John Paul II devoted the last 20 years of his pontificate calling for a “new evangelization,” a call now taken up by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Yet I sometimes wonder how many people really understand what this “new evangelization” is all about.
The glossary to the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines “evangelization” as “the proclamation of Christ and His Gospel by word and the testimony of life, in fulfillment of Christ's demand.” In short, it involves putting people in touch with their Savior. While many Catholics might not personally consider themselves “evangelists,” I think most people would consider evangelization, at least in principle, a worthwhile and indeed perennial agenda for the Church.
However, the “new” part of the new evangelization may cause some initial consternation. “New” implies novelty or innovation, and perhaps implicitly denigrates the “old.” After all the changes in the Church in recent decades some licit and desirable, others illicit and harmful there's an understandable skepticism when it comes to something new.
Further, a new evangelization could suggest a new Gospel, yet we know that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8). The Gospel has been preserved intact through a sacred tradition dating back to the Apostles themselves, the first recipients of Christ's mandate to evangelize the world. So, it's fair to ask, what's so new about evangelization?
When Pope John Paul II talked about a new evangelization, he was referring to a proclamation of the Gospel which is always new and always the bearer of new things, an evangelization which must be “new in its ardor, methods, and expression.”
Surely the “methods” and “expressions” of evangelization must correspond to the situation of today's men and women. That's why effective, evangelistic use of the media is so important. We truly must become all things to all men, adapting the packaging as needed without compromising on the truth.
But what strikes me most about the “new evangelization” is the call for a “new ardor.” The pope is calling for a new intensity, a new zeal, a new loyalty to Christ. The root of the word ardor means “to burn.” This calls to mind the ardor of the disciples who encountered our Lord on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Lk 24:32).
In talking about the new evangelization, Pope John Paul II was referring to an outreach to the “in-betweeners.” The Church provides pastoral care to those who are practicing Catholics and also is committed to missionary activity bringing the Gospel to people or groups who do not yet believe in Christ. However, the pope recognized a growing but not clearly defined group in the middle: people with Christian roots where a living sense of the faith has been lost and who live lives far removed from Christ and His Gospel. This is the group that needs a “new evangelization” or a “re-evangelization.”
The United States clearly fits this description. A couple years ago, a poll indicated that the second largest religious “denomination” or category in this country is fallen-away Catholics. There are now approximately 30 million people in that category and countless others who are slouching in the same direction.
The task is great, and the ecclesial terrain is always shifting. Ironically, noted converts such as Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, and Marcus Grodi are raising the next generation of cradle Catholics, while many of us whose families have been Catholic for several generations now see our relatives as mission territory.
In the face of such a challenging landscape, a “new ardor” seems most appropriate and needed. Yet it's not something we can produce at the snap of our fingers. It's not like Emeril who, with the addition of a few spices, can take his gourmet dish “up a notch.”
The new evangelization must not degenerate into mere activism, into putting the emphasis on doing good things instead of being good (i.e., allowing Christ to transform us). The new evangelization involves our cooperation, but it is the work of God, not man. Therefore, the pope's “program” for the new evangelization is not “new.” Rather, Pope John Paul summoned us to direct our gaze upon the face of Christ, the one Savior of the world. There are plenty of things for us Marthas to do and these things must be done but the pope reminded us that Mary chose the better part in sitting at our Lord's feet. In other words, he emphasized the primacy of personal renewal as the necessary prerequisite to any worthwhile evangelization activity.
The new evangelization can't be understood apart from the “universal call to holiness,” which simply means that our first order of business is to recommit ourselves wholly and unreservedly to Jesus Christ and His Church. After all, first things first.
All the recent initiatives from the Holy See must be seen in this light. In this Year of the Eucharist, for example, we are now called to focus on the Eucharistic dimension of the new evangelization. The Church draws her life from the Eucharist, through which our Lord feeds and enlightens the faithful. Without the Eucharist, there is no Church, and without the Church, we're starving and in darkness. Through the Eucharist, the Lord shines the light of His holy face upon us (cf. Ps 80:19).
More than ever, young people today look for role models who “walk the talk.” Pope John Paul II emphasized that people today won't listen to teachers unless they are first and foremost witnesses. And yet at the same time, our society has a perverse desire to see good people fall from grace. Take the moral high ground, and you become a target.
The new evangelization involves the proclamation of morality. However, such a “proclamation” is authentic and effective only to the extent it is reflected in changed lives. Our Lord's proclamation of the kingdom always entailed turning away from sin and living as faithful sons and daughters of God.
Christians are not perfect, nor are we hypocrites. We recognize and strive to live lives worthy of our calling. God's grace doesn't lower the bar, but helps us to go higher. And above all, living in the light leads us to draw upon our Lord's mercy and be ambassadors of His mercy to our contemporaries.
With the Church, let us recall our Lord's words to “put out into the deep” (Lk 5:4), let us “start afresh in Christ” and put all our confidence and hope in Him. Then maybe we'll be ready to go “fishing” with Pope Benedict!
Leon J. Suprenant, Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith (CUF) and Emmaus Road Publishing and the editor-in-chief of Lay Witness magazine, all based in Steubenville, Ohio. He is a contributor to Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass and an adviser to CE’s Catholic Scripture Study. His email address is email@example.com.
Join Catholics United for the Faith and enjoy the many benefits of membership.