Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

What’s so new about evangelization?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

What’s so new about evangelization? When I came back to Chicago as archbishop in the spring of 1997, the archdiocese had a pastoral plan that placed evangelization as the first priority or goal of this local church. This stated goal for Chicago echoed what the Second Vatican Council had said for the universal church and restated, in a contemporary way, what the Gospel itself proclaims: The mission of the church everywhere and in every place is to introduce the world to its savior, until Christ returns in glory. Evangelization is the basic purpose of all the ministries, all the organizations, all the institutions that call themselves Catholic. It is what motivates every aspect of the church’s life and is the criterion by which all is evaluated: Do people know and love Jesus Christ because of what we are doing?

Now Pope Benedict XVI has created a new committee in Rome and has directed it to guide the church in the “new evangelization.” What’s new? For many centuries, the church looked at the world and divided it into “pastoral lands” and “mission lands.” Pastoral lands were places where the Gospel had been preached for many centuries and the church was established and able to support her own life and ministries. Mission lands were places where most people had not yet been introduced to Christ, the church was fragile and needed a lot of outside help to sustain her ministries and accomplish her mission. The United States was listed as a mission land until 1907, when the church here passed over to pastoral status. On Mission Sunday and on many other occasions, Catholics in pastoral lands are asked to help support the church in mission lands; and many missionaries have left their homes in pastoral lands to learn new languages and live in different cultures for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

What’s “new” now is the recognition that the division between pastoral lands and mission lands is too neat. It doesn’t work that way, because there are pastoral lands where not just individuals but entire peoples who were once followers of Jesus Christ in his body, the church, have rejected the faith. They live as if God did not exist. Their way of life and of thought is “secularized,” in the sense that faith plays no part in it. They have been, it seems, inoculated against conversion.

The “new evangelization” directs the church’s efforts and resources towards preaching the Gospel and calling to conversion those who have heard the Gospel, lived it in cultures that were open to Christianity for centuries and have now rejected both Gospel and church. This is a harder task than preaching to those who have not yet heard who Christ is and are therefore more open to the call to change, to a new life with someone who liberates them from slavery to sin. For secularized people, it is not Jesus Christ who saves but their own resources and activities, our scientific knowledge, our sense of human progress. Self-sufficiency, of course, is the sin against the Holy Sprit, for the self-righteous have no need of a savior.

Pope John Paul II noted this phenomenon of entire cultures abandoning the faith and called for a new evangelization in 1992. He wanted this hemisphere to celebrate the 500th anniversary of its first being introduced to Jesus Christ by planning new ways to reintroduce the Lord to his people. Pope Benedict XVI, in setting up the Roman committee for the New Evangelization, has written of an “estrangement from the faith, which has manifested itself progressively in societies and cultures that for centuries seemed permeated by the Gospel.”

What is at stake is not just individual salvation, for, while the existence of hell is certain and it is sure that many deserve to spend eternity with the Father of Lies they have served here, we also pray for the living and the dead and we rightly trust in God’s love and providence for all those Christ died to save. What is at issue in the new evangelization is the very experience of God that propels individual believers and whole peoples to a fervent desire to share the Gospel, the sacraments and the life of the church with others. People without zeal for the Gospel, indifferent to the call to convert the entire world to Christ, cannot claim to be disciples. It is the experience of God that has to be rethought and lived together in new ways, among people who seem to be “buffered” against it. This is the reason and the basis for a new evangelization.

I think almost all of us have friends and family members who no longer practice the faith or who have even renounced it. The sexual abuse scandal is only partly to blame, for it can be used to justify abandoning the moral and social teachings of the church and the life of grace that makes it possible to live them in a society hostile to them. The self-secularization of the church began decades ago when many began to say that the church, in order to bring the world to Christ, was to become herself more worldly. The grain of truth in that consideration was translated into a false renewal of the church that weakened her identity and stifled her motive to call the world to conversion, which is the heart of the Gospel. This recognition is the reason for a new evangelization, a conversion of mind and heart that begins with each member of the church.

What is not new about the new evangelization, of course, is Christ himself, who is “the same yesterday, today and forever.” Praying for our own conversion and salvation during this month, we join our prayers and our lives to those of all the saints who have gone before us in faith and who intercede before the throne of God for the salvation of the world. God bless you.