Two thousand years ago, the first Christians had a job to do: Proclaim the Good News to Jew and Gentile alike, then transform their culture, radically and completely, with the Gospel.
No small task, especially considering the first people to take it on were few in number and weighed down by their own sins, fears and failings … at least at first.
Yet somehow, by God’s grace, they pulled it off.
Two millennia after the first evangelization, the Church finds herself in an almost parallel cultural situation. The numbers of the faithful are relatively few, whole generations and cultures have apostatized, and large swaths of the populace have never heard the Good News.
Changing that is the work of the New Evangelization, and taking on that work is what Pope Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II before him have asked all Catholics to do.
In June 2012, the Language and Catechetical Institute hosted the conference “Proclaim the Good News Always and Everywhere,” offering participants a deeper understanding of the essentials of the New Evangelization, the pillars upon which Catholics’ efforts must rest.
The first of those pillars is Sacred Scripture.
As Mary Healy, associate professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, explained, “For two millennia, everyone in the West was at home in Sacred Scripture. Art, architecture and music were rooted in biblical imagery. It was the fabric of people’s thoughts and the atmosphere they breathed.”
In the 20th century, however, that changed, and with the loss of biblical literacy, people also lost an understanding of the story of salvation history and their place in it.
“Those who don’t know that story become vulnerable to secular narratives,” Healy told conference participants. “Their lives lose a sense of meaning, and they don’t know where they’ve come from or where they’re going.”
Changing that, she continued, requires that all Catholics strengthen their knowledge of Scripture, immersing themselves in God’s Word so they can be transformed by it.
Use the Catechism
An understanding of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, must accompany knowledge of Sacred Scripture.
“The Catechism of the Catholic Church was written for the New Evangelization,” said Dr. Petroc Willey, deputy director of the Maryvale Institute in the United Kingdom. “It will do everything we need it to do if we understand why it was written and how to use it.”
The “why,” he explained, was the post-Vatican II trend in catechesis that focused on individual experience at the expense of God and Church teaching. That trend, however, served no one, as man can only truly understand himself in light of his Creator.
To address the crisis in catechesis that ensued, the Catechism returned God and his work to the center of catechesis.
“The Catechism shows us the face of the Father,” Willey said.
As for the “how,” Willey stressed that using the Catechism well requires Catholics to understand that it’s neither a dictionary nor a reference book, but rather “a teaching tool that puts things in the order they must be taught and gives a hierarchy of truths.”
Power of family
On a more personal level, William Newton, professor of theology at the International Theological Institute in Austria, pointed out that the New Evangelization depends, in large part, on the strength of individual Catholic families.
“The New Evangelization will succeed or fail on the basis of the Christian family,” he said. “The old structures of evangelization in the West are crumbling or of limited effectiveness. If the Faith is going to be passed on, it’s going to be passed on by the family.”
As such, Newton called on families to see themselves as “the embassy of the Church,” which puts unbelievers in touch with the Promised Land.
To be that “embassy,” Newton said married couples must strengthen their own communion as husband and wife, imaging indissoluble love for those in the culture who doubt that lasting love can exist.
He also urged parents to redouble their efforts to be their children’s primary educators and to recognize that, by participating in the Church’s mission, they will have to make choices that set them apart.
This includes proclaiming the fullness of the Church’s teachings on sexuality, including contraception, which is the fourth pillar of the New Evangelization.
“Want to evangelize?” asked Donald Asci, theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville. “Then defend Humanae Vitae.”
“Contraception is incompatible with the truth of the Gospel,” he explained. “The Gospel is the Good News. It tells us that God loved us so much that he sent his only son so that we might be saved. It tells us that in the eyes of God, we are worth saving. We can love one another as God loves us. In God, we will find happiness. We are to put our trust in him and be not afraid.”
At its root, he concluded, “contraception is despair over human dignity,” and the New Evangelization can’t move forward without Catholics recognizing that and helping others recognizing it too.
As Catholics do that, however, there’s one more pillar upon which our work must depend: a devotion to and practice of Divine Mercy.
“It’s not a coincidence that the great witnesses to holiness of the last century were great preachers of mercy,” said Vienna’s archbishop, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, in the conference’s closing address. “Our task is to relay both truth and mercy, to state the truth but to do it as Jesus did, with great love and humility.
“For the New Evangelization to succeed,” he concluded, “we all must become missionaries of mercy.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.