Effective evangelization: Initiation into the Church
We are beginning to grasp the proper relationship between the quest for religious unity and evangelization. The quest for religious unity and ecumenism are the logical way to break down barriers, to stimulate mutual understanding, and to forge friendships. They are therefore a kind of prolegomena to evangelization.
But the quest for religious unity can fail of this purpose by focusing too much on collaboration for worldly goals; by considering it discourteous to focus on serious differences; and by fostering a reluctance to speak as if from a larger store of truth. When these occupational hazards of the quest are combined with our contemporary diffidence about the importance of salvation—or at least about a particular way of salvation—the emphasis on religious unity can actually become an obstacle to evangelization.
In fact, I am convinced many Catholics have fallen into this trap over the past fifty years. In contrast, the great St. Augustine, who also lived and worked in an era of religious pluralism, presents us with a model of clarity. In his commentary on the First Letter of St. John, he put the whole matter into exactly the right perspective:
What is perfection in love? Loving our enemies and loving them so that they may be converted into brothers. Our love should not be a material one. Wishing someone temporal well-being is good; but, even if he does not have that, his soul should be secured…. It is uncertain whether this life is useful or useless to someone; whereas life in God is always useful. Therefore, love your enemies in such a way that they become your brothers; love them in such a way that you attract them to fellowship with yourself in the Church.
This brings us once again to the first principle of evangelization, with which I closed my last installment: “Our own incorporation into the life of the Church is the beginning of evangelization, just as the incorporation of others into the life of the Church is its end.”
Evangelization and the Church
For quite a few years now, it has been popular to emphasize the initial message of the Gospel, which is called the kerygma: “Jesus Christ, whom you crucified, has risen as He said.” This emphasis can be very salutary. It is more important, for example, than starting with the obligation to attend Mass every Sunday, or with the more abstruse points of Catholic doctrine, or even with the Ten Commandments. But if we fall into the trap of thinking this kernel is the sum total of evangelization, then we have made a grave mistake. The Gospels themselves contain much more than that, as does the Tradition of the Church.
This is another mistake which can lead us to conclude that belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is all we need to “worry about”. Our Lord’s rising is certainly the beginning, but it is not the end. This is why it is important to see evangelization as a process of incorporation into Christ’s body, the Church. It is through Christ’s presence in the Church that all the means of salvation are made present down through history. The fullness of salvation is available only in and through the Church. Incorporation into the life of the Church is the highest goal we can reach in this life.
It should go without saying that the proper attitude of an evangelist is not the attitude of a superior instructing an inferior. As I have already indicated, Catholics must recognize that they are sons and daughters of the Father through an unmerited adoption as brothers and sisters of Christ. The attitude of the evangelist, therefore, is rooted in the confidence that he has received the gift of an entirely new life, indeed an abundance of astonishing gifts that he wants nothing more than to share with others. Note that I do not want to eliminate the idea of “salvation” or of being “saved”; after all, Our Lord Himself used these terms. But it is critical that we understand this salvation as the incomparable opportunity to come into an ever-closer union with God.
This approach immediately eliminates two evil tendencies: First, the tendency to adopt a superior, smug, “saved” attitude which diminishes others; second, the tendency to be satisfied, for ourselves and for others, with a kind of minimalist concept of salvation which does not involve an unfathomable personal transformation. I mean the idea of escaping damnation, as if this is all that matters.
What nonsense! Evangelization is an invitation to a love affair, to a joyful union which begins immediately and is perfected in the eternal embrace of God. I wrote at length about this over five years ago, and I recommend that readers review this essential point in “The Catholic Side of Salvation”. By some miracle of chronology, it could be taken to be a suitable conclusion to this series.
Put out into the deep
It is only the Church which encompasses within herself all the goods God has made available for our participation in His life and love. To miss the opportunities presented by any of these gifts is an immeasurable loss. It is precisely our progressive immersion into the life of the Church which enables us to receive, experience and respond most perfectly to the entire Gospel, the full salvific plan of God. To fail to desire this above all things is an unanswerable indictment of our own spirituality; to fail to invite others to enjoy this fullness is an unanswerable indictment of our selfishness.
The Gospel is not fully encompassed by the kerygma, or by the Ten Commandments, or by reading the Bible, or by Baptism, or even by any sort of community life which lacks the perfection of the Church, which is at once the Body and the Bride of Christ. Each soul is impoverished by the absence of any of the Church’s salvific goods: her abundant Treasury of Grace; her infallible apostolic teaching; her custody of Sacred Scripture; her sacred priesthood; her administration of every sacrament; her incomparable Fathers and Doctors and Saints; her superlative spiritual direction; her vivifying spiritual jurisdiction; and her living Tradition, which sheds so much light on everything our Father has prepared for those who love Him.
All of these and more are the magnificent gifts for union with God that, despite our lack of merit, have been given to us through our adoption in Christ. I do know that some are joined to Christ and the Church (for to be joined to one is to be joined to the other) who do not recognize what this means. But it is incomparably better still to be aware of that joining—and so to be cognizant of everything that Jesus Christ has made available for our union with Him.
When Our Lord commanded His disciples to “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4), He was really inviting them to experience the depths of His own love in the life of the Church—the Church which is the great sacrament of His saving presence through all of time and space. But notice that He did not stop there. His very next instruction was the order to invite others, the command to evangelize. “Put out into the deep,” He said, ”and let down your nets for a catch.”
Previous in series: The essential posture of evangelization: We are all adopted.
Next in series: Deal breakers in the quest for religious unity and evangelization
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