Amid the meetings, Masses, dinners and field trips that filled my days in Rome during the ad limina pilgrimage, the one consistent theme that kept grabbing my attention was the new evangelization. Clearly the central focus of Pope Benedict’s papacy, this fresh impulse to proclaim the Gospel the Vatican even has a Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.
In visiting the bishop who oversees the new evangelization, I was impressed with the new, imaginative efforts to reach the millions of people who have fallen away from their faith or have never really encountered Christ in the first place.
Just what is the new evangelization? Originating in the lexicon of Pope John Paul II, along with other exciting concepts like “solidarity,” the new evangelization speaks to the disturbing truth that millions of baptized Catholics in countries that have been fervent in the faith for centuries no longer participate in the life of the church in any meaningful way. Hollowed out by secularism, beset by relativism, plagued by a rapid decline in priests, religious and committed laity, many traditional Catholic cultures have essentially collapsed. When I was attending the Conference for New Bishops last fall, I met a bishop from the Netherlands whose diocese did not have a single seminarian. Sunday Mass attendance there hovers at around 5 percent.
Differing realities on other continents also need the new evangelization. In South America, millions of Roman Catholics are joining Pentecostal churches. In Africa, the Catholic Church is growing exponentially in an explosion of the Holy Spirit. Catholicism continues to increase in Asia, especially China and India. Compared to Europe, the Catholic Church in the United States is robust, but on any given Sunday, only 35 percent of baptized Catholics are at Mass. We cannot afford to be complacent as we view the global and the local scene.
The new evangelization is the contemporary, robust embrace of Jesus’ Great Commission given to the apostles on the day of his ascension: Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature. From Pentecost Sunday forward, it is not so much that the church has had a mission as it is that the mission has a church and that mission is to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ crucified and risen to every person in the world.
Without some personal encounter with the Lord, without a deep experience of ongoing conversion as the basis of faith, catechesis can become mere history lessons and the celebration of sacraments empty rituals. I will never forget a conversation I had with a young woman struggling with her faith who told me that Mass for her “was just a bunch of people saying a bunch of words.”
With the ardor of the Holy Spirit, Pope Benedict wants to summon the vast and varied energies of the world’s practicing Catholics to this central task of witnessing Jesus to the world. How do we do that specifically? What does it look like?
The pope would say that it starts with the integrity and holiness of our own lives. The magnetizing power of a person in love with the Lord, who perseveringly prays every day, profoundly knows the Scripture and the catechism, joyfully celebrates the sacraments and faithfully lives the moral teachings of Christ can be extraordinary. If we practice our faith with fervor and joy, other people will be drawn to us and start asking questions and discussing their problems. Personal holiness is perennially attractive.
Secondly, we need to speak of our faith, witness to our relationship with Jesus, invite others to Mass and parish events, pray for people. We do not have to knock on strangers’ doors; simply start with the people already present in your life: relatives, friends, co-workers, neighbors. Imagine if every one of us brought just one other person back to the practice of the faith.
Thirdly, our service to the poor, hungry, sick and suffering, our love for prisoners, children, the aged and women in crisis pregnancy, our efforts to build a world of mercy, justice and peace witness powerfully to the transforming grace of faith embraced and lived.
You will hear much more about the new evangelization for a long time to come. Archbishop Listecki has called for an archdiocesan summit dedicated to the new evangelization to be held this May; the World Synod of Bishops this fall in Rome is exclusively dedicated to it. Pope Benedict has proclaimed a Year of Faith, beginning this October, with the new evangelization as an integral part of it. Our Catholic faith was never meant to be a personal, private matter only whispered between God and me. Jesus tells us to proclaim the Gospel from the housetops!
How high is your ladder?