What is evangelisation?

[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.]

In 1983 Saint Pope John Paul II spoke to the Catholic Bishops of Latin America in Haiti and called for a New Evangelisation: one that would be ‘new in its ardour, methods and expression’. More recently, in 2010, Pope Benedict established a Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, to help the Church share ‘the inestimable gift’ that God has given us, the gift of being ‘sharers in his own life’. And when Pope Francis stepped onto the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica for the first time on the day of his election it was significant that he spoke about his hopes for ‘the evangelisation of this beautiful city’ – a city that many assumed had already been evangelised.

Evangelisation is not something new. Christians have been sharing their faith for two thousand years: giving witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ, and inviting others to share in that redeeming love through faith and the sacramental life of the Church.

Why, then, do we need a New Evangelisation? If the city of Rome has been a centre of Christian faith for many centuries, what does it mean for Pope Francis to say that it still needs evangelising?

First of all, we can make some straightforward distinctions. The word ‘evangelisation’ comes from a Greek verb that simply means ‘to bring good news to others’. Anything that involves sharing the Christian faith and bringing others to know Christ and his Church is part of the work of evangelisation.

Primary evangelisation is understood to be the task of reaching out to those people and cultures that have never known Christ and his Gospel. It is ‘missionary work’ in its traditional sense, sometimes called the mission ad gentes, meaning ‘to the (non-Christian) nations’. This is the first and in some senses the most important kind of evangelisation.

The New Evangelisation, according to Blessed John Paul II, concerns another situation. It involves the mission of the Church ‘particularly in countries with ancient Christian roots, and occasionally in the younger Churches as well, where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel’ (Redemptoris Missio, Para 33). The New Evangelisation, on this first definition, involves the re-evangelisation of former Christian cultures and of Christians who have become disconnected from their faith. Pope Benedict explains very simply that it is the need for a renewed missionary impulse in territories that have traditionally been Christian.

On the other hand, the distinctions between different kinds of evangelisation are not always so clean. The New Evangelisation is a cluster of ideas about mission and culture that are not easy to define. Greg Willets has written that defining the New Evangelization ‘is like herding squirrels: it can take you in a multitude of different directions, sometimes all at once’ (CatholicDigest.com). And even Pope Benedict, when he established the new Pontifical Council, admitted that this involves a variety of situations that demands careful discernment: ‘to speak of a “new evangelization” does not in fact mean that a single formula should be developed that would hold the same for all circumstances’.

This booklet recognises this variety and in Part 1 sets out five distinct but connected reasons why the Church needs to engage in an evangelisation that is truly new. In Part 2 it then presents a number of New Evangelisation ‘projects’ that have developed in the UK over the last few years. In Part 3 it draws out from these projects some consistent features of the New Evangelisation as it has been practiced effectively in the UK. Finally, in Part 4, the booklet collects together some of the most significant writings about the New Evangelisation from recent papal teaching and Church documents, as a resource for further reflection.

This booklet is not intended to be an introduction to the very idea of evangelisation: it takes for granted a basic understanding of why Christians want to share their faith and what this involves – theologically and pastorally; and it does not enter into the practical aspects of what individuals or parishes can do to evangelise. The intention here is very limited: to write about the distinctive features of the New Evangelisation, and to stimulate people to consider what this could mean for them and their communities.

 

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