Presentation and Witness

When the Holy Father, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, proclaimed a Year of Faith beginning Oct. 11, 2012, little did we guess how much our faith would be exercised during that year. In the Church, we witnessed the historic succession of a living pope to a living pope. In our country, the name “Sandy” came to evoke destruction and violence. Running a marathon now raises doubts about large crowds and safety.

This says nothing of increasing concerns related to the growing education–economic gap between rich and poor, real and tangible concerns about religious liberty in our democratic republic, and the effects of a relativistic-materialistic-individualistic culture in which we seek to raise and educate our children with a view to their eternal happiness.

It has been almost 40 years since Pope Paul VI issued the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, yet the call for evangelization resounds as clearly today as it did then. In this exhortation, Pope Paul VI highlighted the absolute need for a “clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus” (No. 22). In more recent years, the pontificates of Blessed John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and our Holy Father Pope Francis have reaffirmed and expounded upon Evangelii Nuntiandi.

In 1983, at the Opening Address of the Sixth General Assembly of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, Blessed John Paul II took the call to evangelization a step further by calling for a New Evangelization: “The commemoration of the millennium of evangelization will achieve its full meaning if it is a commitment . . . not to re-evangelization, but to a new evangelization. New in its ardor, its methods and its expressions.” In this way, Blessed John Paul II not only named the New Evangelization, but also gave it direction within the Church. Pope Benedict XVI tied the Year of Faith with the New Evangelization by calling the Synod of Bishops in October 2012 and choosing the theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.”

As stated in the Scriptures, evangelization is the work of the Church: “Go out into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15). The New Evangelization provides a fresh platform by which we re-propose Christ as the Father’s gift, who in the words of Gaudium et Spes, No. 22, “fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” To re-propose Christ and focus attention toward eternity, faith, and grace is good news in a world burdened with a dogged sense of isolation and loneliness.

The document “Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization” published by the Holy See in 2007 states, “To evangelize does not mean simply to teach a doctrine but to proclaim Jesus Christ by one’s words and actions, that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world” (No. 29). The goal of evangelization is to foster and create the place and space for this wonderful encounter with Christ, which “is at one and the same time intimate, personal, public and communal” (The Instrumentum Laboris, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of Faith,” No. 18).

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us in the introduction to Deus Caritas Est that Christianity is not solely an intellectual experience but is “an encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Evangelization is an experience of Christ with the Christian community of the Church, which can be the antidote to the loneliness and isolation felt in our modern society.

Traditionally, evangelization has been understood as the initial proclamation of the Gospel to those who have never heard the Gospel proclaimed. However, at the homily of First Vespers on the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in 2010, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI highlighted the need for a “re-proposing” of the Good News to all, including the Christian faithful who are actively participating in their faith and those who have drifted from the faith.

This has significant implications, not only for evangelization, but also for Catholic educational institutions that help foster an encounter with Christ and then nurture this initial encounter with ongoing catechesis and faith formation. The goal of the New Evangelization and Catholic Education is not simply well formed Catholics, but Catholics who, inspired by a renewal of faith, have the confidence and desire to go out and share the Good News of Christ with everyone they meet.

A profound, personal and transformative encounter with the person of Christ provides grace, strength and a new reference point to help overcome the influences of the secularization and materialism that have led many people to question their faith and to no longer consider Christ and the Church relevant to their lives. The New Evangelization challenges teachers and catechists to discover new and creative ways to provide regular opportunities for their students to encounter Christ and to re-propose the truth of Christ to students who live in a society that has grown indifferent or antagonistic to the Gospel message.

Many students themselves question the faith that is being presented. Children and adults today do not need merely an authentic presentation of the faith, but an authentic witness of the faith. They need to see and hear the lived experiences of others who practice their faith and who integrate Christ into their daily lives. Pastors, principals, teachers, and catechists who live the faith, share it with joy and live in a vibrant community of faith can profoundly impact the lives of those to whom they minister and will be credible witnesses of a message that brings hope.

If evangelization is to foster and create that place and space for an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, Catholic schools and religious education programs are uniquely positioned to be centers and communities of this New Evangelization.

Catholic education is one of the best success stories the Catholic Church in the United States has to tell. “The Catholic School,” the document by the Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education reminds us, “At great cost and sacrifice our forebears were inspired by the teaching of the Church to establish schools which enriched mankind and responded to the needs of time and place” (No. 65).

Our grandparents and great grandparents assessed the cultural context in which they lived and in which their children would live and in many ways found it wanting. Because of their concerns, they established schools and religious education programs to assist them in handing on the faith to the next generation. As Father Harold A. Buetow illustrates in his book Of Singular Benefit, The Story of Catholic Education in the United States, the growth of the Church in the United States took place amidst adversity. Father Buetow writes, “Priests and bishops were concerned with preserving the faith of their people, the erection of Churches, vocations and, above all, Catholic education.”

Countless examples of leadership from the past point to the creativity, energy and drive that these great evangelizers poured forth in preaching and teaching the faith. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was not only a holy woman but a creative and innovative educator. Because her sisters did not have professional or formal educational training, she invited priests to come to Emmitsburg, Md., to train them to be teachers. She observed the sisters in their classrooms and provided individual feedback for their improvement. She helped the sisters create innovative methods of instruction that were judged, at the time, to be somewhat progressive.

Father Gabriel Richard, a Sulpician priest who worked in the Detroit region in the 1800s, wrote a speller for his students and secured a printing press on which to print books for distribution. Having fled France during the French Revolution (1787-1799), he dreamed of establishing an institute of higher education in the United States. Along with a Protestant clergyman and a Washington lawyer appointed judge of the Michigan territory, Father Richard succeeded in establishing the Charter for the University of Michigan in 1817, two years before Thomas Jefferson established the charter for the University of Virginia.

In the early 1900s, in a very different example of courage and leadership, the Catholic Church became a litigant in the court case Pierce vs. The Society of Sisters. This case chiseled out the freedom of parents to establish non-government schools in which to teach the faith. At that time the Catholic Church and The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary were reluctant to engage in a lawsuit, but once they realized the importance of the case as it pertained to the mission of evangelization and the teaching of the faith, they acted. They were willing to enter the struggle to gain the freedom to teach the faith unencumbered.

In a contemporary example, the late Bishop Joseph McFadden, former chairman of the Committee on Catholic Education at the USCCB, believed strongly in parental choice for schools. He worked with the governor of Pennsylvania and the state legislature to assure passage of a corporate scholarship tax credit for special-needs and low-income families who chose to send their children to Catholic schools or to other private and charter schools.

In a statement written in preparation for a meeting of Parental Choice and the New Evangelization, Bishop McFadden wrote:

As the Catholic Church in America begins to embark on implementing programs to assist in the New Evangelization for the Third Millennium, it is imperative that we include the role of parents as the primary educators of their children and insist on their freedom to exercise their inalienable right to choose the school and program that best allows them to fulfill this right and obligation.

Catholic Schools are the privileged vehicles to accomplish this work of evangelization especially for the children of the new immigrants to America in the 21st century who deserve our special care and attention. Every Catholic needs to recognize the responsibility to participate in the New Evangelization by committing to support Catholic schools that, rooted in our Catholic beliefs and traditions, have a proven track record in the formation of the whole person made in the image and likeness of God. 

Stories of creative and innovative leaders in Catholic education can be found over and over in the history of Catholic education across this country. This history reminds us that Catholic schools exist, not to be like “the school down the street,” but to be true to the mission to teach children their dignity as human beings, their responsibility to the world in which they live, and to keep before their eyes the reality of eternal life.

Strong leaders with vision and dedication are at the center of excellent Catholic education and will be at the center of its survival. These committed leaders have a clear understanding of the mission and identity of the educational community. They have the ability to bring out talent in teachers and enthusiasm in students, and to gain the commitment of the larger Catholic community, all at the service of the educational purpose and the faith environment of the school or religious education program.

Evangelization requires men and women unwilling to compromise the values and characteristics of Catholic education. As faith-filled leaders, they understand that Catholic education is Christ-centered with a Christian vision of reality that focuses on the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. The Catholic education environment fosters respect for human life, teaches objective truth and nurtures the sacramental life of the students in the liturgy.

Faith-filled leaders respect the central role of parents in the education of their children and encourage the faith-life of the parents. The document “The Catholic School” states, “When the Catholic school adds its weight, consciously and overtly, to the liberating power of grace, it becomes the Christian leaven in the world” (No. 84). Catholic educational leaders — bishops, pastors, parents, teachers, and catechists — are critical to full and vibrant faith communities.

The faith community as a whole is meant to be a witness of the power of God’s love and healing. Yet, the Lineamenta for the Synod of Bishops on the “New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith” (No. 15) recognized that in their local churches many Christian communities are experiencing fatigue, which can endanger the proclamation of the faith. As ministers of God’s Word and evangelizers, it is essential that we become aware of and overcome personal weariness in ministry. A sad, unhappy Catholic will not likely attract others to the faith. It is quite natural to experience times of loneliness or sadness in ministry, but if allowed to become the norm, this will impact effectiveness in witnessing and attracting others to Christ. Evangelii Nuntiandi states that “the Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself” (No. 15). As pastors and leaders in the Church and in Catholic education, we must renew ourselves through continual and ongoing encounters with the Risen Christ.

The 58 propositions that came forth from the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith provide insight into the direction of the New Evangelization. They clearly show that the New Evangelization is neither a short-term initiative nor a particular program. The New Evangelization is a permanent, revitalized way of seeing ourselves as both Catholic and evangelizers.

Proposition 7 clearly states that the Church’s mission to evangelize includes evangelization ad gentes (announcing the Gospel to those who do not know Christ), the continuing growth in faith that is the ordinary life of the Church, and outreach to those who have become distant from the Church. The children and adults we teach and catechize fall into these categories. As Catholic educators of the faith, we are blessed with the opportunity to share the Gospel with those who may not have heard it before or who may have heard it but did not let it take root in their lives. This is a great privilege, a blessed opportunity and, at the same time, a challenge.

The New Evangelization is an opportunity for all Catholics to renew their faith and deepen their experience of sacramental worship so that sharing the Good News of Christ with family, friends, neighbors and students will be effective. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops document “Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States” and the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis Internet resource, “Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization” offer a variety of suggestions for dioceses and parishes to create, enhance and renew their evangelization efforts. “Evangelization must remain rooted in the parish. It is in the parish that one becomes engaged with the Christian community, learns how to become a disciple of Christ, is nurtured by Scripture, is nourished by the sacraments, and ultimately becomes an evangelizer.”

The New Evangelization calls for creative methods. It requires schools, religious education programs, parents, parishes and parishioners to actively welcome those returning to the Church and those interested in learning more about the faith. Engaging homilies and rich sacramental practice and devotions will enliven every parishioner’s experience of the Eucharist and help create a more welcoming faith and educational community. A systematic process of evangelization and catechesis to fully initiate new and returning Catholics into a vibrant faith life is vital.

The New Evangelization strives to re-present the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. In a culture full of diverse voices and conflicting messages, the witness of faith in the Catholic community alive with the Gospel message is refreshing and humanizing. This Year of Faith is a perfect time to recall the irreplaceable role of education and evangelization in our history, faith and salvation. Let us pray for educators with the vision to re-present in our day and time the rich and beautiful heritage of the Catholic Church. TP 

SISTER JOHN MARY FLEMING, O.P., is Executive Director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.DR. MURPHY is Executive Director of the Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.