Links in the Chain

In the four decades since Pope Paul VI’s groundbreaking 1975 document Evangelii Nuntiandi, much has been said and written about evangelization. And many programs for evangelizing have been launched. I don’t belittle these efforts. Some – “Come Home for Christmas” and similar programs aimed at non-practicing Catholics come to mind—may actually do some good by bringing people back to the fold.

But it’s an unhappy fact that all those words and grand schemes, and even the much celebrated (by journalists) ”Francis Effect,” haven’t stemmed the numerical decline of the Church in the United States, and in countries like it, where secularism is entrenched and is spreading.

This points to an obvious question. Evangelization is needed, but books and homilies and pastoral letters and big new programs don’t seem to work very well. Meanwhile the secular culture has become a passive – and sometimes active – obstacle to the Christian message. What now? How can we evangelize?

I was mulling these matters when something occurred to me that offers the hint of a practical – though admittedly difficult – solution. It’s found in the eighth book of St. Augustine’s Confessions, in his account of the climactic moment in his conversion.

The year is 386 A.D. Under the influence of Bishop Ambrose of Milan, the young Augustine, a brilliant teacher of rhetoric, is convinced that he should be baptized, but his dissolute lifestyle stands in the way. One day, agonizing over his situation, he goes into the garden of the house where he’s living and unlooses a “shower of tears.” Distraught, he flings himself down under a fig tree, and there he prays: “How long, how long?. . .Why is there not this hour an end to my uncleanness?”

Then something odd happens. Augustine hears the voice of a child coming over the garden wall and repeating – “chanting ,” Augustine says – the words: tolle lege, tolle lege – “Take up and read, take up and read.” Considering this a message from God, he finds a Bible and reads the first passage to catch his eye:

Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13.13-14).

That did it for Augustine. God had his man.

Now consider that voice Augustine heard. Some people think it was God speaking directly to him. But suppose it was a real, flesh-and-blood child. In that case, we have a helpful model for evangelization.

How that is so I’ll explain in a moment. But first let’s recall just how difficult evangelization really has become lately. Nearly one American in four is not affiliated with any church, the highest number since these statistics began to be collected. The drop-off among former Catholics has been especially steep (25 million Americans identified themselves as former Catholics in a survey last year.)

Image: The Conversion of St. Augustine by Fra Angelico, c. 1450 [Musée des beaux-arts Thomas Henry, Cherbourg-Octeville, France]
Image: The Conversion of St. Augustine by Fra Angelico, c. 1450 [Musée des beaux-arts Thomas Henry, Cherbourg-Octeville, France]
There are also serious problems among those who still call themselves Catholics. New vocations to the priesthood and religious life have fallen badly (3,650 seminarians last year compared with 8,325 fifty years ago). Sunday Mass attendance is way down and continues to drop, as do Catholic marriages and infant baptisms.

Nor is the decline something that happened in the past and then stabilized. It’s going on now. In 2008, 50 percent of Catholic Millennials received ashes on Ash Wednesday; this year it was 41 percent. Ashes are hardly the be-all and end-all of Catholic religious practice, but one more sign of something seriously wrong.

There are many explanations, among them the damage done by well-meaning religious people. In Time magazine, Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, offers a definition of theology as “nothing but big stories we tell ourselves about the universe and the meaning of our lives.” Quite a few people talk that way these days. But really, only “stories”?

It used to be said that theology was the rational, systematic effort to deepen understanding of the truth revealed by God. And truth is at the heart of evangelization. People get stories from fiction writers. Evangelization means preaching the truth about Christ.

But how?

Let’s look at St. Augustine’s experience again. God used St. Ambrose to touch Augustine’s heart, but he also used a child, just as he can use all of us to touch those around us. A prayer by Newman powerfully expresses this thought:

I have a mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good. I shall do his work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place while not intending it if I do but keep his commandments.

An example: I recently met a priest who told me that years before he’d read one of my books, and “that book is the reason I’m a priest today.” When that happens, as it does now and then, you realize that God has reached out through you to someone else. Other writers report the same.

It isn’t only writers, though. Priests experience it. So do teachers and many others – potentially, all of us. God uses us as instruments. We are links in a great chain God is constantly forging. And if you think about it, what that means is that ordinary people, living in the world in a Christian manner, are meant to be the primary agents of evangelization.

But not by being preachy or pretentious. St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, said the task is simply to show “the difference between living sadly and living cheerfully. . .between being worldly and being children of God.” For that we need continuing formation, intense interior life, and much good will. And thus equipped, we can leave the rest to God.

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity (Ignatius Press).