Early in his papacy, Pope John Paul II issued a call for a “New Evangelization” — an evangelization “new in ardor, new in method, new in expression.” That call wasn’t simply made to Catholics: It was made for Catholics, as well as for other peoples living in formerly Christian countries. And it was a call to renew, reawaken and revitalize the Catholic faith, to re-evangelize, as well as to approach pastoral care with an eye to the condition of modern man.
In more recent years, Pope Benedict XVI has continued to issue the same call. But are Catholics responding?
Recently Our Sunday Visitor put that question and others to Ralph Martin, president of Renewal Ministries and director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Mich.
Our Sunday Visitor: Why did Pope John Paul II feel the need to issue a call for a New Evangelization?
Ralph Martin: In Novo Millennio Ineunte [Pope John Paul’s apostolic letter on the 2000 jubilee year], he talked about how Christian society as we know it is now over; 1,700 years of Christendom is collapsing. In Western countries there used to be societal support for belief in God. There was respect for the Church. Today, however, that support is being stripped away in Western countries. There’s no longer support for basic Christian values. Our culture is becoming more aggressively anti-Christian every year. John Paul’s solution to that was to say that we need to launch a New Evangelization.
OSV: Did Pope John Paul have any advice about how to carry out the New Evangelization?
Martin: He did. Again, in Novo Millennio Ineunte he said that in order to launch the New Evangelization we first needed a new Pentecost, a rediscovery of the power of the Holy Spirit, a recovery of the passion and fervor of the early Church. In that, he seemed to be saying that we’re facing a situation more similar to that of the early Church than anything the Church has known for a very long time. We’re returning to being the minority, and we’re surrounded by an aggressive pagan culture. In order to survive we need the understanding the early Church had — that holiness isn’t just for a few special people, but for every baptized Catholic.
OSV: What responsibilities does that call place on individual Catholics?
Martin: There is a tremendous link between the universal call to holiness and the universal call to evangelization. Every baptized person has been called to participate in the mission of Christ and give their whole life to Christ. In baptism, we’re united to Christ. And Christ is not an abstract notion or only a historical figure. He’s a living person who has desires and plans. By virtue of being united with Christ we’re united with those desires and plans. Jesus has come to seek and save the lost. Jesus is in every baptized person wanting to reach out through us, to reconcile people to God through us, to give people eternal life through us. That’s huge, but a lot of Catholics don’t understand who is living within them.
OSV: What does the call to the New Evangelization mean on a practical level?
Martin: Practically it means we need to not just set up committees for evangelization. That can be a good thing to do, but what we’re not after is only hosting special or occasional evangelization events. What we’re after is something much more profound and far-reaching: awakening every single Catholic to their identity. We need to understand that we’re on a mission every day of our lives. We need to reach out and draw people to the Father. One of the most important things priests and bishops can do is teach that and equip the laity for this work.
OSV: Is that where catechesis comes in? What is the relationship between the two — catechesis and evangelization?
Martin: Both the National Directory for Catechesis and the General Directory for Catechesis locate catechesis in the framework of evangelization. In other words, evangelization is the broad framework in which catechesis should take place. So many people today come to be prepared for the sacraments not knowing what it means to live a Christian life. They’re there because the grandparents want the child baptized Catholic or confirmed, but the parents themselves aren’t going to Church. In some parishes in our area after a young person is confirmed, only about 15 percent continue coming to Church. The rest disappear. They might show up on Christmas or Easter, or they might not. All across the country you hear similar things. There is a huge need to take a second look at sacramental preparation. Getting people to intellectually know the meaning of the sacraments isn’t enough these days. What’s needed is an introduction to Christ and genuine conversion.
OSV: Can you give a bird’s-eye view of the progress we’ve made in answering the call?
Martin: I don’t think there’s been a lot of substantive progress made yet. Two things are holding us back. One is serious doctrinal confusion about whether it matters if people become Catholics or even Christians. A lot of people are under the misimpression that maybe a few really wicked people may go to hell, but everyone else is going to make it. That confusion about whether it really matters or not (and it does), takes away any motivation for evangelization among many. Secondly, I don’t think there can be a New Evangelization without a new Pentecost. We’ve got to rediscover the passion, enthusiasm, and fire of the early Church that followed Pentecost. If you don’t have passion, it’s going to be tough to share it with others. That passion can only come from an action of the Holy Spirit which we need to pray for.
Year For Priests (sidebar)
In an August 2009 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized that proper seminary formation is integral to the New Evangelization: “The seminary period should ... be seen as the actualization of the moment when the Lord Jesus, after calling the apostles and before sending them out to preach, asks them to be with him. ... In being with him always, they really proclaim Christ and bring the reality of the Gospel to the world.”