Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Young people and the new evangelization

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Because this is the Year of Teens and Young Adults in the Archdiocesan Strategic Pastoral Plan, the speaker for Priests’ Day last week was invited to address how young people can be helped to participate in the church’s concern for a new evangelization in our day. Basilian Father Thomas Rosica came from Toronto and combined his expertise as a Scripture scholar with his experience as a university chaplain, the director of the 2005 World Youth Day in Toronto and the CEO of Salt and Light, the Canadian Catholic Television Network.

Father Rosica’s remarks were well received by the priests of the archdiocese, and I would like to quote some passages that will help everyone look at evangelization, proclaiming the Gospel and witnessing to Jesus Christ, in a more comprehensive light. He said:

“In preparation for today’s talk, I was given your Strategic Pastoral Plan and several other documents about the church in Chicago. Aware of the pastoral circumstances that led to the formulation of your plan, I related to the three categories of evangelization, formation and parish vitality/finance outlined in your report. The findings and imperatives of your report are not unique to the church in Chicago, as you can well imagine. I was encouraged to see that the emerging focus is on the evangelization of young people and of their parents, and you have put a clear emphasis on the need for education. I applaud your efforts to launch a Year of Teens and Young Adults.

“One of the great crises in our church today is precisely the urgent need for education and formation of our young Catholics in the basic elements of our faith. Three words jump off the pages of your study: the need for boldness in pastoral initiatives; an urgency for mission; and the need for a deep solidarity with the faithful, especially with young people.

“Whenever I have spoken about evangelizing young people, I have heard several fears, which can be obstacles to our becoming an evangelizing church. First, people do not want to impose upon others or imply that they are superior to them in some way.

“Second, some Catholics fear the very word ‘evangelizing’ because they are afraid of being asked questions they cannot answer. Overcoming this obstacle means that we must learn more about Christ, the Bible and the church’s teachings and history.

“The third obstacle is the crisis of biblical literacy. To evangelize means to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ found in the New Testament. How can we possibly announce this Good News when the target audience does not know the vocabulary, language and imagery of this Good News?

“We may wonder at times why people aren’t turned on by our stories, our work, and why the young aren’t interested in who we are and what we do. Did we ever stop to think that maybe part of the reason is that we aren’t telling the story in the right way, or maybe not at all? Do we view our lives against the backdrop of salvation history and biblical history? How can we recapture the treasure of the Word of God? How do we speak the Word of God with authority today? If the power of God’s Word in Sacred Scripture is to be felt in the life and mission of the church, we must be vigilant to ensure that Sacred Scripture has a primordial place in our lives.”

Father Rosica unpacked for the assembled pastors the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), pointing out the difference between dead words and words that give life. Sometimes they are the same words, but the speaker is as different as the two dejected disciples were from the risen Christ. If words are to liberate and not imprison both speakers and those addressed, they need to be spoken from within the community of faith that tells the world who Christ is. Evangelization is a communal, an ecclesial work. Father Rosica, as a communicator who works with social media, pointed out the trap sometimes implicit in the use of new media:

“Friendship in virtual spaces is quite different from real time friendship. True friendship depends on mutual revelations, and can only flourish within the boundaries of privacy and modesty… Along with the increase in online networking, there are increasing levels of reported loneliness and in some cases suicide … . We expose everything, but are we feeling anything?” Evangelization begins in community and has as its goal the creation of new fraternity, a living body in Christ.

“Jesus — the perfect communicator — is the model for all who seek to communicate the Good News today. We can learn much from his style of communicating, from his use of parables and stories, from his attentiveness to the different audiences with which he engaged, from his personal involvement with each individual he encounters; but in the final analysis these different elements point us to the essence of Jesus as one who gives his life, who spends himself gladly for others. The high point of Jesus’ selfcommunication is in the Eucharist. Let us remember that the Word did not become an email, an SMS or text message, or some kind of divine oracle uttered from some distant heaven long ago. Through Mary, the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. The Word became close to real people in real time. Our best evangelization efforts take place in real time!”

Young people are not alone; others share their hopes. They will not discover that easily, however, unless we present the Gospel with urgency, boldness and in solidarity with Christ and his church. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we can feel that we are victims of time, fate, circumstances and external factors. We might even feel that our world is caving in on us. “We were hoping …” the disciples said with regret to the stranger who had joined them on the road. They were caught in expectations they thought were now doomed: “We were hoping.” But the disciples were wrong to give up on their hope. Father Rosica reminded the priests and, through them, Catholics in our archdiocese of ways to think and act in order to involve young people in the evangelizing mission of the church today. Something new is happening in the church, and we are all the richer for it.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago