Until just the other day, it seems, a cynic might reasonably have pointed to a surprising resemblance between the “new evangelization” and the weather: lots of talk about both of them, not much action about either. In recent months, Pope Benedict XVI has been trying to correct that as far as evangelization is concerned.
Earlier this year he established a special office for the new evangelization as part of the Roman Curia. He has made the new evangelization the topic of the world Synod of Bishops taking place in October 2012 in Rome. Next year, too, new evangelization pilot programs will be conducted in several major European cities. In short — it looks like things are starting to happen.
What is the new evangelization? Pope Benedict, like Blessed Pope John Paul II before him, says it’s the effort to revive the faith in places where it once was strong but now appears to be fading under the impact of secularization — places where the people have become, in Benedict’s words, “a people of unbelief and distance from God.”
In particular that means parts of Western Europe like Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, and lately even Ireland, where Christianity has been in numerical decline for years. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin says the Sunday Mass attendance rate there has fallen to 18 percent and in some parishes 5 percent or even lower.
But problems also exist in countries like the United States. Here, the number of unchurched people is rising, while the number of dropouts from the Catholic Church totals more than 20 million Americans.
Against this background, interest in the new evangelization has lately been spreading to the grass roots in response to the impetus from Rome.
A recent illustration of what’s happening was a symposium on “intellectual tasks of the new evangelization” cosponsored in Washington by the doctrine committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the school of theology and religious studies at The Catholic University of America. The invitees were several dozen junior faculty in Catholic college and university departments of theology and religious studies.
Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy said the USCCB doctrine committee had for a long time been looking for a way to “build up a relationship with this younger generation of theologians,” the Sept. 15-17 symposium being one result. New evangelization was the topic, he said, because theology has a role in developing its intellectual foundation.
In opening remarks, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Texas, presented several challenges related to “the life of the intellect” and new evangelization.
Among these were new initiatives in the direction of apologetics — the application of reason to faith — now urgently needed in light of the decline of neo-Thomism in Catholic circles in recent years.
Speaking from a pastoral perspective, Cardinal DiNardo contended that “young people today are hungry for the word of God … starving for it,” and theologians have work to do in shaping the Church’s response.
New ways of proclaiming
All the same, the new evangelization can’t involve a fundamentally new message — the message of Christ is a given. “The Church brings to us today what it has brought to the world for 2,000 years — an encounter with Jesus Christ,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., chairman of the USCCB doctrinal committee, reminded the group in a homily preached at the closing Mass.
But the manner of presenting the message can and must change from era to era. And the changes needed today are more than just using new digital media, though that’s probably part of it.
Noting the “narrative approach” to the Bible currently popular among Scripture scholars — an approach stressing the stories Scripture tells — Father Frank Matera of Catholic University spoke of the need to look to the Bible for “a narrative that helps people understand their lives.”
Asked how best to communicate with the “everyday Catholic,” Father Matera replied, “The first thing is preaching, the second thing is preaching, and the third thing is preaching.” Homilies in most American parishes are “abysmal,” he added.
But a woman who teaches moral theology asked how to preach to a typical congregation including habitual fornicators, men addicted to pornography, and women who’ve lately had abortions — often, at the urging of husbands or boyfriends — while most people don’t even want to hear the words “sin” and “hell.” No one tried to answer her question.
Two days earlier, nevertheless, Cardinal DiNardo had turned to a very old model — St. Irenaeus of Lyons (130-200), a Christian thinker who battled the heresy called Gnosticism, to illustrate what’s necessary to preach the Gospel effectively in any time or place. Irenaeus, he said, was “always optimistic that the faith is its own best witness if it is proclaimed and lived well.”
Things like the Washington symposium obviously aren’t new evangelization in and of themselves, so that some people may be moved to dismiss them as talk instead of action. But the obvious reply is that serious discussion is needed to stimulate the new thinking that new evangelization requires.
Pope Benedict said something like that last May. “A new method of proclamation” is needed, he said, to counter the effects of secularization apparent in “the exclusion of God from people’s lives.”
Much the same has been true before in the history of the Church, and it’s eminently true now.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.