The Bible study group had been discussing the Sunday readings, which naturally led to the subject of evangelization, which naturally led to our responsibility for preaching the Good News. Suddenly the subject was evangelization and us. A woman had a question.
"I heard the diocese was putting together an evangelization plan," she said, "but I haven't seen anything about it in the parish yet. Do you know anything about that?" And she turned a quizzical eye on me.
Now, right here I should say that when it comes to real-life evangelizing, this good woman can run rings around me and just about everybody. She's a woman of faith who's eager to share her faith with others and has plenty of practice doing that. Nothing I said should be taken as a putdown of her.
"I don't know what the diocese has in mind," I replied. "And I certainly agree that a plan is needed if people are supposed to work together in evangelizing teams. But really — there's no reason why individual Catholics must wait for the word from on high before they evangelize. The right and the duty to do that come to each one of us with baptism and are reaffirmed and strengthened by confirmation.
"Sharing in the mission of the Church — of which evangelization is a fundamental part — is something expected of every single member of the Church by reason of his or her Christian vocation. If more of us understood that, we wouldn't be sitting around waiting for somebody to tell us to start doing it. We'd be out there evangelizing right now."
Which, as I said, is exactly how things already are with the woman who asked the question. We could all take a leaf from her book.
Looking for an authority to support what I said? You can't do better than Blessed John Paul II's marvelous document on the vocation of the laity, Christifideles Laici
("The Lay Members of Christ's Faithful People"). He speaks there about individual apostolate as a duty of each baptized Catholic and then says this:
"Such an individual form of apostolate can contribute greatly to a more extensive spreading of the Gospel; indeed it can reach as many places as there are daily lives of individual members of the lay faithful … In sharing fully in the unique conditions of life, work, difficulties and hopes of their sisters and brothers, the lay faithful will be able to reach the hearts of their neighbors, friends, and colleagues, opening them to a full sense of human existence — that is, to communion with God and with all people" (No. 28).
Beautiful but unrealistic? We'd better hope it's not. For otherwise the problems confronting the Faith in the United States may be more serious than most people imagine.
Recently I came across numbers for the Church in the United States that make the point more vividly than rhetoric can. Consider. Infant baptisms declined from 1,005,490 in 2003 to 763,208 in the year past. Adult baptisms fell from 81,013 to 41,918. People received into full communion dropped from 82,292 to 71,582. Catholic marriages plummeted from 241,727 to 163,976. (Source: 2013 Official Catholic Directory)
However anyone explains those numbers, they tell a troubling story. If you agree, you won't wait for somebody to hand you a plan of action before setting out to do what you can, in word and in the way you live your life, to open the eyes of family members, friends, and neighbors to the beauty and truth of the Good News.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.