A new attitude

Said a husband to his wife: “What is this New Evangelization that we hear about in Church? I thought only TV preachers evangelized.”

The renewed focus on Catholic evangelization has surprised many faithful. After we consider why the Church stresses it, we’ll understand why all Catholics are called to evangelize.

The first words of Mark’s Gospel are: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1). Early Christians, under the threat of persecution and death, needed the message of the Good News that Jesus offered them. They lived his message and courageously went to their death convinced that Jesus’ death on the cross delivered them from sin and promised eternal happiness. This was their great hope.

For every succeeding generation of Christians, Jesus’ death and resurrection are eternal reminders of God’s great love in the midst of life’s difficulties and the wonders all around us — the birth of a child, the beauty of spring flowers, the power of the ocean and the miracle of the universe. In good and difficult times, God stands by us. This gives us hope, one that our society desperately needs.

Basing their teachings on Jesus’ Good News, his early followers taught his promise of salvation. They went to the ends of the earth, obeying Jesus’ command, to “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations …” (Mt 28:19). Following them, Christians of every age continue to proclaim Jesus’ message of salvation.

A renewed ardor

To evangelize means to share Jesus’ Good News. Catholic always evangelized, even though they didn’t use the word. My mother evangelized me when I got very sick at the beginning of the first grade. I had to stay home from school all year. Each day, she went to my teacher, got my lessons and taught them to me at home. She prayed with me, and I learned about Jesus. From her and my father’s example, I found out what being a Christian meant. Their words and example were the most fundamental kind of evangelization — the most important kind.

parish and new evangelization
Ask the pastor to focus on the New Evangelization as he preaches on the Sunday readings, centering on the Christian way of life and the mission of every Christian. W.P. Wittman Ltd.

Times change and the current world is far more complex and dangerous. Secularism, relativism and amorality have altered society. The United States, once committed through our constitution to Godlike values, no longer permit God’s name to appear in public places. Many families, Catholics and otherwise, are more interested in soccer and secular activities than Sunday church attendance. Rarely does prayer occur in some homes.

The tone of today’s world has motivated recent popes to challenge Catholics to take a new look at evangelization. This new focus began with Pope Paul VI’s classic work, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), published in 1975. Blessed John Paul II continued this evangelization theme not long after he was elected pope. He called for a “New Evangelization” during a visit to the Shrine of the Holy Cross in Mogila, Poland, in 1979 and often reiterated this call in subsequent years.

Initially he focused mainly on evangelizing countries that once were Catholic, but had fallen away from the Faith. At the same time, he also called for new efforts to evangelize those who were catechized in their younger years and subsequently left the Faith.

Pope Benedict XVI reiterated this theme when he called a Synod of Bishops dedicated to New Evangelization in October 2012. In particular, Pope Benedict stressed the negative influence of the secularization of society and its challenge to the New Evangelization. In their writings and speeches, these popes called for an evangelization that is new in “ardor, methods and expression” (Pope John Paul II, CELAM Conference, March 9, 1983).

A way of life

When the cardinals elected Pope Francis as the bishop of Rome in March, the New Evangelization took a different twist. While affirming what his predecessors taught about it, the new pope focused on the poor and on giving personal witness to evangelization. When introduced to the vast assembly in St. Peter’s Square, he wore a simple white cassock and first asked the people gathered there to bless him. Immediately, the Catholic world sensed that change was in the air. He chose to live in a simple guest room, not in the papal palace; he regularly celebrated Mass with the workers at the Vatican and ate with them; he walked into the crowds and greeted them; and he washed the feet of young men and women in a Roman prison on Holy Thursday.

What attracts people to him hints at his approach to the New Evangelization. True to his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, he challenges Catholics and others to look to Christ, to recognize his ministry with the poor and to follow his way. The path Jesus invites us to take is a whole way of life, and is not limited to an occasional Mass on Sunday or praying the Rosary.

This way of life that Jesus shows us indicates that specific good acts are part of a bigger picture. Simply put, Pope Francis asks Catholics to acknowledge Christianity as a way of life, embracing everything we are and do. This requires a change of attitude, fundamental to the New Evangelization.

Without our commitment to living this Christian way, the New Evangelization produces limited results.

Life as Jesus’ agents

When addressing the New Evangelization in parishes and families, often the first question is, “What are practical ways to do this?” Americans want specific ways of acting, but if this is where the New Evangelization ends, the results will be minimal. Something more basic is needed for it to succeed. The New Evangelization is a matter of conversion to a new way of thinking and acting. It demands more than simply giving practical answers to the question of “How to evangelize?”

Consider holding semiannual parish-wide evenings of prayer for inactive Catholics. Shutterstock

A new attitude of evangelization is needed. This means seeing in a new way that Christianity is a way of life. This way of life must be the prime motivator of our actions and be central to our mission as Christians. It includes an attitude that focuses on sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ in our homes, at work and in the neighborhood.

For me, it means looking at how my parents evangelized me as a child and how I can do the same as a priest. For you, it means recognizing who evangelized you and how their example changed your life. For all, it means looking to Pope Francis and observing how he evangelizes the crowds through his kindness, outreach to the poor and human touch. His actions exemplify that the New Evangelization tells us to zero in on Jesus’ command to share his message with all peoples and to realize that we are his agents in the world where we live and work. Such an attitude of evangelization must be the primary motivator for all we are and do.

As we develop a new attitude toward proclaiming Jesus’ good news through our example and words, we remember the single most important aspect of this effort. It’s growing in a greater awareness of God’s presence through our entire lives, especially his presence in the Eucharist. When we realize the magnitude of the Eucharistic mystery, it becomes easier to develop a whole new attitude that makes Christ central to our way of life.

When sharing the Good News is our primary motivator, we live it out every day. Let us look at several basic notions, as we consider the New Evangelization in families and parishes.

Religious environment

family pilgrimage
Plan a family pilgrimage to a sacred place not far from home and prepare for it by having children do research on it, including getting materials on its history on the Internet. This could be a monastery, a religious community or a special Catholic Church. Shutterstock

A positive attitude toward evangelization is first established by a family’s religious home environment. Today, with mixed marriages reaching almost 50 percent, we need to consider how parents share Jesus’ Good News in Catholic and mixed religion home environments.

When both parents are Catholic, the Catholic home environment must be holistic and include family prayer — like praying the Rosary or before family meals — the Bible, religious statues, pictures, a crucifix, outreach to the poor and needy, and regular attendance at Sunday Mass and other church functions.

When one parent is Catholic and the other is not, the home environment must include symbols and practices from the faith of both spouses, Catholic and other prayers, acknowledgment of similarities and differences in religious practice, regular church attendance, concern for the poor and respect for both religions.

In both instances, the most important thing is that the home environment is religious, permeated by Christian values, so that children develop a positive attitude toward Jesus and acknowledge their responsibility to carry out his mission as part of their baptismal calling.

Outreach to community

Catholic parishes have evangelized for decades, yet the number of Catholics attending Sunday Mass continues to decline. What is the problem? First, evangelization is more than talking about sharing Jesus’ Good News or establishing an evangelization team. It’s easy to discuss ways to evangelize and arrange evangelization committees, but it’s difficult to develop an evangelizing parish. Second, evangelization begins with hospitality, but includes more than a pastor or greeter welcoming people before Mass or coffee afterward. Hospitality must permeate the entire parish, including those who answer the phone, teachers in the Catholic school, other parish ministries, the maintenance staff, volunteer workers, pastoral and finance council members, and the pastor, who is the key to effective parish evangelization.

Catholic parishes can learn from evangelical churches. Some of the most successful evangelical and mainline Protestant churches stress “community” and outreach to the poor. As one Catholic parent put it, “My children beg me to take them to the neighborhood evangelical church service each Wednesday evening, because their friends are there. They have great activities and fun for them, besides the prayer and worship they celebrate.”

Some people make fun of evangelical churches for providing coffee beforehand. If they attend, however, they soon realize that “community as a whole,” not the coffee, is stressed. When this communal spirit is present, those attending church services feel a real sense of welcome.

Evangelical churches also reach out to the needy. After an evangelical megachurch service, a member of the congregation asked a Catholic visitor if she wanted to go with her to give away light bulbs. Curious as to why she was giving out light bulbs, the Catholic visitor accompanied her to a poor apartment complex, where the church member went door to door asking if people needed light bulbs. Often, besides giving away free light bulbs, the evangelical visitor prayed with those receiving them and invited them to her church. Such churches often make service to the poor a high priority.

In the Catholic community, a new attitude toward evangelization must be intimately connected with revitalizing the parish community as a whole. This is no easy task with the consolidation and closing of many parishes. It’s vital, however, for the long-range success of the New Evangelization. 

Father Robert J. Hater is professor of pastoral and systematic theology at Athenaeum of Ohio in Cincinnati, and is the author of “The Parish Guide to the New Evangelization” (OSV, $16.95).

Practical Suggestions for Parishes
Practical Suggestions for Families