How can we evangelise?

[These passages come from the booklet The New Evangelisation: History, Theology and Practice by Fr Stephen Wang, published by the Catholic Truth Society. They are posted here to help people reflect on the importance of evangelisation and on how it can be approached in the setting of a parish or school or chaplaincy.]

When you look at the slightly random examples of the New Evangelisation presented in Part 2, and when you take into account many other similar projects throughout the world, there are certain common threads in their approach to the New Evangelisation, certain themes that emerge. We can call these the ‘essential ingredients’ of the New Evangelisation. Here are five of them.

These are not in any way the essential ingredients of evangelisation in general, which is a much bigger topic. There are no specific headings here, for example, about the Holy Spirit, Faith, Prayer, the Catholic Church, the Sacraments, Witness, Conversion, Repentance, etc. It’s necessary to take these for granted, and there is no space here to give an overview of the theology of evangelisation in general. These are just distinctive aspects that come to the fore when we think about the New Evangelisation.

Nor is this is to suggest that in order to evangelise everyone needs to be involved in a specific ‘project’. There are many, many different ways of sharing the faith with others, and many if not most of them take place in the ordinary circumstances of everyday life and relationships. But these ‘ingredients’ will very often be part of the experience of the New Evangelisation, whether it is through an individual Catholic quietly witnessing to their faith, or a specific organisation that is established to promote the New Evangelisation.

(a) Personal conviction

Each of the five projects in Part 2 has been driven forward by people who have a profound love for the Lord and his Church, and a desire to share their faith with others. There is no evangelisation without a desire to evangelise.

Many Catholics, of course, love their faith, but not everyone has a deep conviction that this faith is meant to be shared, that it is something too precious to keep hidden. As Blessed John Paul II noted, ‘In the Church’s history, missionary drive has always been a sign of vitality, just as its lessening is a sign of a crisis of faith’ (Redemptoris Missio, Para 2).

When you look in the Gospels, there are three main reasons that lead people to speak to others about Christ and what he has done for them.

One is joy: many of those who are healed by Jesus or who witness a healing rush around telling everyone what has happened; they simply can’t contain themselves – they are so excited and overjoyed (e.g. the deaf man in Mk 7:31-37, ‘They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak”’; and the blind men in Mt 9:27-31, ‘But they went away and spread the news about him throughout the district’).

Another is love: when someone’s life is touched by the Lord, they want to share this experience with those they love, so that they too may come to know the love of Christ (e.g. when Andrew goes in search of his brother Simon Peter in Jn 1:40-42, and says to him, ‘We have found the Messiah’, and brings him to Jesus; and Levi the tax collector in Mk 2:13-17, who hosts a dinner so that his friends can meet Jesus).

A third reason why people speak about Christ to others is obedience. Even if it is not always at first a heartfelt personal desire for everyone, Jesus sometimes just commands people to speak about him (e.g. the Demoniac in Mk 5:1-20, who wants to remain with Jesus after his liberation, but is told: ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you’; and the eleven disciples after the Resurrection in Mt 28:16-20, who are told, even as some of them doubt: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you’).

Joy, love and obedience. These are the factors that motivate people to commit themselves to the New Evangelisation.

But this can be in sharp contrast to the reticence still felt by many Catholics about the very idea of evangelisation. There can be different reasons for this, not all of them negative: a desire to witness unobtrusively through one’s personal example; a respect for the presence of God in people of other faiths or of no faith; a fear of appearing triumphalistic, arrogant or judgemental.

But the reticence can also reflect a subtle relativism that sometimes casts its spell, persuading Catholics that all beliefs are equally true, or that all truths are equally important. Many people aren’t convinced that evangelisation is ‘the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity’ (Redemptoris Missio, Para 2).

Personal conviction is an essential motivating factor in the work of the New Evangelisation. It is also part of the content of what is communicated to others: we speak not just about the truths of our faith but also about what they personally mean to us and how they have changed our lives. This has often been an informal part of conversations between Christians and their non-Christian neighbours and friends. Catholics have become more aware in recent years of the power of personal testimony in witnessing to the faith.

Few people today doubt the effectiveness of personal witness in touching people’s hearts and minds, whether it’s a testimony given during a parish mission, a heartfelt conversation with a friend, a two-minute interview posted on YouTube, or a team of young people speaking about their faith at a school retreat. This was one of Blessed John Henry Newman’s themes: ‘Heart speaks unto heart’, and it was evident during much of Pope Benedict’s visit to the UK. When Barry and Margaret Mizen, parents of the murdered schoolboy Jimmy, gave a testimony at the Hyde Park vigil, they moved many people to tears. Their personal faith said more than a thousand sermons about the virtues of hope and forgiveness, and the power of Christ’s love.

Without a strong personal conviction about the importance of evangelisation, and a willingness to share our faith in a personal way, the New Evangelisation will never really move forward.

(b) Community

An emphasis on community runs through the New Evangelisation. The aim is not just to proclaim the message but to invite people into a way of life, a new set of relationships, and to show the beauty of a community founded on the love of Christ. This is, ultimately, an experience of the Church.

This comes in different ways. For many young Catholics, travelling to World Youth Day, for example, is the first time that they have had an experience of the Church beyond their own small parish communities and their schools. It’s a time when their faith has come alive as if they have been evangelised for the first time. This was true for many people when they joined the crowds to visit the relics of St Thérèse on a tour of Britain in 2009, or lined the streets to greet Pope Benedict during his UK visit in 2010. Mission builds community, and depends on it.

This is seen in each of the five examples of the New Evangelisation above. There are different kinds of community represented here: a residential evangelisation school; a cluster of city centre parishes; a group of young people brought together by their faith and their desire to evangelise their peers; a team of skilled communicators united by a shared vision and a common training programme; a small theatre company with a network of loyal supporters and friends.

In each case, the effectiveness of the mission arises from the sense of community and common purpose that is formed when people have a shared commitment to evangelisation. This is thoroughly biblical. Jesus formed a group of seventy two disciples to go ahead of him to prepare the local towns and villages for his own arrival; and even then he sent them out in pairs and not alone (Lk 10:1-12). The powerful witness and preaching at Pentecost came from a community of disciples and not from an individual (Acts 2).

The Church needs communities dedicated to the New Evangelisation. These communities support and strengthen people so that they can ‘go out on mission’, whatever form that takes. And this creates a virtuous circle where the communities themselves are supported and strengthened through the shared experiences of the members. The New Evangelisation is not for isolated individuals; it depends on the Church and builds up the Church.

For most people, of course, the first community of the New Evangelisation should be their local parish, centred on the celebration of the Holy Eucharist each Sunday. This is the community that is meant to nurture faith and send us out into the world to witness to Christ in daily life. But even in the most faithful and life-giving parish, there will still be the need for specialised communities-within-the-community that can focus on particular aspects of the New Evangelisation, whether it is reaching out to young people, to parents and families, to the poor, to people in particular professions, to the media, etc. Each of these ‘ministries’ requires particular skills and evangelistic tools. Just as there have traditionally been guilds for doctors, lawyers and tradespeople; and support groups for mothers, fathers, young people and the elderly; so it should not surprise us that many new initiatives are springing up to facilitate the New Evangelisation in particular areas.

(c) The Word of God and the teaching of the Church

The New Evangelisation has been associated with a reverence for the Word of God in Sacred Scripture and a faithfulness to the teaching of the Catholic Church in its integrity. A new generation of evangelically minded Catholics has turned to the Bible and Catholic teaching for wisdom, nourishment, inspiration and renewal.

Catholics have always known this intellectually: that God’s life-giving revelation, his Holy Word, is passed on to us through Scripture and Tradition, and interpreted through the teaching of the Catholic Church. But in recent years, in very concrete ways, different communities have seen how Scripture and Catholic teaching can transform people’s lives and be a catalyst for conversion and renewal.

In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict emphasised the link between the New Evangelisation and meditation on Sacred Scripture: ‘Our own time, then, must be increasingly marked by a new hearing of God’s word and a new evangelization. Recovering the centrality of the divine word in the Christian life leads us to appreciate anew the deepest meaning of the forceful appeal of Pope John Paul II: to pursue the missio ad gentes and vigorously to embark upon the new evangelization, especially in those nations where the Gospel has been forgotten or meets with indifference as a result of widespread secularism. May the Holy Spirit awaken a hunger and thirst for the word of God, and raise up zealous heralds and witnesses of the Gospel’ (Para 122).

The emphasis on clear Catholic teaching seems to be an essential aspect of the New Evangelisation in its practice. Those involved want to proclaim the basic message of Christianity, to explain the core teachings of the Scriptures and of the Church, and to apply these teachings to everyday life. They are not arrogant, or unaware of the nuances and disputed questions within Catholic thought; but they are more interested in helping people to understand the settled faith of the Church than in exploring the boundaries. Their experience is that people are actually longing to learn more.

There is a hunger for truth in contemporary society, and a desire in many Catholic circles to share it. The intention is not to proselytise, in the sense of targeting people from other religions, but it is certainly to share this Christian vision with anyone who is attracted by it.

There has been a reticence in some Catholic circles over the last half-century about presenting the Catholic faith in its integrity and in an unapologetic way. There have been internal battles about Catholic teaching and identity. Sometimes there has been a lack of confidence that the Catholic vision is actually good news to be shared, or a fear that it will be ignored, rejected or even ridiculed. More recently, however, different groups such as Catholic Voices have been developing a New Apologetics. They are not strident, but they have a new confidence that Catholic teaching really matters, that it has something to say to the culture, and that it can make a difference.

One example of how confident catechesis and the New Evangelisation are intrinsically linked can be seen in the establishment of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation. One it’s formal tasks, according to Ubicumque et Semper, is ‘to promote the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church as an essential and complete formulation of the content of the faith for the people of our time’. It recognises that you can’t share a faith that you don’t know; that effective evangelisation depends on good catechesis. Blessed John Paul had predicted that the Catechism would ‘make a very important contribution to that work of renewing the whole life of the Church’ (Fidei Depositum).

In Porta Fidei, Pope Benedict’s Apostolic Letter of 2012 for the Year of Faith, we read about the importance of the Catechism: ‘In order to arrive at a systematic knowledge of the content of the faith, all can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a precious and indispensable tool… Here, in fact, we see the wealth of teaching that the Church has received, safeguarded and proposed in her two thousand years of history. From Sacred Scripture to the Fathers of the Church, from theological masters to the saints across the centuries, the Catechism provides a permanent record of the many ways in which the Church has meditated on the faith and made progress in doctrine so as to offer certitude to believers in their lives of faith’. This is not just an intellectual journey, but an opportunity to meet the living Christ: ‘On page after page, we find that what is presented here is no theory, but an encounter with a Person who lives within the Church’ (Para 11).

(d) Liturgy and the sacraments

The sacramental emphasis of the New Evangelisation is counter-intuitive. If you are reaching out to people with little or no faith, it’s not clear why you would want to introduce them into a liturgical experience they probably wouldn’t understand.

There are three reasons why the sacraments often form an effective part of the work of the New Evangelisation. First, in the post-Christian context, many enquirers often have some kind of Catholic or other Christian background, and some have even had some catechetical formation. So there is often a latent understanding of the meaning of the sacraments, an unacknowledged appreciation of their place in the Christian life. To celebrate the sacraments, and to speak about them, can help to awaken a half-formed memory of their significance. If there is a flicker of faith, it is often associated with a liturgical experience from the past, and so a new encounter with the sacraments can sometimes fan that tiny flame into something more powerful.

Second, very often the New Evangelisation involves not just talking to people but inviting them into the lived experience of a community of faith. An enquirer is often taken to a prayer group, or a mission in a parish church, or a celebration of the Holy Eucharist with a particular evangelistic focus. The celebration of the liturgy, whether the Church’s Public Liturgy or something more para-liturgical, is both the context in which the faith is being proclaimed and the lived expression of what this faith is ultimately about. People are brought into a community of faith, into a celebration of faith, and this helps them to see what it means in the round, in the flesh, and not just as an idea. The liturgy is the source and summit of the Christian life, and for that reason it can provide a rich context for conversion – if someone is led into it with sensitivity and helped to understand it in appropriate ways.

Third, the fact that Jesus Christ is present in the liturgy and the sacraments, supremely in the Holy Eucharist, means that an encounter with the liturgy is an encounter with Christ himself. This is true even if someone has no faith and no consciousness of Christ’s presence, because there is an objectivity about his presence, even if it is hidden in the sacramental forms. This doesn’t mean that someone should be dragged unwillingly before the sacraments as if there was some kind of guarantee that they would have a personal encounter with Christ. But if someone is open to the Christian faith, and freely chooses to come to the liturgy with an open heart and mind, this can create an opportunity for them to meet Christ in the sacraments and reach out to him in faith (but without encouraging them to participate sacramentally in a way that is inappropriate, because they are spiritually or catechetically unprepared).

It is an undeniable fact of Christian history that many people have been converted through an encounter with Christ in the liturgy, even though you might assume that their lack of faith would make their presence at the liturgy nonsensical. He speaks to them through the beauty of the liturgical celebration, or through the witness of the Christian faithful, or through the proclamation of the Word of God, or through the sacramental presence of Christ himself, or through the holiness of the building – and in many other ways.

This is a common experience on youth retreats, even when they are aimed at non-Christians or nominal Catholics who have ceased practicing their faith. An example is the Youth 2000 prayer festival that takes place each year over the August bank holiday. Over a thousand young people flock to a field outside Walsingham, many of them with little or no commitment to the Christian faith. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed in the centre of the main tent for the whole duration of the festival, and at any moment a dozen priests are sitting round the edges of the tent to hear confessions. People are encouraged to pray, and to offer their lives to Christ in faith.

This living encounter with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, even for those whose faith is just beginning, is very often the occasion of genuine Christian conversion and a source of life-changing graces. Many of the confessions have an almost baptismal quality about them, because it is often the first time that someone has really had the encouragement and the desire to bring their whole life to the Lord, without reservation. The sacraments, in much of the New Evangelisation, are the source and not just the summit of faith.

(e) Courage and creativity

Now and then, we are longing to share our faith, and a happy opportunity presents itself when we can speak with confidence and enthusiasm to someone who wants to listen to us. But more often than not, it’s not clear what we should do or say, our faith is weak, our motivations are very mixed, and we are simply too nervous or afraid or unsure to take the next step.

It’s difficult to evangelise. It’s also one of the most important responsibilities that we have, and one of the most powerful ways in which God wishes to bless us. Faith is strengthened when we share it. Yet we often fail to share it because we think our own faith is not strong enough, when in fact our faith would become stronger if only we would share it more willingly.

Each one of the New Evangelisation initiatives described in Part 2 of this booklet took great courage and commitment to begin. Someone had an idea, or a quiet inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and they almost certainly thought to themselves, ‘I can’t do this. It’s too risky. I’m not ready. I don’t have the support I need. It probably won’t work.’ Yet they took the risk. They dared to do something different – with the help of God – and to do it with all the energy and creativity that they could muster.

Every Christian is called to take the risk of evangelising. We don’t all have to go out into the streets and witness to strangers. But we do all have a responsibility to witness to our faith in everyday life, and to share our faith with others when the opportunity occurs.

Pope Francis has spoken about the need for Catholics to take risks as they reach out to others. In an address to the ecclesial movements on the Vigil of Pentecost he said: ‘At this time of crisis we cannot be concerned solely with ourselves, withdrawing into loneliness, discouragement and a sense of powerlessness in the face of problems. Please do not withdraw into yourselves! This is a danger: we lock ourselves up in our parish, among our friends, in our movement, with people who think as we do… but do you know what happens? When the Church is closed, she becomes an ailing Church, she falls sick. Think of a room that has been closed for a year. When you go into it there is a smell of damp, many things are wrong with it. A Church closed in on herself is the same, a sick Church.

‘The Church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, whatever they may be, but she must step out. Jesus tells us: “Go into all the world! Go! Preach! Bear witness to the Gospel!” (cf. Mk 16:15). But what happens if we step outside ourselves? The same as can happen to anyone who comes out of the house and onto the street: an accident. But I tell you, I far prefer a Church that has had a few accidents to a Church that has fallen sick from being closed.’

And in his Pentecost homily on the following day Pope Francis spoke about ‘newness’ in a way that can very easily be applied to the New Evangelisation: ‘Newness always makes us a bit fearful, because we feel more secure if we have everything under control, if we are the ones who build, programme and plan our lives in accordance with our own ideas, our own comfort, our own preferences. This is also the case when it comes to God. Often we follow him, we accept him, but only up to a certain point. It is hard to abandon ourselves to him with complete trust, allowing the Holy Spirit to be the soul and guide of our lives in our every decision. We fear that God may force us to strike out on new paths and leave behind our all too narrow, closed and selfish horizons in order to become open to his own.

‘Yet throughout the history of salvation, whenever God reveals himself, he brings newness and change, and demands our complete trust: Noah, mocked by all, builds an ark and is saved; Abram leaves his land with only a promise in hand; Moses stands up to the might of Pharaoh and leads his people to freedom; the apostles, huddled fearfully in the Upper Room, go forth with courage to proclaim the Gospel.

‘This is not a question of novelty for novelty’s sake, the search for something new to relieve our boredom, as is so often the case in our own day. The newness which God brings into our life is something that actually brings fulfilment, that gives true joy, true serenity, because God loves us and desires only our good. Let us ask ourselves: Are we open to God’s surprises? Or are we closed and fearful before the newness of the Holy Spirit? Do we have the courage to strike out along the new paths which God’s newness sets before us, or do we resist, barricaded in transient structures which have lost their capacity for openness to what is new?’

This is God’s call to every Christian: to step out, to take the risk of doing something new and creative in order to spread the Gospel. Whether it is in a large and well-known project, or in the quiet circumstances of everyday life and work, each one of us is called to share our faith and take part in the New Evangelisation.

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