What do Pope Benedict XVI’s recent trip to his homeland Germany and a small symposium of newly minted American theologians last month in Washington, D.C., have in common?
Both centered around the idea of “new evangelization.” And both pointed to a programmatic renewal of the Church, starting with a personal faith rekindling of those who consider themselves believers, at whatever stage of commitment.
The idea is not a new one. Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), sketched an outline of the need: “As a result of the frequent situations of dechristianization in our day, [proclamation of the Gospel] also proves equally necessary for innumerable people who have been baptized but who live quite outside Christian life, for simple people who have a certain faith but an imperfect knowledge of the foundations of that faith, for intellectuals who feel the need to know Jesus Christ in a light different from the instruction they received as children, and for many others.”
‘As individuals and as the community of the Church, let us live the simplicity of a great love, which is both the simplest and hardest thing on earth.’
Pope John Paul II popularized the phrase, “new evangelization,” named Mary the guiding “Star of the New Evangelization” and framed the dawn of the third Christian millennium as a summons to “new evangelization.”
Pope Benedict XVI has picked up the theme and made it his own. He’s created a Vatican office for new evangelization, which was first suggested three decades ago by the founder of the new ecclesial movement, Communion and Liberation. And he’s called a special meeting of the world’s bishops next year on the topic.
Even the most casual observer of the pope cannot help but notice that it is something he frequently talks about. His visit to Germany last month was just the latest example.
In some ways, it was the perfect venue. Religious practice in Germany has plummeted in recent decades, despite the country’s deep Christian roots in the heart of Western Europe.
The pope’s message was simple: Without God, there is no future. An encounter with Jesus Christ is what gives meaning to life, freedom from despair and anxiety, and the creation of a society that is truly human. “Dare to be glowing saints,” he told young people during an evening prayer vigil, “in whose eyes and hearts the love of Christ beams and who thus bring light to the world.”
The pope made it clear he wasn’t calling for “a new strategy to relaunch the Church,” big programs or better public relations campaigns. He called for nearly the opposite: stripping away all distractions from the core truth that God is love.
“As individuals and as the community of the Church, let us live the simplicity of a great love, which is both the simplest and hardest thing on earth, because it demands no more and no less than the gift of oneself,” he said.
Whether the pope’s words resonate with Germans, or echo within local churches around the world, remains to be seen. But the core idea seems to be catching on. At the Washington symposium of theologians, John C. Cavadini of the University of Notre Dame even suggested revising Theology 101 courses to focus on “how all of the major Catholic teachings are ways of talking about, and referring the believer to, mysteries of divine love.”
The basic point, though, is clear: For the Church to be able to evangelize, believers must first re-evangelize themselves, through simplification, prayer, study, the sacraments and conscious surrender of their lives to God who is love.