The New Evangelization: Basic Concepts

The Church is really ramping up the New Evangelization in this Year of Faith. After teaching a course on Vatican II’s Decree on the Lay Apostolate, it’s clear, to me at least, that one of the main tasks of the New Evangelization is going to be reorienting people’s sense of how the Church functions.

When many people think about the Church, they seem to think first of the pope and the hierarchy, or the local priest – which is all well and good, because it’s true that clergy are part of the Church. But one concrete result of that approach is the Church starts somehow to appear to be “over there.”  The Church, however, mystery that it is, is a vast spiritual communion, where: “All men are called to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life strains.” (Vatican II) “All” does not leave out many people.

This passage is saying that the Church is fundamentally Christological. And that must be the starting point of the New Evangelization: To help people appreciate who Jesus Christ is and what he has done and is doing. But the Council’s formulation deliberately entails the conclusion (borne out by the rest of the document) that as we approach Christ, we enter a spiritual union with others “in Christ.”

This is the direction that Pope Francis is taking us. Christ draws us into being “church.” The New Evangelization will have to do a better job than we have in the past of teaching us to understand the word. Christ draws us into a new relation with God, to be sure, but also to every other human being, including the poor. Most people do not recognize this for a variety of reasons. The New Evangelization is going to have to work in multiple directions to bring home this truth.

First, for each individual, because of what Christ continues to be and do, He is the one “through whom we live” as individuals and a community. (These two dimensions of human existence are not separable in practice.)

Second, He is the one “toward whom our whole life strains,” again both as individuals and groups.

And third, he is the one “from whom we go forth.” These are the basic dynamics of the spiritual and physical union with Christ. Conceiving of earthly existence like this lies far above and beyond belonging to a political party – and having your say or giving your support to some human project.

Political categories don’t even begin to work at the level of the spiritual and historical union of mankind in Christ. They can be generous and idealistic, yet they are sharply limited, and are all that most people bring to the table, unless the New Evangelization shows them what St. Paul calls ‘a more excellent way.”

Materialistic culture tends to “flatten” Christ, even among believers, and makes him a mere historical figure on a par with people who have started movements or “religions.”  Rightly understood, Catholicism is not a religion among religions. (See Benedict XVI)) The New Evangelization should help people let go of such meager notions of Christ and replace them with a love that reciprocates the love that we have already been shown in Him.

Then Saint John’s experience of “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands.” (I John 1:1) becomes our experience, too.   Discovering what this looks and feels like takes time,  and it involves, among other things, reading Scripture. It involves going to Mass differently. (And I mean an orthodox celebration with a homily on the readings.) It means working on relating to others for the good of the other person. And so on. To enter on to this path means that the New Evangelization is not going to be able to rest on what may have once happened in the past.

Finally, to return to the opening point, we can say that the “hearing,” “seeing,” “looking upon,” and “touching” at least partly involves the clergy. Our experience of Jesus Christ is historical so it involves clergy to help us arrive at some of the experiences that Pope Francis recently listed:

With the eyes of faith, we too encounter the risen Lord in the many signs of his presence: the Scriptures, the Eucharist and the other sacraments, and the acts of charity, goodness, forgiveness and mercy, which bring a ray of his Resurrection into our world.

But as you can see, the lion’s share of these experiences simply involves lay people encountering each other, religious or non-Catholics. So while clergy do have a privileged sacramental role and should be leading and teaching so as to nourish this vast swath of human experience most interactions occur without them and yet each one should be filled with Christ’s presence.

Memberships in pious associations do not substitute for this fundamental duty. In fact such memberships can, paradoxically, get in the way – and make Catholicism into a mere “religion.”

The New Evangelization is going to have to reestablish a sense of proportion in our notion of the Church to help make every encounter with another human being into an experience of Jesus Christ – which is what baptized people are called to.

As the Council said: “all Christs faithful, whatever be the conditions, duties and circumstances of their lives – and indeed through all these, will daily increase in holiness, if they receive all things with faith from the hand of their heavenly Father and if they cooperate with the divine will. In this temporal service, they will manifest to all men the love with which God loved the world.”