Father Robert Barron

What are the key characteristics of new evangelists?

Sunday, June 3, 2012


and Culture

Recently it was announced that I have been named the new rector/president of Mundelein Seminary, my alma mater and one of the largest seminaries in the United States. I believe that one reason Cardinal George chose me for this position is that I’ve been working the past several years in the evangelization of the culture.

The last two popes have emphasized that seminaries should take the new evangelization as their raison d’etre and organizing principle; therefore, I think that Cardinal George wants me to bring what I’ve learned in my work at Word on Fire to my new task.

What would I want to communicate to seminarians concerning this great theme? First, new evangelists have to be people of fervor, enthusiasm and conviction. When he mentioned the new evangelization for the first time, in a speech in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince in 1983, John Paul II said that one of the principle marks of the method would be “new ardor.”

Long ago, in his still remarkably helpful treatise on rhetoric, Aristotle commented that audiences really listen only to “an excited speaker,” by which he meant someone utterly convicted of the importance of what he is communicating. What makes advertisers, sportscasters, politicians or evangelists effective is a patent enthusiasm for their topic.

I was trained as an academic, and I’ve done quite a bit of formal academic writing. I recognize that in the purely intellectual arena, cool detachment and a certain willingness to suspend judgment and entertain all points of view are virtues. But these are not virtues in the arena of truly persuasive speech. If we are wracked with doubts and unconvinced of our subject matter, people just won’t listen.

Something that I sense on every page of the New Testament — in the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, James and Peter, the Revelation of John — is a palpable excitement. These men wanted to take the world by the lapels and tell it about the resurrection of Jesus. New evangelists have to have a similar fervor and energy.

Secondly, I would tell my charges at Mundelein Seminary to be deeply rooted in the Bible and the great theological tradition. There are some evangelists — both Catholic and Protestant — who are filled with energy and conviction but just don’t have that much to say.

I saw one of the most popular televangelists in the world today being interviewed on the Larry King show some years ago. When a caller asked about the problem of evil — one of the most serious and central issues in theology, hugely important for the biblical authors and massively analyzed by the great figures, such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinis and John Henry Newman — the evangelist limply responded that he just wasn’t much of a theologian. I thought that his license should have been revoked.

Can you imagine a surgeon responding to a pointed question from a suffering patient with, “You know, I’m just not real good at anatomy”?! And what’s the difference between a doctor and a priest? Well, one is dealing with matters of life and death, while the other is concerned with the health of the body.

New evangelists owe it to their people to be thoroughly versed in the Bible, both Old Testament and New, in the councils of the church, in the writings of the pivotal theologians and spiritual masters, and in the poets, artists and architects who have expressed the Catholic spirit in words, paints, stone and glass.

But the effective evangelist has to know more than the theological tradition; he has to know the culture he is attempting to address. If I might quote the great Aristotle again: “Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the recipient.”

This implies that every communicator has to know the prejudices, expectations, mood and attitude of the one to whom he wishes to communicate. One who speaks the fullness of Christian truth but does so in the void might be correct, but he won’t be an evangelist.

This is why the new evangelist has to know the contemporary culture, both high and low. He should be conversant with the philosophers and opinion-makers who shape attitudes in the salons of San Francisco and the drawing rooms of the Upper East Side and he should know which movies, songs, television shows and books average people are attending to.

More to it, he should look out at the culture through biblical eyes, which is to say, he should be especially attentive to the patterns and events in the world that correspond to patterns and events in the scriptural revelation. That way, he will discover what the church fathers called the logoi spermatikoi, the seeds of the Word, that are thick on the ground in any culture oriented to the good, the true and the beautiful. And looking through those same biblical eyes, he will also become cognizant of all of those elements in a culture that are fallen and that need to be called to conversion.

Karl Barth, the greatest Protestant theologian of the last century, proposed an image for prospective preachers that is just as valid for prospective evangelists: they should carry the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Finally, new evangelists should be thoroughly conversant with the new media, with YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, with podcasting, and with the myriad other means of communication available through the Internet. These media give the Catholic evangelist the opportunity to get his message out 24/7, all over the world, and at relatively little cost. We have to face the fact that the vast majority of eyes today are not glued to books or to newspapers, but to the computer screen.

Many years ago, a very successful writer said to me, “The first rule of the writer is to read.” Good advice, and to follow it today, we have to get the message into the world where the most “readers” are found.

I hope I can communicate to my seminarians that this is an especially exciting time for the evangelist, in many ways as exciting as the middle years of the first century; when the message about Jesus was brand new, or as the beginning of the sixteenth century; when the printing press first emerged. Now is a kairos, a privileged moment, to declare the Lordship of Jesus Christ.