Pope moves ahead with New Evangelization Council, his chief legacy project

When Benedict XVI was elected pope in 2005, many cardinals said they had voted for the man best placed to re-evangelize the West, above all Europe. And Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s choice of the name Benedict was significant: The founder of Western monasticism is patron of Europe. If Pope Benedict can be said to have a “principal task,” a mission above other missions, it is what under Pope John Paul II became known as “the new evangelization” — presenting Christ anew to cultures steeped in Christian culture but secular in habits and practices. 

Last October Pope Benedict announced the creation of a new pontifical council, the first in more than 25 years, tasked with promoting the “new evangelization.” At the same time, he announced that the next Synod of Bishops in October 2012 would be on that topic. 

This month the pope named 19 cardinals and bishops to sit on the council. Among them are the key figures of this papacy, the principal interpreters of and influences on Pope Benedict’s thinking. The Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization will be this pope’s chief legacy. 

Pope’s affection 

The idea of a Vatican department dedicated to re-evangelizing secular Europe had first been suggested to Pope John Paul by Father Luigi Giussani, founder of the Communion and Liberation (CL) movement, and reiterated to Pope Benedict by one of CL’s leading figures, Cardinal Angelo Scola of Venice. Pope Benedict’s affection for the movement, founded among Italian students in the 1950s, now in 75 countries, is well known; he preached the homily at Father Giussani’s funeral Mass in 2005, and his papal household is run by consecrated women belonging to the CL’s Memores Domini group. 

Ubicumque et Semper (“Always and Everywhere”), the motu proprio issued last October that created the council, is underpinned by Father Giussani’s central idea that Christianity is not a belief or an idea so much as the encounter with an event, a person: In meeting Jesus Christ, faith becomes compelling, beautiful, urgent and true. In a secular, consumerist, technologically advanced culture that does not see the “need” for Christ, any evangelization that ignores the importance of this encounter will fail. As the council’s head, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, put it after his appointment: “The Gospel is not a myth, but the living witness of an historical event that changed the face of history.” 

Archbishop Fisichella went on to define the “new evangelization” as one that “first and foremost makes known the historical person of Jesus, and his teachings as they have been faithfully transmitted by the original community.” 

The archbishop is one of the pope’s long-standing collaborators. A former rector of Rome’s Lateran University, Archbishop Fisichella was his assistant on the commission for the Jubilee Year 2000, and they are said to be the principal drafters of Pope John Paul’s encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et Ratio— known jokingly as “Fisichella et Ratzinger.” After Pope Benedict’s election, Archbishop Fisichella was named to head the Pontifical Academy for Life. In the run-up to Christmas, Archbishop Fisichella was the Vatican official trusted by the pontiff to present Pope Benedict’s book-length interview, “Light of the World” (Ignatius, $21.95). 

World too secular? 

Three of the council appointees could be described as part of the pope’s kitchen cabinet. The Dominican Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who has thought long about the topic, is convinced that European culture is too secular and hostile for the Church any longer to expect people to arrive spontaneously at its threshold; the Church must reach out, confronting people directly with the choices of the Gospel, challenging contemporary society. As archbishop of Vienna, he has sponsored the School of Evangelization run by the Emmanuel Community, which gave rise to a series of “city missions” in European capitals (Vienna, Lisbon, Brussels, Paris, Budapest) each year from 2003. The other two appointees from the pope’s inner circle are both close to Communion and Liberation: Cardinal Angelo Scola, patriarch of Venice, and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops. 

Other movements also make their presence felt in the appointments. A French bishop, Pierre-Marie Carré, is close to the Ignatian Christian Life Community (CLC), while German Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg is a member of the Schoenstatt movement. Italian Bishop Vincenzo Paglia of Terni is the most senior priest in the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Rome-based movement of 60,000 famous for its conflict-mediation work. 

Because they have flourished precisely at a time of secularization and change, the experience of the movements is considered key to the new evangelization. In Ubicumque et Semper, Pope Benedict notes that rapid social changes — he mentions technological advances, people having increasing freedom and control over their lives, mass emigration and globalization — have brought both benefits as well as “a troubling loss of the sense of the sacred.” 

Experience of love 

What Sant’Egidio, Communion and Liberation, Focolare and other movements have in common is a heavy emphasis on community and belonging as the basis for prayer and social action. Their witness is not one of ideas or concepts but of an experience of love — all the more startling in the soulless, individualist modern city. 

Mario Marazziti, spokesman for the Community of Sant’Egidio, believes the modern encounter with Christ must involve an encounter with “the beauty of Jesus as a real friend,” as well as the courage “to propose a life that involves radical choices, friendship with the poor, a radical answer to loneliness and being permanently unsatisfied, showing that the world can still be changed.” 

“To live for the others, to re-create the art of living together, is the untold dream hidden in every European,” he said. 

In “Light of the World,” Pope Benedict speaks of popular identification with the Church “melting away” in the Western world, where “we are headed increasingly towards a form of Christianity based on personal decision.” Convinced that “Christianity is on the verge of a new dynamic,” he speaks of how important it is to “consolidate, enliven and enlarge” this “Christianity of personal decision, so that more people can consciously live and profess their faith again.” 

The council for New Evangelization will examine the experience of the movements and turn them into strategies for reaching Europe’s secularized, individualized, atomized masses. The appointment of U.S. Cardinal William Levada, head of the doctrinal congregation, and Archbishops Timothy Dolan of New York, Australian George Pell of Sydney, Brazilian Odilo Pedro Scherer of São Paulo and Mexican Francisco Robles Ortega of Monterrey mean that it is not only Europe that the new council has in view. Yet the preponderance of Europeans — from Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Croatia — shows that it is the “Churches of ancient origin” that are the real target of “a renewed first proclamation of the Gospel.” 

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.

New What? (sidebar)

As I stated in my first encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (No. 1). Likewise, at the root of all evangelization lies not a human plan of expansion, but rather the desire to share the inestimable gift that God has wished to give us, making us sharers in his own life. 

— Pope Benedict XVI, Ubicumque et Semper, Sept. 21, 2010