By Dr. Michael Downey
My childhood was spent in a tightly enclosed Irish-Catholic inner city neighborhood in Philadelphia. We had very little contact with people of other ethnicities, races, cultures, languages or religions. In my hearing, the words “evangelical,” “evangelize,” “evangelization” came from the lips of Protestants, not Catholics. We were taught that Catholics “had” sacraments, Tradition, priests and nuns, the Truth and, of course, the Pope. Protestants (who were our “separated brethren” to be prayed for and pitied) only had the Bible. They knocked on doors and stood on street corners spreading the Word of God, that is to say “evangelize” anyone who might listen. Only later did I learn that others who grew up in predominantly Catholic cultures often got the same impression.
Central to The Year of Faith scheduled to begin in October is the Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. This is a gathering of Catholic bishops from different parts of the world who will discuss at great length—of all things—not just evangelization, but a New Evangelization.
While many of us still think of evangelization as someone else’s business, beginning with Pope Paul VI there has been a renewed awareness of the centrality of evangelization to Catholic faith and practice.
Every baptized Catholic is called to participate in the mission of Christ and the Spirit, the mission of the Church, by proclaiming in word and deed the message at the heart of Jesus’ life and ministry: the Reign of God among us here and now, at this time and in this place. The whole life of the Church in all its dimensions is to serve this mission: announcing in what we say and do the Good News, the year of God’s favor, the transformation of the world and the coming of the Reign of God, the reign of truth, holiness, justice, love and peace.
Central to this mission is evangelization. There are three levels of evangelization. First, evangelization means allowing one’s own heart to be seized and saturated by the Gospel, responding to the call to lifelong conversion to Christ by the gift of the Spirit. Second, evangelization requires reaching out to others to proclaim in word and deed the Reign of God. Third, evangelization demands that the values of the Reign of God – a reign of truth, holiness, justice, love and peace – permeate each and every culture, transforming every sphere of life.
Because we are called to holiness of life through the grace of our baptism, we have a responsibility to proclaim to others the experience of Christ in our lives – in our places of work, in our neighborhoods, as well as in the public square. We should be able to convey a personal knowledge of God’s love and salvation in the language of the Scriptures, by way of the experience of the Sacraments, and through an appreciation of the tradition of the Church. Further, today there must be a NEW EVANGELIZATION, focused on evangelizing or re-evangelizing under-catechized, inactive, and alienated Catholics, as well as on re-animating those who have already discovered the presence of Christ in their lives. The “new evangelization” also means that each one of us who already has faith in Jesus Christ allows Christ to touch the unconverted corners of our lives.
What does this mean for us quite practically, as a Local Church? First, we would do well to recognize that evangelization is required of us by virtue of our baptism. It is not the duty of persons of other Christian traditions, or of a rare few in the Church —such as missionaries in other lands once referred to as “foreign missions.” Second, and more important, there is a difference between evangelization and the NEW EVANGELIATION. John Paul II was clear about this difference: The NEW EVANGELIZATION is “new in its ardor, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression” (John Paul II to Bishops of Latin America, Haiti, 1983).
Quite simply, there is new urgency because cultural change has been so drastic in its impact on our understanding and expression of faith. There needs to be a new approach because we can no longer rely on an inheritance of a sacramentally-focused faith between one generation and another. And we need new and creative ways of communication and of community living because that is where faith comes alive and is lived anew each day. In brief, the way we have done it until now will no longer do.
Dr. Michael Downey is Diocesan Theologian and Director of the Office of Continuing Formation of Priests.
PUBLISHED IN THE SEPTEMBER 2012 INLAND CATHOLIC BYTE