The Gospel of Mark and the New Evangelization

The Synod of Bishops to be held October 2012 will focus on the “new evangelization,” a theme strongly proclaimed by Blessed John Paul II and now picked up with fervor by his successor, Benedict XVI. The Synod will also inaugurate “the year of faith” (Oct. 11, 2012—Nov. 24, 2013). This article will take a brief look at the roots of these two concepts found in the Gospel of Mark.

The Gospel Is Evangelization

The first observation is that the very notion of a “Gospel” is evangelization! It comes from the Greek word euaggelion or “good news”; it is the word from which our English word and its cognates all derive. The first line of Mark’s Gospel proclaims: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus…” (1:1). The end of the Gospel concludes with the command of the risen Jesus to His disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news (euaggelion) to every creature…” (16:15). Between these bookends is the ministry of Jesus, which is all about evangelizing. He teaches and preaches with authority, and even His miracles show that God is reaching out to humanity through His public ministry. 

In Mark, then, there is no escaping the fact that Christian identity is intimately bound up with evangelizing. There is no other choice. As Vatican Council II taught, “The pilgrim church is by her very nature missionary.” There is no alternative to proclaiming the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. He preached in word and in deed that God’s kingdom was near and that it involved a call to conversion. Mark sums up Jesus’ announcement succinctly: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news” (1:15). 

No Christian can escape the fact that Jesus calls us to witness our faith. We must proclaim it loud and clear. But how? 

Outward and Inward Evangelization

There is no doubt that Jesus’ ministry, in which He invited His disciples to partake and for which He shared with them special power and authority, involved preaching, teaching and miracle-working. But it also involved suffering and death. That is important for Mark’s perspective, because as He recounts the story of Jesus’ public ministry, He indicates that reactions varied. Merely witnessing miracles was not sufficient to bring people to faith. Listening to Jesus’ powerful preaching also was not in and of itself sufficient to convince people. Evangelization is hard work. It requires patience. More importantly, it can only be truly effective if the words with which one witnesses God’s truth conform to the deeds of one’s life. 

In common understanding, evangelization is primarily outward in orientation. One thinks immediately of the evangelical preacher, standing on the street corner or preaching from a TV studio, expounding a biblical passage or a sermon with great fervor. Evangelizers normally want to persuade and convert others to the faith they themselves possess. 

But this is where Mark surprises us. Although evangelization in the Gospel of Mark is outwardly oriented, the more subtle message is that the disciples themselves should be better listeners! This is seen primarily in the portrait of the disciples. Although they hear and respond to Jesus’ initial call (e.g., 1:16-20; 2:14), as their story unfolds in the Gospel, intertwined with Jesus’ own destiny, it is clear that they don’t fully get the message. They misunderstand Jesus (6:52), think He is “out of His mind” (3:21), don’t get the impact of Jesus’ deeds (8:21) or His teaching about the passion (8:31-33) and lack faith (4:40). 

Only when one recognizes that Mark sees the message of repentance and conversion as inwardly directed to the disciples, as well as outwardly to the crowds, can we realize that evangelization is a lifelong call for the Church and for the world. That is why Jesus’ summary exhortation to repent and believe in the good news is so essential in Mark. Conversion is not simply a one-time happening that comes from accepting Jesus’ call to be evangelized. It is a repeated message, over and over again, that should find a home among His own disciples as well as in the world at large. 

What Is New about the New Evangelization?

Just how does the “new evangelization” relate to the Church’s traditional message of evangelization? It is clear that the context for the new evangelization is the increasing secularization of the world, especially the Western world, where the seeds of Christianity first took root. Pope Benedict XVI has made it clear, for instance, that Europe, the traditional bastion of Catholic faith, has lost considerable ground in the faith in recent decades. Thus the need for a resurgence of evangelization — a new evangelization — a reaching out to the modern world, especially the young, using every inventive method possible to communicate more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is an attempt to “re-propose” the Gospel. 

But there is more to the new evangelization than this. Another aspect of the concept falls right into line with the teaching in Mark’s Gospel. The Lineamenta, or preparatory document, for the Synod noted that the new evangelization must be directed to the members of the Church as well! We, like the disciples in Mark, are as much in need of ongoing conversion, of repentance, of a new acquisition of the Gospel message as any “outsider.” 

In the context of the aftermath of the sexual abuse crisis, this message strikes me as vital. Though our ecclesiology says the Church is the pristine bride of Christ, the reality is that we, the members of the Church and the body of Christ, remain a sinful people, ever in need of being reborn by the grace of Christ. A call to put the faith more concretely into practice in our modern lives is the eternal call to faith proclaimed by the Gospels. We return to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel:  

Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled and God’s reign is at hand; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:14-15; my translation). 

This is Jesus’ clarion call to faith. It involves both repentance, an acknowledgment of our sinfulness, and an openness to accept by faith the “good news” God freely offers humanity. 

Faith, a Personal Encounter with Christ

Another way in which the new evangelization connects with Mark’s Gospel is through the concept of faith. In the practical recommendations issued from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the “year of faith,” frequent mention is made of finding creative ways to familiarize lay people with the contents of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Thus, there is an obvious “content” orientation that is also found in the concept of the new evangelization. This is certainly needed, especially given the limited comprehension of so many Catholics about the specifics of their faith. 

But the Lineamenta orients the project of evangelization simultaneously in another direction by emphasizing that the first goal of the new evangelization is to bring people into contact with Christ, whether for the first time or in a renewed fashion. It is first and foremost a personal call! It is an invitation to encounter Christ, especially in Word and Sacrament. 

Such a personal orientation to faith is at home in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus encourages people’s faith. It is primarily a relationship, an act of trust and confidence, especially in God. Jesus eschews fear, which blocks faith, and invites people to have utter confidence in God’s power to work in their lives (Mk 5:36). He also claims that even the littlest amount of faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains and that having faith, trust in God, can accomplish anything (Mk 11:23-24). Even more startling is that faith is a prerequisite for miracles. Jesus asserts that people’s faith has saved them. Faith is not the result of some marvelous or magical happening but utter confidence in God that enables miracles to take place that are beyond human comprehension (Mk 2:5; 5:34; cf. 6:5 where lack of faith prevents miracles). 

In the end, the ideal of faith in Mark seems to be found in the humble admission of the father of the sick child: “I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24). That is the paradox of faith. Our faith often falls short of the ideal. It always needs more encouragement, more coaxing, more assurance. Ultimately, faith is a gift of God and not simply a result of our own will. That brings us right back to the need for evangelization, directed outwardly and inwardly, ad gentes and ad fideles. This would be a worthy way to bring the liturgical year of Mark to a close and to open the year of faith with renewed vigor. TP 

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1 The fact that this sentence is part of a later addition to Mark, one of several endings in fact, does not negate its importance. The wording resembles that of Mt 28:16-10. Both texts offer evidence of the commission of the risen Lord to the disciples to go forth and evangelize. 

2 Ad Gentes, No. 2. 

3 See R. D. Witherup, Conversion in the New Testament (Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 22-29. 

4 See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith (Libreria Vaticana Editrice, 2012). 

Father Witherup, S.S., is Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice (Sulpicians) and a frequent contributor to The Priest. He is also author of Gold Tested in Fire: A New Pentecost for the Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2012).