense. There is the sin in the evangelist, the sin in the one who is being evangelized, and all those negative predispositions in the culture which have been caused by sin. As an example of the last, consider the impact of the Protestant Revolt and the continuing division among Christians. The initial breach occurred in the 16th century. By the 17th century, skepticism was on the rise in part because it appeared that if even Christians could not agree among themselves, supernatural truth must be unknowable. By the 18th century, European culture was drifting into relativism; by the 19th into scientism and materialism; by the 20th into emotionalism and despair. The point is that deep cultural changes arise from pervasive sin, and these changes very often tend to darken the intellect in exactly those areas where people are most likely, if they would but look, to find the truth.
Indeed, sin is endemic to the human condition. It manifests itself in all sorts of ways. And yet it is precisely the mission of Christ to overcome our sins. He even made a prophecy about this: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32).
So what is the solution? It is exactly what I said before. The New Evangelization must be centered on Jesus Christ. But now we see a third sense in which this is true. The first was that we should seek first to present Christ, rather than leading with a system of doctrine and morals which has no heart without Him. The second was that the first and most important way to present Christ is to make Him present in our lives for others to see. In an age when so many are afraid to speak out about Our Lord and Savior, I do not like the potential evasion of responsibility in the following famous saying, but it does carry a great truth: “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”
But now we see the third sense in which Our Lord must be central. We must have absolute confidence that it is not our efforts that build the Kingdom but the grace of Christ Himself working in the hearts of others. This does not mean our efforts are unneeded. I have already stated that Our Lord condescends to work through His disciples to bring others into union with Him. But it is ultimately Christ who touches hearts, Christ who transforms, Christ who saves. Not us.
This is one of the lessons Pope Francis tried to teach the International Union of Superiors General just a few days ago, when he said: “We are not the ones who build the Kingdom of God; it is not human means that make it grow, but primarily the power, the grace of the Lord, who works through our weakness” (see yesterday’s In Depth Analysis, Christ Loved the Church: Francis Throws Down the Gauntlet to Religious). For all these reasons, we are not to be shy about evangelization because of our sins, or the sins of those we approach, or the consequences of sin all around us. We are, after all, merely attempting to convey the fundamental truth of human existence—which just happens to be another thing we can learn from St. Paul:
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Rom 8:37-39]
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Posted by: John J Plick -
May. 25, 2013 11:55 AM ET USA
And one speaks of "relationshop..." In "protestant" theological terms it is obvious that that "relationship" refers to "relationship" with God..., that is "the personal relationship with Jesus Christ..." In "Catholic" theology, however, it means much more..., it means also "relationship" with Christ THROUGH the church..., and "relationship" with Christ THROUGH other brothers and sisters...
Posted by: petew1977 -
May. 15, 2013 10:28 AM ET USA
An idea about the New Evangelization. It is one's relationship with Jesus that is shared. The nature of that relationship is spousal. Just like any relationship, there is an ebb and flow to a relationship with Christ; the result of sin and our own tendencies to self-centeredness. The on-going goal, especially in marriage, is to strengthen the bond. The Sacraments, prayer and Adoration are the bonding agents. The stronger the bond, the better the sharing in words and deeds.
Posted by: John J Plick -
May. 12, 2013 11:11 PM ET USA
Dear lucinda.seago2595; I have worked in "Medicine" in nursing for over 30 years, and feel that I have only started to hit "verbal" paydirt. It is not that the verbal "new evangelism" cannot be done but rather that it takes GREAT purity of heart to do it properly. "Stigmata" perhaps would help a great deal and shorten the process, but waking up with such would be "awkward" to be sure. I think I prefer the patient slow approach.
Posted by: mario.f.leblanc5598 -
May. 11, 2013 10:39 PM ET USA
Anyone who has doubts about the importance of being Christocentric should take the time to read 'The Lord' by Romano Guardini. I just started reading that book (which was given to my parents as an engagement present) and I regret not doing it earlier. I understand this author was instrumental in the formation of both Benedict XVI and Francis.
Posted by: lucinda.seago2595 -
May. 10, 2013 8:45 PM ET USA
I have to say that I have never seen my attempts at evangelization pay off in anything good. I have endeavored to speak the truth, and speak it when it will be best heard. Medicine doesn't like the Catholic Church, it seems like. So I am silent, and I pray. That seems to be the most effective evangelization I can do right now.