Why 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.]

Everyone has a slightly different explanation of why we need a New Evangelisation and exactly what the term means. These are the five reasons that come up most consistently in Catholic thinking. Taken together they form a kind of definition of what the New Evangelisation is and what it’s primary goals are.

(a) Living in a post-Christian society

Many countries that have historically identified themselves as Christian are now losing touch with their Christian roots. When this happens, the general culture often becomes increasingly secularised and pluralistic; the moral and legal assumptions of society are less and less influenced by Christian values; and fewer people identify themselves as Christian. There is, according to Pope Benedict, a ‘loss of the sense of the sacred’ (Ubicumque et Semper).

This ‘de-Christianisation’ of society has been taking place for decades in most Western countries, especially within Europe, which has been at the heart of ‘Christendom’ for many centuries. It is also happening in places like Latin America, which has been a predominantly Christian continent for five hundred years.

This is not all negative. Some of the changes are to do with immigration and globalisation: societies are less homogenous and more pluralistic, which in many ways is a great gift. Some of the changes are to do with a greater social tolerance and a respect for difference and autonomy. But part of the situation is undoubtedly caused by an indifference to questions of faith, a lack of familiarity with the core Christian message, an increasingly materialistic outlook amongst many people, and sometimes an outright hostility to religion or to people of faith.

For some statistical evidence, here are some results from a recent census for England and Wales: ‘Between 2001 and 2011 there has been a decrease in people who identify as Christian (from 71.7 per cent to 59.3 per cent) and an increase in those reporting no religion (from 14.8 per cent to 25.1 per cent). There were increases in the other main religious group categories, with the number of Muslims increasing the most (from 3.0 per cent to 4.8 per cent)’ (Office for National Statistics).

This isn’t the first time that thriving Christian cultures have given way to a post-Christian landscape. By the fourth century, North Africa was predominantly Christian and home to some of the key figures of early Christian history, such as St Augustine of Hippo. Within a few centuries, these same territories were almost exclusively Muslim. And it took very little time for the communist regimes of Eastern Europe in the twentieth century to impose their atheistic ideologies on their citizens and drive religion, both Christian and non-Christian, almost completely underground.

What, therefore, are the new challenges that our own ‘post-Christian’ situation presents for the task of evangelisation? There are three in particular:

First, many people in a post-Christian society believe that they already understand Christianity and are in a position to move beyond it. They believe that to some degree they have ‘tried it’ and found it wanting. In reality, they are often ignorant of the real meaning of Christianity, or they have never had it presented in an authentic and life-giving way. But this sense of their own familiarity can create a prejudice against Christianity, an assumed superiority, a lack of openness, that is absent in cultures that have never been influenced by the Christian message.

As Blessed John Paul wrote in Ecclesia in Europa, ‘Many Europeans today think they know what Christianity is, yet they do not really know it at all. Often they are lacking in knowledge of the most basic elements and notions of the faith’ (Para 47).

Second, an aggressive secularism has developed in some of these Western countries that is much more than a benign post-Christian pluralism. Religion is dismissed out of hand by many people as something irrational and backward, or it is privatised and treated as an individual commitment that has nothing to do with public life or the common good. This attempt to create a neutral and even value-free public square ends up stifling debate and weakening society. It presumes that institutional religion has nothing to contribute to the common good, and forces individuals to separate themselves from their faith commitments if they have to deny their consciences when they participate in public roles (for example, as teachers, politicians, lawyers, doctors, etc.).

Third, despite the appearance of post-Christianity, many of these societies have deep Christian foundations that have not been completely undermined. The challenge is to rediscover the importance of these foundations, and to help people appreciate how much their culture has to gain from a greater understanding of its Christian roots. Christian history and Christian values, despite what many believe, are not a threat to a contemporary, pluralistic society, but a genuine help. As Pope Benedict said when he visited Westminster Hall in 2010, a society needs both faith and reason if it is going to root itself in objective moral principles.

When Pope Benedict spoke to the Queen in Edinburgh on the same UK visit, instead of criticising Britain for the process of de-Christianisation that seemed to be taking place, he sought to affirm the Christian values that were still very much a part of British culture. This recognition and reaffirmation are part of the New Evangelisation: ‘The monarchs of England and Scotland have been Christians from very early times and include outstanding saints like Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland. As you know, many of them consciously exercised their sovereign duty in the light of the Gospel, and in this way shaped the nation for good at the deepest level. As a result, the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike’.

The New Evangelisation is trying to understand and speak to this broadly post-Christian society, with all its questions, dangers, possibilities and ambiguities.

(b) Christians disconnected from their faith

Another aspect of the contemporary situation, as mentioned in the Introduction, is that many people who call themselves Christian do not have a strong and life-giving faith.

Blessed John Paul II wrote about this in Ecclesia in Europa: ‘Many of the baptized live as if Christ did not exist: the gestures and signs of faith are repeated, especially in devotional practices, but they fail to correspond to a real acceptance of the content of the faith and fidelity to the person of Jesus. The great certainties of the faith are being undermined in many people by a vague religiosity lacking real commitment; various forms of agnosticism and practical atheism are spreading and serve to widen the division between faith and life; some people have been affected by the spirit of an immanentist humanism [i.e. a view of the human person that has no room for the transcendent], which has weakened the faith and often, tragically, led to its complete abandonment; one encounters a sort of secularist interpretation of Christian faith which is corrosive and accompanied by a deep crisis of conscience and of Christian moral practice’ (Para 47).

There are many issues here, but the central point is that many baptised Christians do not have a living faith and a life-giving relationship with Jesus Christ their Saviour. This is not to judge or condemn anyone, or to expect that everyone’s faith should be expressed in the same way; it’s just to recognise – with sadness – that the Christian faith is skin deep for many people.

This is not a new situation historically. Many of the great missionary movements in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe were founded to evangelise and catechise nominal Christians in Catholic countries who had had almost no Christian education or formation. This was especially true amongst both the rural and urban poor. But the fact that the situation has been a problem throughout Christian history does not make it any less worrying.

The normal pattern of Christian initiation is meant to run as follows (using the traditional theological language, and realising that this is a simplification): Initial proclamation; personal conversion; introductory catechesis; sacramental initiation; ongoing Christian formation; witness.

Putting this into ordinary language: The basic message of Christianity is shared with someone (‘proclamation’); this touches their heart and mind and leads them to take a step in faith and commit their lives to Jesus Christ (‘conversion’); they then choose to learn more about this new faith, to grow into the Christian life, and to share more fully in the life of the Church (‘catechesis’); this leads to the celebration of the sacraments and their wholehearted commitment to Christ and his Church (‘sacramental initiation’: baptism, confirmation and the holy eucharist); after this they continue to deepen their faith through their own efforts and with the support of the Church (‘ongoing formation’); and they in their turn share the Christian faith with others through the example of their life and through their words (‘witness’).

In this pattern, evangelisation (the first two steps of proclamation and conversion) happens before sacramental catechesis. In other words, as a Christian is catechised and celebrates the sacraments, it is taken for granted that this person knows the basic message of Christianity and has taken this to heart, that they have a living faith, and that they have made a personal commitment to what they are learning and celebrating. The problem is that many Catholics, to use this technical language, are catechised but not evangelised; they are baptised and ‘sacramentalised’ but without having any real knowledge about what this means; they are nominally Catholic, culturally Catholic, but they lack a genuine conversion of heart and mind that would allow them to bring their Christian faith alive.

In Catechesi Tradendae Blessed John Paul analyses the different reasons why this initial evangelisation has sometimes not taken place: ‘A certain number of children baptized in infancy come for catechesis in the parish without receiving any other initiation into the faith and still without any explicit personal attachment to Jesus Christ… In addition, there are other children who have not been baptized and whose parents agree only at a later date to religious education… Again, many pre-adolescents and adolescents who have been baptized and been given a systematic catechesis and the sacraments still remain hesitant for a long time about committing their whole lives to Jesus Christ… Finally, even adults are not safe from temptations to doubt or to abandon their faith, especially as a result of their unbelieving surroundings. This means that “catechesis” must often concern itself not only with nourishing and teaching the faith, but also with arousing it unceasingly with the help of grace, with opening the heart, with converting, and with preparing total adherence to Jesus Christ on the part of those who are still on the threshold of faith’ (Para 19).

This, therefore, is one of the key challenges of the New Evangelisation: to help those Christians who are still ‘on the threshold of faith’ to make a deeper commitment and discover the true riches of Jesus Christ; to call people to a genuine conversion even though they may already identify in some way as being Christian.

(c) New Culture, New Media

Another reason why we need a New Evangelisation is that the cultural situation has radically changed over the last two generations or so, particularly through globalisation and the development of new media. It was Blessed John Paul II’s wish in 1983 that the Church would develop an evangelisation that was ‘new in its ardour, methods and expression’.

One of the key reasons why we need new methods and modes of expression is because advances in information technology and digital media have utterly transformed the ways that human beings think and communicate. We could almost say that they have transformed the nature of what it is to be human, at least in terms of our understanding of ourselves and our relationships.

There have been similar social transformations in earlier Christian history: for example, the invention of the movable type printing press, the industrial revolution and the consequent urbanisation of society, the development of radio and television, etc. At each moment the Church has had to respond creatively and develop a new means of evangelisation appropriate to the situation. But perhaps no previous transformation has taken place so quickly and with such wide ranging effects as the digital communications revolution.

Pope Benedict, apart from his decision to open a papal Twitter account, was not a pioneer in the area of new media and evangelisation. But his letters on the occasion of World Communications Day each year offer some of the most profound reflections on the New Evangelisation and the new media.

In 2009 he wrote about ‘the fundamental shifts in patterns of communication and human relationships’ brought by the new digital technologies. He encouraged young people of the digital generation to use these technologies for good, in order to foster dialogue, connectedness and authentic friendship. Above all, he challenged them to be evangelists.

‘The proclamation of Christ in the world of new technologies requires a profound knowledge of this world if the technologies are to serve our mission adequately. It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this “digital continent”. Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm. You know their fears and their hopes, their aspirations and their disappointments: the greatest gift you can give to them is to share with them the “Good News” of a God who became man, who suffered, died and rose again to save all people.’

In 2010 Pope Benedict called on priests in particular to enter into the digital arena. ‘The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16)… Priests stand at the threshold of a new era: as new technologies create deeper forms of relationship across greater distances, they are called to respond pastorally by putting the media ever more effectively at the service of the Word… Priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different “voices” provided by the digital marketplace.’

And in 2011 he went even further in highlighting the extraordinary newness of this new situation: ‘I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible. This is not simply to satisfy the desire to be present, but because this network is an integral part of human life. The web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness. In this field too we are called to proclaim our faith that Christ is God, the Saviour of humanity and of history, the one in whom all things find their fulfilment (cf. Eph 1:10).’

A central part of the New Evangelisation is responding to this invitation to find ways of proclaiming Jesus Christ to others within this new digital world, and to discover what forms Christian faith may take in this radically new situation.

(d) Confusion about the need for evangelisation

One of the reasons why the New Evangelisation feels new, even though in this respect it isn’t really, is because it represents a recommitment to the task of evangelisation after a period of theological confusion and crisis. In the period immediately after the Second Vatican Council, from the mid-1960s onwards, many Catholics came to believe that it was no longer necessary to proclaim the Gospel to non-Christians. There were a variety of reasons for this, and it is worth exploring some of them.

In the documents of the Second Vatican Council (also known as ‘Vatican II’; 1962-65) certain theological themes came to the fore that seemed to represent a break with previous thinking, when in fact they were a continuation or a development of ideas that were part of the Church’s received faith. These included the idea that salvation is possible for those outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church; that seeds of truth and goodness can be found in non-Christian religious traditions; that God’s grace can work invisibly in the hearts of those who do not explicitly know Christ; and that Christians should respect the freedom of conscience of all people, especially in the area of religion (cf. Unitatis Redintegratio 3; Ad Gentes 11; Gaudium et Spes 22; Lumen Gentium 16-17; Dignitatis Humanae 3).

These are wonderful truths, which make up one important part of the Christian vision. Taken in isolation, however, they could lead to any number of false conclusions: for example, that people can be saved without Jesus Christ; that the Catholic Church does not play an essential part in God’s plan of salvation; that there is no need to share the Christian message with those who belong to another religious tradition; that everyone with a kind heart will automatically go to heaven when they die; that the grace given through the sacraments is unimportant and unnecessary; or that there is no need to appeal to someone’s conscience if they are already convinced about the path they are on. Not one of these conclusions is found in the teaching of Vatican II or warranted by the theology of Vatican II.

Many of these false conclusions entered the mainstream of Catholic consciousness, and affected especially the field of ‘missiology’ – the theology of mission and evangelisation. This created a crisis within missiology in the 1970s and 1980s such that many theologians and missionary congregations became unsure about whether evangelisation was still a necessary part of the Church’s mission. There was a fundamental doubt in some people’s minds about the importance of faith in Jesus Christ and baptism into the Catholic Church.

In a 2012 conference at Leeds Trinity University entitled Vatican II, 50 Years on: The New Evangelization, Gavin D’Costa spoke about the dangers of taking statements from Vatican II in isolation. He showed how for every text that points to the work of the Holy Spirit outside the Church or the sacraments, there is another text – usually following on its heels – about the continuing importance of explicit faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, the Church, the sacraments, mission, evangelisation, etc.

It’s not about playing one text off against another; it’s about seeing that the Council is often holding together two truths, that are not contradictory, and that are both vitally important. First, our need as Catholics to be open to God’s work in people’s lives outside the Church; and second, the continuing need to evangelise.

Again and again, within the teaching of Vatican II, we are reminded about the importance of evangelisation. In Lumen Gentium it says, ‘The Church has received this solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth from the apostles and must carry it out to the very ends of the earth. Wherefore she makes the words of the Apostle her own: “Woe to me, if I do not preach the Gospel” (I Cor 9:16)’ (Para 17). And in Ad Gentes we hear: ‘The Church has an obligation to proclaim the faith and salvation which comes from Christ’ (Para 5).

One passage in particular from Ad Gentes holds together the two inseparable theological truths: ‘So, although in ways known to himself God can lead those who, though no fault of their own are ignorant of the gospel, to that faith without which it is impossible to please him (Heb 11:6), the Church, nevertheless, still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelise. And so, today as always, missionary activity retains its full force and necessity’ (Para 7).

Part of the New Evangelisation, therefore, has been the Church’s recommitment to primary evangelisation, after a time of theological confusion and crisis. This recommitment is nowhere clearer than in Blessed John Paul II’s Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio. In fact the very reason for writing the letter was to respond to the crisis in missiology, as Blessed John Paul acknowledged: ‘As a result of the changes which have taken place in modern times and the spread of new theological ideas, some people wonder: Is missionary work among non-Christians still relevant? Has it not been replaced by inter-religious dialogue? …Does not respect for conscience and for freedom exclude all efforts at conversion? Is it not possible to attain salvation in any religion? Why then should there be missionary activity?’ (Para 4).

Blessed John Paul’s answer is emphatic: ‘But what moves me even more strongly to proclaim the urgency of missionary evangelization is the fact that it is the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity in the modern world, a world which has experienced marvellous achievements but which seems to have lost its sense of ultimate realities and of existence itself. “Christ the Redeemer,” I wrote in my first encyclical, “fully reveals man to himself… The person who wishes to understand himself thoroughly must draw near to Christ…. The Redemption that took place through the cross has definitively restored to man his dignity and given back meaning to his life in the world”’ (Para 2).

(e) Questions about the nature of Christian witness

A final reason why the Church needs a new commitment to evangelisation is because there has been some ambiguity about the meaning of Christian witness over the last half century or so. Even for those who are very committed to the idea of sharing the faith, there has sometimes been a hesitation about the need to explicitly proclaim the Gospel. This is the question of the relationship between the witness of life and the witness of words; between example and proclamation.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways that we witness to our faith and allow it to touch the lives of others. First, there is the witness of our Christian life: how we live at each moment; the example we give in every aspect of our lives; the ways we love, forgive, pray, speak, work, serve, laugh, cry; especially the ways that we relate to others and to God.

The witness of our life ‘speaks’ to others; it tells them, in a way that words never could, what is most important to us, what our convictions and priorities and values are. It is often silent and unselfconscious. Many people have been converted by the quiet example of Christians they have come to know. As St James says, ‘By my works I will show you my faith’ (James 2:18).

Second, there is the explicit witness of words: when we speak to others about our Christian faith, telling them about the love of Christ and the salvation he offers, and inviting them to know him through faith, repentance, prayer and the sacraments of the Church.

Now this explicit witness doesn’t necessarily come straight away. There is a time and a place, and it takes great sensitivity and the help of the Holy Spirit to judge when to speak. But one aspect of Christian witness is helping others to know what we believe and why we believe it, and giving them the possibility of learning more and making this faith their own. A coherent witness always involves personal testimony and the proclamation of the Gospel, as well as example and the quiet witness of our lives.

This should all be uncontroversial. The difficulty is that in the period following the Second Vatican Council there was very often an emphasis on the witness of life, dialogue with non-Christians, collaboration in works for justice, etc – these are hugely important things – but this sometimes came with a neglect of the element of proclamation. Sometimes it was assumed that proclamation was not necessary – because the witness of life would be sufficient, or because an explicit proclamation might seem patronising, offensive or triumphalistic. Or there was the feeling that proclamation could be left to a group of ‘specialists’ (priests, religious, lay missionaries, etc), and that ordinary lay people should concentrate solely on their own quiet example.

The Catholic Church’s response to this question has been to re-state very clearly that every Christian is called to witness to their faith both through their example and through their words. Of course there may be an emphasis, at any given moment, on one aspect rather than the other. But the idea that you can completely separate the witness of life and the witness of words is quite alien to the Christian vision.

This was clarified by Pope Paul VI in 1975 his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. He did not in any way diminish the importance of Christian example: ‘For the Church, the first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life’. And he made famous an often-quoted phrase about the need for witnesses: ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses’ (Para 41). A wordless Christian witness ‘is already a silent proclamation of the Good News and a very powerful and effective one. Here we have an initial act of evangelization’ (Para 21).

But Paul VI meets head on this question about whether the witness of life alone is enough. He writes: ‘Nevertheless this always remains insufficient, because even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having “your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have” (1 Pet 3:15) – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed’ (Para 22).

Nor is this duty to proclaim the Gospel reserved for specialists. Every Christian, in virtue of their baptism, has a prophetic vocation. Lay people, as the Second Vatican Council explained, have a particular call to become powerful ‘heralds of the faith’ in the secular world, ‘if they unhesitatingly join the profession of faith to the life of faith’. This task of evangelisation, ‘that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the witness of their lives, acquires a special character and a particular effectiveness because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world’ (Lumen Gentium, Para 35).

Taken together, these five reasons behind the New Evangelisation create a situation that is unique in the history of the Church. There is a new cultural situation, a new set of internal and external challenges for the Church, and a new clarity about the meaning and purpose of evangelisation.

1 thought on “Why evangelise?

  1. congratulations to everyone who’s worked to develop sycamore
    i am delighted to find a program which is seeking to explore the christian way from a catholic point of view — & which is open to eastern christian thought & practice
    martincurt (arnold) — ukrainian catholic presbytery / woolloongabba / broadway / 36
    (614) 0806 4088


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