I had the privilege of sitting down with His Excellency Joseph F. Naumann, D.D., Archbishop of Kansas City on November 10, 2008, at the Fall General Assembly of the USCCB in Baltimore. In this interview, the Archbishop shared some candid thoughts on the “New Evangelization,” the Catholic vote, and how each might be positively impacted through our faith formation efforts going forward.
LV: Thank you for meeting with me, Excellency. I’ll try not to cut into your lunchtime too much.
+JN: That’s OK. We can certainly afford it! [Laughter]
LV: How would you define the “New Evangelization,” and can you tell our readers what exactly makes it new ?
+JN: What makes the New Evangelization new is the cultural context in which we are trying present the truths of the gospel and the age old truths of our Catholic faith. It’s also new because we are presenting our faith to the world using new technologies that weren’t necessarily available until recently.
As I understand it, Pope John Paul II’s call for the New Evangelization was really a call to re-evangelize the culture, in some cases traditionally Christian cultures, and in many cases to restore the principals and values of the Gospel in every segment of society; public policy, the sciences, the arts, etc., and to use all of the various tools that are available to us to accomplish that task.
LV: One might notice that the USCCB Committee charged with oversight of Evangelization activities bears the title “Evangelization and Catechesis,” as do similar offices that exist on the diocesan and parish levels. Why is evangelization always necessarily coupled with catechesis ?
+JN: Evangelization and catechesis are two components of the same basic initiative, which is to proclaim the Gospel, but to different constituencies. Catechesis is aimed at faithfully handing on the deposit of faith to a new generation, and to form Catholics in a way that will equip them to be strong in their convictions even in a culture that often challenges their values and beliefs. I think that Catholic lay men and women need to be steeped in their understanding of the faith more so now than at any other time.
Evangelization, on the other hand, is the Church’s essential mission — which is not just to maintain the Church or to preserve the local community, but to engage in an outward thrust; taking the gospel to those who have not yet heard it, or perhaps to those who have heard it yet have lost it and to reconnect them.
In our own Archdiocese, evangelization is one of our major pastoral priorities. I find that many of our parishes can become so consumed with taking care of the Church as it is currently constituted, that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we aren’t really doing what Jesus commissioned us to do if we’re not actively seeking to bring the Gospel to others. We’re trying in our own small way to elevate that awareness at every level of the Archdiocese. I’m very hopeful that will help us to be more faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us.
LV: So you would say that catechesis is the fuel for evangelization? In other words, it can’t be an end unto itself; but rather it should move us to engage in that “outward thrust” as you call it?
+JN: Exactly, and if we’re not well-catechized we’re not going to have much to share when we go out to share the faith, or we’re going to be confused in what we’re saying and doing. So having people who are well-formed in knowing their faith is essential for them to embrace the missionary component of the Gospel.
LV: When we read in the USCCB document, “Our Hearts were Burning Within Us” that the success of evangelization efforts requires “adult believers who are eager and articulate in sharing a faith they understand, embrace, and live,” (28) would we be correct to hear the bishops saying that understanding is primary in order to embrace and then to live our faith?
+JN: I think that’s absolutely correct. There has to be a knowledge base first for those other important things to take place. Without understanding the faith, one won’t be able to live it much less share it.
LV: You knew we couldn’t avoid the election topic entirely.
LV: From comments made by Catholic politicians in the recent campaign season, to polling data suggesting that 54% of the Catholic vote went to what is arguably the most radically pro-abortion presidential candidate we’ve ever seen, it appears that the state of catechesis in the US is “challenged” for lack of a better word. What is your assessment of the state of catechesis here in the US, and how does it factor in to this situation?
+JN: A good deal of my priesthood has been devoted to the pro-life apostolate, so I was very saddened in many ways by the election results. It’s a wake up call that we need to better form and better educate our people.
When you dig into the statistics and look at Catholics who regularly attend Mass, their pattern of voting was significantly different than those who may identify themselves as Catholic but are not faithful in their practice of the faith. This tells me that we need to reach out to those Catholics who are not fully living the faith and find ways to better form them.
When you look at the marriage amendment in California — a state that was considered noncompetitive in the presidential election — the majority of people voted for the traditional understanding of marriage. That tells me there are a lot of other currents going on here. In some ways I think we can over-interpret the election results to say that people just don’t believe. They may believe, but what they may not understand is the priority of the moral issues.
As bishops, we have a responsibility to be the primary teachers of the faith. There are some wonderful Catholic politicians, but others have been misleading people in terms of what it means to be Catholic. In this last election there were actually some who came out publicly to assume the role of teaching the faith and interpreting the Tradition. I think that issued a challenge to us as bishops, and that’s why we saw so many bishops responding.
We can’t have Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden acting as the teachers of what it means to be Catholic. I think all of us as bishops have to take our role seriously; how we have a responsibility — not in a punitive way — to correct the misinterpretations that are being offered, sometimes very overtly in what people say, but oftentimes in less overt but very powerful ways in how they’re living inconsistently with their faith.
LV: What do you see as the greatest challenges faced on the local levels — diocesan and parish — as it applies to catechesis?
+JN: Catechizing our people well on the meaning of the sacramental life will strengthen them and empower them. A huge issue is the understanding of the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Jesus, and the centrality of the Mass. The whole laxity that has grown up in some quarters about people coming to Mass and seeing what we call “the Sunday obligation” as just an obligation when it is actually an obligation of love and a privilege if we really understand it. So I think we need a whole renewal of catechesis in that area.
A renewed catechesis of Confession needs to happen as well. I see some hopeful signs along those lines, particularly among young adults. We see it in campus ministry in some colleges; young adults seem to be grasping the importance of the sacrament of Reconciliation for their ongoing conversion.
I also think that when it comes to many of the issues where we’re at odds with the prevailing culture — in terms of our understanding of the meaning of marriage, the sanctity of human life, the meaning of human sexuality -– we have to ramp up our efforts to catechize our people, not just to help them know our teachings, but to see the reason, the meaning, and the beauty of our teachings.