Catholic Guide to a spiritual makeover

Popes are rather like the persistent widow of Luke 18: They just don’t give up. Especially when it comes to talking about the New Evangelization. 

Papal calls for a New Evangelization began in 1979, when Pope John Paul II first used the phrase during his historic visit to Poland. Four years later, in Haiti, the idea came up again, with the pope making it clear this time around that, in calling for a New Evangelization, he was calling for a recommitment of the Church’s energies to proclaiming the Gospel in the post-Christian West, to the baptized and unbaptized alike. He also made it clear that it wasn’t just the “target audience” of the New Evangelization that was to be new, but also the methods and expressions used to do the evangelizing. 

From 1983 until his death, Pope John Paul repeatedly sounded the theme of the New Evangelization. Pope Benedict XVI then picked up where he left off, urgently calling Catholics to the work of the New Evangelization, organizing conferences and synods around the topic, and even forming a dicastery at the Vatican to further the New Evangelization’s goals. 

If anything, Pope Benedict’s calls for a New Evangelization have been even more urgent than his predecessor’s, and with the Year of Faith beginning Oct. 11, he’s not showing signs of changing the topic anytime soon. He’s talking about it almost everywhere he goes and to everyone he meets. 

Which begs the question: Why? 

Not, “Why is he talking about it?” The general “hell in hand basket” state of the culture is answer enough for that. Rather, why is he talking about it to everyone? Why isn’t this more of a topic for bishops’ ad limina visits and private meetings with priests and catechists? What does the pope expect ordinary Catholics in the pews to do to further the work of the New Evangelization? 

The answer is, “Almost everything.” 

Like Pope John Paul, Pope Benedict wants the whole Church, every single baptized Catholic, not just her priests and bishops, to join him in the work of the New Evangelization, in the work of calling souls to Christ and transforming the culture with the Gospel. And he’s not going to stop talking about it until we do. 

Which raises an even bigger question: How? How do ordinary Catholics in the pews, men and women who don’t collect a paycheck from the Church, participate in the New Evangelization? 


The answer to that question begins with, for lack of a better term, self-evangelization, with every believing Catholic striving on a daily basis to evangelize themselves, growing in knowledge and love of Christ. 

On one level, the reason for that is plain. A baptismal certificate, even regular attendance at Sunday Mass, does not guarantee that anyone has actually been evangelized. It doesn’t guarantee an encounter with Christ, the living God who saves. 

Bringing people to that encounter is the heart of evangelization, and as Matthew Leonard, executive director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, pointed out, “You can’t evangelize unless you’ve been evangelized. You can’t give what you don’t have.” 

Evangelization, moreover, is not a one-shot deal. It’s not something that happens once and is over and done with. Rather, said Father James Wehner, rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and author of “The Evangelization Equation” (Emmaus Road, $11.95), the process of evangelization doesn’t end until a soul passes through the pearly gates. 

“There is never a point in this life where I can say I’ve been fully evangelized,” Father Wehner told Our Sunday Visitor. “Life brings new situations and challenges, which means we’re always striving to understand how the Gospel, how the crucified Christ, speaks to us in the midst of new realities.” 

The sacramental life

As for what the work of “self-evangelization” entails, Father Wehner recommended starting with the basics: Mass and confession. 

“Our Catholic faith is fed primarily from the Mass. That’s the primary source of grace in a Catholic’s life and the foundation for our relationship with God,” Father Wehner said. “Every Catholic needs to ask themselves how they can deepen their Eucharistic spirituality. 

“Likewise,” he continued, “the more frequently we celebrate the Sacrament of Penance, the more our conscience is formed. That helps us understand who we are and from how much Christ has delivered us. It’s not about increasing guilt; it’s about deepening our understanding of our own salvation.” 

Along with Mass and confession, another basic ingredient of self-evangelization is prayer. 

“The graces of the sacraments won’t be as effective without a life of prayer,” Leonard told OSV. “You need to talk to God daily. You need to have a relationship with him, and share with him all that you’re thinking and feeling.” 

To develop that prayer life, Leonard recommended setting aside time first thing every morning to talk with God — time that begins with a short vocal prayer (such as the Our Father or Hail Mary) or a Scripture reading, and includes 10 to 15 minutes of simply talking and listening to God. 

For people not used to praying, he said, those 10 to 15 minutes might feel interminable at first, “but the more you do it, the more the time flies because this type of communion is what we’re made for.” 

Seeking knowledge

The sacraments and a prayer life are channels of grace that can help Catholics develop and deepen a relationship with Christ. But it also helps to understand those channels, as well as the person to whom they’re leading us. Which is where studying the Faith comes in. 

As all the experts interviewed were quick to point out, religious education or catechesis is not supposed to end in eighth grade or even 12th grade. Rather, it’s supposed to be the work of a lifetime.  

That work ensures that when life presents its toughest questions, we can draw upon the Church’s wisdom for answers. It also ensures that we can hand on that wisdom to friends, co-workers, and children with questions of their own. 

To discover that wisdom, Father Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire ministries and creator of “The Catholicism Project,” recommended beginning with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

“Plough through it week by week,” he advised. “Along with that, read a good book of apologetics — something by Scott Hahn, Peter Kreeft, or one of the classics — C.S. Lewis or G.K Chesterton.” 

Father Barron also stressed the importance of studying the Bible, either through a parish Bible study or on one’s own. 

“The number of Catholics who don’t know their Bible is a tragedy,” Father Barron said, “especially because one of the main goals of Vatican II was to revive Scripture study among Catholics.” 

The good news is that for Catholics seeking to grow in their faith there is no shortage of resources to help them along. 

“When I returned to the Faith in 1985, there were very few materials written by living persons,” said Curtis Martin, president of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and one of the two Americans named as consultors to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. “But over the past two decades we’ve seen an explosion in great materials for people who want to know the Faith better. There’s never been a better time for people who need to be evangelized or who want to help evangelize others.” 

Fall in love

Ultimately, however, the real work of self-evangelization isn’t work at all. It’s allowing ourselves to fall in love with Christ and allowing that love to color everything we say and do. 

“A lot of us entered into a covenant with God when we were baptized,” Curtis Martin said. “But we never fell in love. We learned the rules of Christianity, but not that God is amazing, that he is alive and loves us, that he hears us when we pray and wants to be in a relationship with us. 

“If we don’t know that,” he continued, “it’s hard to care about him, and it’s hard to care about sharing the truth about him with others.” 

Of course, no one falls in love on command. Love doesn’t work that way. There are, however, steps everyone can take to cultivate love for Christ. 

“If you realize something is lacking in your love for Christ, if you don’t feel what you should, you need to be pro-active in seeking that out,” said Ralph Martin, Curtis Martin’s fellow American consultor on the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and author of “The Fulfillment of All Desire” (Emmaus Road, $17.95). “Don’t accept things as they are. Do something to bring yourself into closer contact with Christ.” 

“If you want to fall in love with the Lord or love him more deeply, it starts with virtue,” added Leonard. “Do what he wants you to do on a daily basis. Also, meditate on his Passion — on what he went through for love of you. Thank him for his gifts, and go to him with everything that’s on your mind. Above all, ask him to help you love him. Every day, every Christian should be saying to God, “I love you. Help me love you more.’” 

Fortunately for us, God wants us to love him. It’s what he’s after. So if we give him the opportunity, he will give us all the love we need. But we do have to give him the opportunity. 

“God is a gentlemen,” said Curtis Martin. “He’s not going to force you to love him or be transformed by him. You have to choose to mature spiritually. You have to make the choice to let yourself be evangelized.” 

Into the deep

Self-evangelization is where all Catholics are called to begin the work of the New Evangelization. For no Catholic, however, is the work supposed to end there. In the New Evangelization, proclaiming the Gospel isn’t just a job for priests and missionaries. It’s a job for every baptized Catholic. It calls all of us to evangelize everyone we know and meet: co-workers, neighbors, even the crabby clerk at the grocery store. 

easy ways to evangelize
Praise and thank God freely in conversation. Shutterstock

“It’s part of our baptismal call,” Father Barron said. “We’re all called to be prophets, to be the one who speaks divine truth.” 

“As Catholics we’re all called to be in a relationship with the living God, Jesus Christ, who is alive and seeks, through us, to save the lost,” Ralph Martin told OSV. “That’s who we are whether we know it or not, whether we want it or not.” 

In other words, as Catholics we are all very much our brothers’ keepers. It’s our responsibility to help lead people to the only truth, to the only Person, who saves. 

That doesn’t mean, however, that the Church expects all her sons and daughters to go door to door with the Good News tomorrow. It’s OK to start small. 

“Wear some sign of the Faith on your person — a crucifix, a medal, a chain — something that says to everyone you meet that you’re a Christian,” said Father Barron. “Also, try to keep the language of faith always on your lips. Just saying little things like, ‘God bless you’ or ‘Thank God’ is a form of witness.” 

By word and example

Invitations to Mass, Bible studies or talks at your parish are likewise an easy way to evangelize, said Father Barron. As is giving someone a book or a video about the Faith, or posting a good article from a Catholic perspective on your Facebook page. Oftentimes, that’s the only opportunity some of your “friends” will ever have to encounter the Church’s teachings. 

Living what you say you believe also goes a long way toward evangelizing others. People notice when someone doesn’t join in on slander, when he’s honest in business and faithful in marriage, when she’s chaste in her dating relationships and modest in dress. 

“The witness of your life speaks volumes,” said Leonard. “Just look at the saints. They’re the Church’s greatest evangelists.” 

For as much as witness matters, however, words matter too. 

“We all have to speak the truth in charity,” said Father Wehner. “At Christmas, at the family wedding, at the school play, whenever topics such as abortion, same-sex marriage, or contraception come up, we’re obliged to present the Church’s teachings. We can’t avoid conversations just because they’re difficult. People need to hear the truth, and it’s our job to present it to them. If we don’t, there’s no guarantee anyone else will.”

Overcoming fear

Witnessing with words, not just actions, isn’t easy at first, Wehner acknowledged, but prayer helps. 

“Our conversations may not bear immediate fruit,” he explained. “Sometimes all they do is sow seeds. But through our prayers and our sacrifices, we can help those seeds grow.” 

Likewise, said Leonard, it helps to know both that by virtue of our baptism and confirmation, we’ve already been given the grace to do the work of the New Evangelization and that whether they realize it or not, people want what Catholics have to give. 

“We’re all made for more than what this world has to offer,” he said. “At some point in time, everybody discovers that. When they do, that’s where we come in.” 

As for the timidity so many of us naturally feel when it comes to witnessing to the Faith in a public way, Leonard said not to worry, the work of self-evangelization will help take care of that. 

“The more we grow in holiness, the more we fall in love with Christ, the more natural evangelizing becomes,” he said. “The timidity disappears because you can’t help but talk about someone you love. Try talking to a Steelers fan. Football is all they talk about. The same is true of Catholics in love with Jesus. That’s how we’re all supposed to be. That’s what the New Evangelization is about.”  

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. 

Papal Quotes 

“Look to the future with commitment to a New Evangelization, one that is new in its ardor, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression.”  

Blessed John Paul II to Bishops of Latin America, Haiti, 1983 

“Dear friends, being evangelizers is not a privilege but a commit-ment that comes from faith. To the question the Lord addresses to Christians: “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” answer with the same courage and the same trust as the Prophet: “Here am I! Send me” (Is 6:8). I ask you to let yourselves be formed by God’s grace and to respond in docility to the action of the Spirit of the Risen One. Be signs of hope, able to look to the future with the certainty that comes from the Lord Jesus, who conquered death and gave us eternal life. Communicate the joy of faith to all with the enthusiasm that comes from being driven by the Holy Spirit, because he makes all things new (see Rv 21:5), trusting in the promise that Jesus made to the Church: “and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).  

Pope Benedict XVI, Meeting with Church Leaders in the New Evangelization, Oct. 15, 2011

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