There was a tremendous amount of energy on Saturday morning, May 5, at the Cousins Center. Priests, deacons, archdiocesan staff and representatives from our parishes gathered to discuss the important topic of “evangelization.”
We began with Mass in Mater Christi Chapel. We needed to fuel the day with the source and the summit of our strength as a church – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I was encouraged by the number of participants and the large number of priests present, given the fact that this was a Saturday when weddings, religious education and the unplanned funeral usually occupied the mornings.
We usually don’t consider ourselves evangelizers, as the term is often reserved for our evangelical brothers and sisters who willingly confront others about their faith. In our Catholic tradition, most of us think that evangelization is the task of priests and religious. But in today’s world we must awaken ourselves to the understanding that bringing people to Christ and his church is the mission of all baptized.
After Mass, members of the evangelization summit made their way to the auditorium where Bishop Donald J. Hying and I gave presentations on evangelization. I spoke about the call to evangelize being at the heart of the church’s mission.
Every pope from Vatican II forward called for the faithful to exercise their responsibility to proclaim Christ and the Gospel to our world. It’s a startling fact that since Vatican II the number of people who do not know Christ and his church has more than doubled. There is an urgency to the “New Evangelization.”
Most of us view evangelization as missionary activity, introducing Jesus to those who have never heard of the Lord. Bishop Hying offered statistics that were shocking, demonstrating the lack of participation in our country and the evaporation of Christianity in Europe. He also presented some personal, practical examples of the need for evangelization and how many individuals, even in our own families, no longer practice the faith.
In his work “Novo Millennio Ineunte” (40), addressing the third millennium, John Paul II stated: “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a Christian society, which amid all the frailties which have always marked human life measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone.”
There are those, even within our own society, who refer to themselves as Catholics, but who are no longer practicing the faith. We can readily see the consequences in our society, which at times no longer embraces a Judeo-Christian ethic. The marks of secularism (reliance on ourselves only and not on God) and relativism (there are no moral absolutes) have separated many people from their religious roots. I am amazed at just how far we have drifted from the influence of our Catholic faith in our everyday life. The need for evangelization is obvious. We must be aware of the movement of the Spirit that urges us to take action.
After the presentations, the participants moved to the cafeteria where small group discussions allowed for sharing. There is a beauty to the collective wisdom of the faithful to solicit the thoughts of many who have already been engaging the topic in the parish or among staff members. It was interesting that as the sharing continued, a “fire” grew in the bellies of the members to take action. Our energies needed to be supported and focused in order to maximize our efforts.
The decision to have an evangelization summit was the culmination of discussions that took place by the district representatives at the Archdiocesan Parish Council meetings over the last two years. At the same time, Pope Benedict announced a Year of Faith that highlights the need to spread the faith, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In the discussions that followed, participants indicated that many of our parishes were already aware of the need to reach out to our brothers and sisters. Many representatives revealed that some of our local parish communities had already initiated some creative evangelization programs.
These various sources were all indicating the necessity of evangelization and the summit confirmed the intense interest in this area with the need to do more as a church. The participants raised many areas where evangelization needed attention: the Hispanic community, our teenagers and young adults, the need to keep people connected to the faith beyond the reception of the sacraments, our RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation), increased emphasis on Catechesis.
John Paul the II stated, “Faith is strengthened when it is given to others.” It is obvious that our work begins by raising the consciousness of evangelizing in our own lives, at our work places, in our communities — wearing our religion on our sleeves, which helps deepen our faith life.
To avoid the concern that all of this enthusiasm surrounding evangelization would just be another meeting about an issue that would go nowhere, we have some follow-up initiatives. Randy Nohl and the John Paul II Center will be holding six regional evangelization training sessions throughout the archdiocese on Saturdays, Oct. 27 and Nov. 10, to assist parishes in dealing with the needs expressed at the summit. The archdiocesan staff will compile the comments of participants at the summit and offer resources on the website of successful evangelization efforts, helping parishes to connect with one another.
Lastly, the archdiocese will be establishing an Evangelization Office as part of the John Paul II Center; the director, as reported in the Catholic Herald last week, will be Richard Harter. He will assist parishes and staff in ongoing efforts as we move forward in creating more evangelization opportunities, reaching out to our Catholic population in the exciting possibilities of sharing our faith.
When I was installed as archbishop I offered three areas of priorities: Catholic identity, evangelization and stewardship. I am so thankful that we are moving forward in fulfilling our mission, sharing our stories of faith and introducing our brothers and sisters to Jesus.