Toward the New Evangelization, with Courage
Recently Pope Benedict has highlighted the importance of a new evangelization, something which figured importantly also in the thought of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. On October 16th, the Pope closed a conference on evangelization by announcing a new Year of Faith to begin next October, an observance he hopes will spark this evangelization. And today he named the officers for next year’s Synod of Bishops, which will be devoted to evangelization.
Pope Benedict regards the “new” evangelization as directed toward those in regions which once had a robust faith but have since slipped into secularism, namely the West. He regards this as a natural complement to the continuing mission of the Church to those who have never heard the Gospel. The Pope well knows that there are many in the West who have never had the Gospel effectively preached to them, and many more who need to hear it afresh.
It is, after all, a huge assumption to think that all of our neighbors really know the Gospel, and it is certainly unjust to blame them for rejecting what has never been announced to them in any meaningful way. I am not referring to a lack of systematic religious instruction, which we call catechesis, or to an inability to defend the Faith, which we call apologetics. No, evangelization is first and foremost the announcing of the Good News, the sharing of the fundamental story of our salvation—the coming of Christ, His message of life and hope, and His conquest of sin and death.
If you have never thought about it, trust me on this: Many of your neighbors, even if they have heard of Christ and Christianity, have not really heard the Gospel preached coherently—including many who have ears to hear.
At the same time, even when they know nothing, people in the West are culturally shaped to assume they “know all about” Christianity and find it terribly wanting. For this reason, evangelization in the West is quite different from evangelization among those who have really never heard of Christ at all. Perhaps the point is best stated as follows: There is usually significantly less ingrained prejudice to overcome in a culture which is encountering Christ for the first time than in our culture, which has as part of its current identity a historical animus against the Faith. It is important to remember, then, that Christianity does not really dialogue with culture (though by analogy something of the sort does happen). Rather, persons who are Christians dialogue with persons who are not Christians.
This personal dynamic is critical, and it can be approached in two ways. One way—the way I follow much of the time—is to disseminate Christian information and ideas in general so that others might encounter the message. A surprising number of people discover something about Christianity on CatholicCulture.org, and many use it to quench their thirst for the Faith once they realize that they do indeed thirst. Still others use our website to help them return to a deeper and more consistent practice of their faith, after having fallen away. Though CatholicCulture.org is primarily oriented toward those who already accept the Gospel, some of our work is an example of this sort of more generalized evangelization. The writer (or the audio voice or the video figure) is definitely addressing someone, but it is not a particular someone with a face, a name, and a unique relationship to the one bearing the message.
The other way is to talk about Christ to our friends and co-workers, one on one or in small groups, or to speak or preach to specific audiences in person. This more intensely personal dynamic takes more courage in the moment than does writing an essay, though I’ve known many closet Christians who would fear even to have their names on an essay. But because all evangelization is the announcement of a personal message, and in bearing that message we must always risk in some sense being “discovered” for what we are, our courage must grow under the power of the Holy Spirit if we are to participate in the Pope’s plans. This courage—courage in the evangelizing moment—is absolutely central to the spread of the Gospel.
This is so even and sometimes especially in our outwardly placid Western culture because, as I hinted above, the dominant persons and groups in our society have imbued our culture with an atmosphere of rebellion against the Faith that once shaped it. Thus anyone who broaches the subject of Christ without being absolutely sure of the person or persons he is talking with must perforce fear to be met with some hostility, to be marked in some ways as an outsider, to be carefully watched by those—frequently superiors at work or school—who are seeking an opportunity to trip him up. The servant is not greater than his master (Jn 15:20).
Of course I do not mean to ignore the many other ways in which we can evangelize—by our permanent marriages, happy families, and well-raised children; by our peace and joy even in adversity; by our willingness to pray; by showing genuine concern for others; by gently redirecting thoughts and actions or quietly disappearing when group situations become occasions of sin; these and many more. But there is a certain courage involved in speaking of Christ when we do not know if the name of Christ will be well-received, or in taking a stand in witness to what we have learned from Him.
I suppose there are some who relish the fight, who enjoy going on the attack. They may not lack courage, but they may lack good sense. Evangelization is not synonymous with being obstreperous. We must learn also to sense when a word will be opportune, and to seek opportunities to bring light rather than heat. The Gospel of Christ is truly a gospel of love.
But it is love, in the end, which makes us vulnerable, and so renewed courage really will be at the heart of the new evangelization. Without the personal courage of each one of us, the new evangelization cannot reach its potential. Insofar as any one of us is cowardly, the new evangelization will stutter and stall. “Be of good cheer,” says Jesus Christ. “I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). And what was it the angel said to the shepherds at the beginning? “Be not afraid! For behold, I bring you good news” (Lk 2:10). Of all that can be said about the new evangelization, I believe this is the most important point.
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