The future of the Church in America hinges on the success of the New Evangelization, Pope St. John Paul’s call to preach the Gospel anew in lands that have forgotten or forsaken it. Many wonderful initiatives in the Church over recent decades – The Catholic Thing among them – have been established to meet the saintly pontiff’s challenge. But with the number of “Nones,” Americans who do not subscribe to traditional religions, growing yearly – their ranks chock-full of fallen-away Catholics – the task of the New Evangelization is as pressing today as it ever has been.
In my work with high school students and with families in my parish, I am finding that a colossal obstacle to the New Evangelization’s success is that so many lack a general cultural, intellectual, and religious framework in which they can receive the Gospel and comprehend its import. The problem is not that today’s Americans are unintelligent. The problem is they have been schooled to be skeptical of truth and of religion, so much so that very many are prejudiced against any affirmation of their validity.
Today’s children, like their parents before them, have learned that there is no truth beyond what science and mathematics can measure. Instead, what we perceive as real and as true is entirely subjective: we choose the meaning of life, we judge what is right and wrong. In this framework – if what I do is always right, and if this life is all there is – it is extremely difficult to preach a divine Savior. Likewise, for a person who denies the very possibility of truth, the universal truth claims of Christian doctrine sound very strange indeed.
Obstacles to evangelization exist within the Church as well. The poor catechesis that many of us have complained about for decades is yielding its rotten fruit. Today’s schoolchildren are supposed to learn the faith from their Generation X (born 1965-1980) and Millennial (born 1981-1996) parents. But those parents themselves were malformed in the essentials of the Catholic faith and know little of what they are supposed to be passing on. Through no fault of their own, too many of today’s parents and teachers “are blind guides. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit.” (Matt 15:14)
It’s no wonder, then, why children and marrying couples are not showing up for Mass and the other sacraments – they know not what they do. Religious ignorance does not only plague those who have dropped out of the Church. Tragically, even some of the most well-meaning parents attending Mass each week cannot explain to their children why it is they attend. The baseline Christian narrative – that we are sinners who need a Savior, and that we must respond willingly to Christ’s offer of redemptive love – is as well-known today as the finer points of Morse code.
In this situation, many of our New Evangelization efforts will not have the impact that they deserve and that we desire. They have to continue, for sure, but we must realize that too many great Catholic ventures will sound like a foreign language to our intended audience.
Hence the New Evangelization needs something more – call it Guerilla Evangelization. This name is not meant to conjure up any specific guerilla groups from history. It’s offered as an image for the Church Militant for two purposes. First, it underscores how formidable the secular influence has become, which creates major difficulties for evangelization done through parish programs and traditional media. Second, it conveys the boldness and ingenuity and sheer daring that successful evangelization requires today.
Guerilla Evangelization would be the work of enterprising Catholics who identify specific individuals, persons who, though unwittingly incorporated into the rival secular army, seem ripe to hear the Christian message. These evangelizers then labor to free those individuals from the secular ranks and bring them into the Church by preaching the preambles of faith – acknowledgments that nature is normative; that there is truth, beauty, and goodness in the world; and that these three transcendentals are not subjective labels, but realities that come from an external, divine source.
Guerilla Evangelization, then, requires a tremendous investment of time and energy by evangelizers on behalf of these individuals whose basic worldviews are not only distant from but often actually opposed to Christianity.
Guerilla evangelizers personally lead these individuals through all the questions and difficulties that inevitably arise for people living within our current cultural milieu. They recommend books, websites, and sit for conversations that not only answer questions that originate from the prevailing worldview, but also present the preambles of faith so that Christ’s preaching can resonate more profoundly.
For inspiration, Guerilla evangelizers can look East and West at two of the most enterprising missionaries in Church history: Matteo Ricci and Isaac Jogues. Both priests spent years studying the languages and customs of, respectively, the Chinese and Native Americas, so they could present compellingly the Christian message in a manner tailored for their audiences. Measured by the numbers they baptized, neither had much of an impact; they made converts by the tens, not the hundreds. But both inspired their converts to break from their peoples’ sinful ways (Ricci, for example, would not baptize any Chinese man who refused to give up his concubine) and to acknowledge Jesus Christ as the savior of all.
With what we once called Western Civilization fractured and with Catholic culture forgotten, the Church in America has to create new means to reach today’s unchurched parents and children. It’s time for Guerilla Evangelization, a slow, painstaking, but relentless preaching not only of the Gospel, but of everything needed to understand the Gospel in its fullness.
*Image: Ruins with Saint Paul preaching by Giovanni Paolo Panini, c. 1753 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]. Paul is in Rome, standing between the portico of a ruined temple and the temple of Vesta with the pyramid of Gaius Cestius visible in the background.
You may also enjoy:
Eduardo J. Echeverria’s Inculturation and the Law of Evangelization
Michael Pakaluk’s St. Joseph, Patron of the Church and the New Evangelization