Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

Evangelization: What is it? What is it not?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

On Jan. 29, North Shore Congregation Israel welcomed me to share some thoughts about the current mission of the Catholic Church, and its possible impact on Jewish-Catholic relations. (See story and photos.) I was pleased to do so, as we have a long history in the Archdiocese of Chicago of strong bonds with our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Given what we are doing with Renew My Church in the archdiocese, I thought it would be helpful to explore the notion of evangelization, what it is and what it is not. 

The word “evangelization” comes from the Greek word “evangelion,” which means gospel, or good news. For us Christians, evangelization is the process by which to share the good news of Jesus. But that involves more than message or a teaching. It is about introducing someone to a new way of living through an encounter with the person of Jesus. 

In many ways, Jewish believers have a similar approach to the impact their faith has on them. It is not just about a creed or set of beliefs, but a way of life. For example, there is a liturgical practice in Jewish worship that occurs after the reading from the Torah. The scroll is paced back in the ark during the synagogue service. Then the clergy and people sing the verse, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us the Torah of truth, planting everlasting life in our midst. Blessed are you, Lord, Giver of the Torah.” The image of planting the Torah in our midst recalls God planting the tree of life in the Garden.  

Similarly, at the end of the readings in the Christian liturgy, the deacon or priest proclaims, “The Gospel of the Lord” and kisses the Book of the Gospels, with the people responding, “Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ.” 

In both cases, the liturgical practice draws attention to how the sacred book, the Torah or the Gospel, refers to the totality of the entire life it animates. Just as their community aspires to “a life centered in the Torah” in the wide sense, so too we Christians aspire to a life centered in the Gospel.

The word “evangelization” should be understood through this analogy. Indeed, in the New Testament, Jesus is often presented as a rabbinic teacher, whom the disciples encounter as they gather around him. This encounter with Jesus as the teacher calls the disciple into a new way of living that is characterized by three things. First, disciples leave their previous life behind and follow him. Second, they continue to learn from him in both word and example. Finally, and most importantly, as a community around Jesus, they share his life, this good news, this Gospel, with others by witnessing to all that this Gospel-centered life offers them.  

Having said that, it is important to make clear what evangelization does not mean, what Catholics exclude from it. We have to admit that other Christian communities use the same word, but not always in the same way we Catholics do. In fact, the nuance Catholics give to this word benefits from the growth we have experienced through interreligious dialogue and the commitments we have made in the Second Vatican Council documents cited above.

For instance, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made clear for many years, evangelization is not about proselytism.

Evangelization, as I have already defined it, is about living a Gospel-centered life, as disciples continually encountering Jesus and formed into a community that inspires witness through service to others. In freedom and with the help of God’s grace, a Gospel-centered life will attract some people to the Catholic Church. At the same time, our understanding of evangelization must always include a deep reverence for the religious freedom of every human person, which is a natural right, indeed it is a God-given right. 

Distinct from this, and decisively rejected by the Second Vatican Council, is proselytism. By proselytism, we mean any outreach that involves any form of coercion or deception. As Pope Benedict XVI clearly stated in his address over a decade ago to the Bishops in Central and South America, the church considers herself “missionary only insofar as she is a disciple, capable of being attracted constantly and with renewed wonder by the God who has loved us and who loves us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). The church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction’: just as Christ ‘draws all to himself’ by the power of his love.” 

Pope Francis himself, just a year ago, stated in the strongest terms that proselytism is a sin. Sadly, mission efforts by Catholics and some other Christian communities have not always avoided these sins. We have to admit frankly that Catholics have not been free from such attitudes or actions. 

In 2000, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the errors born of missionary zeal and a false sense of service to the truth. He said: “Let us ask pardon ... for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions. ... We humbly ask forgiveness for the part which each of us has had in these evils by our own actions, thus helping to disfigure the face of the church.” We must apologize to the Jewish community for the times when Catholics have engaged in such behavior. Chicagoland Catholics have to remain vigilant in this regard, for abandoning our commitments in this area would mean abandoning who we are. 

At the heart of Catholic-Jewish relations is mutual understanding, trust and respect. Respect is born of relationships in which trust can develop.

Proudly we can say that our two communities in Chicagoland have been working at building relationships and trust for the past 50 years, taking our inspiration from the Second Vatican Council. In fact, I am pleased to say that over my 20 years as a bishop, whenever Jewish or other leaders have expressed concern about a particular contemporary church statement or action, their first question is: Is it consistent with the teaching of Vatican II? There is something wonderful about a relationship where such questions are possible and where there is a common point of reference for them to be discussed. 


  • interreligious dialogue
  • evangelization