Curtis Martin
Fellowship of Catholic University Students founder Curtis Martin, pictured in this file photo, was recently appointed a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. CNS photo

Two American consultors to the new Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization say that the United States is fertile ground for efforts to bring Christ back to a culture that has become secularized but is searching for a connection to something deeper.

Ralph Martin, who serves as president of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Renewal Ministries and as a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit, and Curtis Martin, founder and president of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students, were appointed as consultors to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. They are the only Americans among six laypeople and nine clergy members whose appointments to the council were announced Dec. 7. The council is led by Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella.

New ardor

Ralph Martin
Ralph Martin

The “new” evangelization means sharing the same Good News the Church has always shared, said Ralph Martin.

“We’re talking about the same message and the same goal,” Ralph Martin said. “It’s the faith in Jesus Christ. It’s new in ardor and experiences and method.”

It’s also new in audience. Whereas in the past, evangelization was directed outward, toward populations unacquainted with the Church, the new evangelization means sharing it with people who have already heard the message of Christ, even been baptized in many cases, but who have not understood or accepted it.

“It’s directed at people who are no longer living as disciples of Christ and may not even understand what it means to be Catholic,” Ralph Martin said. “The mission field is not in some unexplored area of Africa. It’s right here in our cities and neighborhoods.”

And our communities are ripe for the effort, said Curtis Martin.

“Here in the U.S., the new evangelization is the only evangelization we’ve ever experienced,” he added. “We have only grown through immigration, birth or marriage. So here, there is a new impulse toward evangelization and bringing the message to people who have already heard it. It’s a re-engagement, a re-evangelization. It’s a call for new methods and new vigor so we can represent the message.”

Joyful interactions

That’s what FOCUS tries to do, he said, by sending teams of young, committed Catholics, just out of college themselves, to college campuses where they make friends with students, share the Gospel and invite them to a life of faith in the church. Their outreach is to non-Catholic and Catholic students alike.

“On college campuses, the Catholic Church loses most of the battles, but we are losing by forfeit. When we are able to field a team and show up, we win,” Curtis Martin said. “Catholicism still works. It just hasn’t been tried very zealously. … We want positive, joyful interactions with practicing Catholics, so when the time is right, they are ready to come to the Church.”

Curtis Martin said he expects that it is his work with FOCUS that likely led to his appointment to the new council. FOCUS has been blessed with good relationships with bishops both in the United States and at the Vatican for its 14-year history, he said. He counts himself and Ralph Martin among a handful of “active evangelists” on the council, with the majority being theologians.

The new evangelization is aimed at bringing the Church back to its apostolic roots, when all members took responsibility for the spreading of the Gospel. “For a long time, the laity were left to pay, pray and obey,” Curtis Martin said. “That’s not the way the Church is supposed to work.”

Called to evangelize

Curtis Martin is a convert who decided to become Catholic before the new evangelization called for by Pope John Paul II started to take hold. When he read the documents of the Second Vatican Council and was astonished when he saw what Pope Paul VI had written about evangelization.

“He said, the Church exists in order to evangelize. That is her deepest identity — paraphrasing from Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World),” Curtis Martin said. “I would never have described the Catholic Church that way. The Catholic Church is suffering from a case of spiritual Alzheimer’s. We are forgetting who we are.”

Since then, several Catholic evangelists have come on the scene, including converts to the faith such as Jeff Cavins and Scott Hahn. Pope John Paul awoke a latent strain of evangelism, especially among youth, and more Catholics are embracing the call to evangelize.

“Now, there is a stream of converts into the Catholic Church, and I think we are about to see a tsunami.”

Challenges ahead

While Ralph Martin also sees signs of a springtime of evangelization, he says it will not be easy. He was an editor of the 2008 book “The New Evangelization: Overcoming the Obstacles” (Paulist Press, $16.95). Among the difficulties identified are confusion about how important it is for people to know Jesus Christ in order to be saved, he said. While the Church does teach that God can save anyone, even unbelievers, “there’s a lot more limit there that people don’t understand.”

There also needs to be a new Pentecost to put the wind in the sails of the new evangelization, and the faithful must look for and work with the Holy Spirit, and clergy need to change their focus from ministering only to their flocks to searching out the lost sheep.

Sacred Heart seminary has shifted its focus away from a traditional model toward training priests to be missionaries, not just to the people who are sitting in their pews every Sunday, but to those who choose not to be there.

“In all the traditionally Catholic or Christian countries, there’s been a massive exodus from the faith,” Ralph Martin said. “We’re living in a hostile, secular culture. A lot of Catholics have been secularized and no longer understand what it means to be living as a Catholic.”

The work of the council at first will be to watch for developments from next year’s World Synod of Bishops, which will take the new evangelization as its topic, Ralph Martin said. A document about the new evangelization will be produced from the synod, and that will provide a blueprint for the work of the council, he said.

“The synod is directing the attention of the world toward it,” he said.

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois. Note: Ralph and Curtis Martin are not related to each other, or to the writer.