Since the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Church around the world has spent five decades enduring vast changes, from liturgical reform to liturgical renewal, declining priestly and religious vocations, major political and social fluctuations, and demographic shifts from the Global North to the Global South and from the American North to the American South. Out of this tumult Bl. John Paul II and Benedict XVI have proposed that the Church renew her hope by engaging in a “New Evangelization”.
The hope offered by the New Evangelization is not mere optimism, but authentic hope. In his wonderful essay on hope, “The Yes of Jesus Christ,” Joseph Ratzinger defines optimism as naïve, shallow, and easily subverted by dominant trends and ideologies. Hope, on the other hand, understands the trials and tribulations of a given period. Hope allows us to situate ourselves in the broader scheme of history. When we hope in Jesus Christ, we know where we are, we know where we came from, and we know where are going. This confidence, particularly in the belief that Jesus Christ will have the final word at the end of our pilgrimage, is the reason why the Church has the audacity to call for a New Evangelization.
So, what is this New Evangelization that John Paul II proposed and Benedict XVI has asked the Church to reflect on and implement? What began as a call for missionary activity outside the Church has matured into a call for missionary activity within the Church and within a formerly Christian culture.
This has led to the notion of a re-proposal of the Christian message, which was the thrust of John Paul’s challenge to the South American bishops in 1983. It remains true to this day. “The commemoration of this half millennium of evangelization will have full significance if, as bishops, with your priests and faithful, you accept it as your commitment; a commitment not of re-evangelization, but rather of a new evangelization; new in its ardour, methods and expression.” This re-proposal of the Gospel must fundamentally reawaken in the baptized the true nature of the sacramental character of their initiation into the Body of Christ.
As Pope Benedict has said, “The rediscovery of the value of one’s baptism is the basis of the missionary commitment of every Christian, because we see in the Gospel that he who lets himself be fascinated by Christ cannot do without witnessing the joy of following in his footsteps.” It is this fundamental fascination with Jesus Christ that the New Evangelization aims to provoke in the fallen-away Catholic, the non-Catholic, and even the practicing Catholic.
What is new about the New Evangelization is that it is not directed toward the non-believer alone but is at the same time an all-encompassing renewal of the life in Christ for all Christians. The Lineamenta, a document used to prepare Bishops for the upcoming Synod on the New Evangelization in October 2012, reminds us that “the Church does not give up or retreat into herself; instead, she undertakes a project to revitalize herself. She makes the Person of Jesus Christ and a personal encounter with him central to her thinking, knowing that he will give his Spirit and provide the force to announce and proclaim the Gospel in new ways which can speak to today’s cultures.”
At its heart the New Evangelization calls us to share the fundamental decision of the Christian life. Our efforts as evangelizers should seek to lead us more deeply into the encounter with Jesus Christ and the stunning ways in which this encounter changes our lives. Most importantly (and this is one of the biggest challenges of the New Evangelization) we must ensure that the Church witnesses to the encounter with Christ instead of standing as an obstacle to it.
This has been a long-standing concern of Pope Benedict. In 2004, he warned, “Many people perceive Christianity as something institutional — rather than as an encounter with Christ — which explains why they don’t see it as a source of joy.” This should serve as constant reminder to us that we cannot forget the reason for the Church, which is to reveal the joy of life in Christ.
The New Evangelization is nothing less than a new beginning. What makes it new is that this is a new time, a new place, new challenges, and new hope. The New Evangelization is laden with the potential to bring the truth of Jesus Christ to a world in constant need of the healing renewal that transformed the world with the birth of a baby in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. The Church—whether as a minority presence (as in the West) or as a rising influence in Africa and other parts of the Global South—is uniquely equipped to address the wounds of our world.
In addition to bringing the healing of Christ through the sacraments, the Church’s 2000 year history brings with it the scars and lessons of basic human problems. The Church can bring its older institutions, like monasticism, and its newer movements and ministries to bear on the challenges we face. In this day and age we are particularly well-equipped with a host of tools for evangelization.
These tools include The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which will play a vital role in the upcoming “Year of Faith”. Established events like World Youth Day and new events like The Courtyard of the Gentiles present fresh opportunities to witness to the joy of the Catholic faith. Finally, the ongoing witness of the saints continues to bring the Catholic faith alive. With these tools in hand, the New Evangelization provides the Church with the opportunity to once again “launch out into the deep” (Luke 5:4).