On a recent flight to Rome, a man seated next to me asked with a smile, “Hey, Father, going over for business?” As we chatted, I mentioned that I was helping to prepare for the upcoming Synod on the New Evangelization. From the look on his face, it was clear that “synod” and “new evangelization” were words of a foreign language. I suspect that most Catholics have very little idea what a synod is and why the Church has them. 

As I pack my bags to go to Rome for nearly a month to participate in the Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, I thought it might be helpful to answer a few fundamental questions: What exactly is a synod and how does it function? What precisely is the New Evangelization and why is it so important at this point in time? Finally, how can we be engaged in this effort to which our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, is calling us? 

What Is a Synod and How Does It Function?

A synod is a gathering of bishops who are representative of the Church throughout the entire world. The Pope convokes such a meeting, and conferences of bishops around the world elect those bishops who will attend. A certain number of additional bishops, experts and observers are also appointed by the Pope. The Synod for the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith, its official title, called by Pope Benedict XVI will convene Oct. 7–Oct. 28, 2012. 

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. CNS photo

The idea of having a synod grew out of the experience of Pope Paul VI and the bishops at the time of the Second Vatican Council, 1962–1965. Then over 2,500 bishops from all over the world came to Rome to reflect on how well the Church was carrying out her mission to be the continuing presence of Christ and His Gospel in the world. As the Council drew to a conclusion in 1965, there was the hope that some mechanism might be found to keep alive the collaborative experience of the Council. Thus was born, at the directive of the Pope, what we now recognize as the Synod of Bishops. 

In short, the synod is a worldwide consultative body that provides a forum for discussion and reflection on issues of importance in the life of the Church today. It is a manifestation of the communion of the episcopal college and is now structured according to Church law which establishes its membership, procedures and authority following the basic outlines of Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio, Apostolica Sollicitudo, of 1965. 

A synod generally meets every three years and is thus designated an “Ordinary General Assembly.” However, “Extraordinary” synods can be called to deal with specific situations. There are also “Special” synods such as the one held Nov. 16–Dec. 12, 1997, for the Church in America. 

The First Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops was called in 1967. I had the privilege of accompanying the then Bishop of Pittsburgh as his secretary and thus had my first immersion in the “synodal experience,” one that has been repeated for me in various forms in nine subsequent synods. In fact, the 1971 Synod on the Ministerial Priesthood was the topic of my doctoral dissertation in 1974. 

At the conclusion of the 1974 Synod on Evangelization, Pope Paul VI decided to prepare a document to reflect the considerations of the gathering of bishops. Thus in 1975 the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi was published. This began the practice of post-synodal apostolic exhortations in the wake of each synod. We are, of course, all familiar with the two documents of Pope Benedict XVI: Sacramentum Caritatis, following the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, and Verbum Domini, following the 2008 Synod on the Word of God. 

Every synod begins with an opening Mass presided over by the Pope. Immediately the next day the works begins. Each synodal father is permitted a five-minute opportunity to make an intervention. It takes just about two weeks to accommodate all of these presentations. 

After all of the interventions are made, the members of the synod gather in small language groups to continue discussion on what has been said and to put together the fruit of all of these deliberations — propositions that will be presented to the Pope as the frame of reference for his post-synodal apostolic exhortation. What eventually emerges from the language groups and General Assembly of the synod is a list of statements that everyone has had a hand in drafting, revising, reviewing and eventually approving. 

The synod this month will address how to reawaken faith and proclaim the Gospel in what Blessed John Paul II first called the New Evangelization. This brings us to our second question: 

What Precisely Is the New Evangelization and Why Is It So Important at this Point in Time?

The word “evangelization” comes from the Greek word for “Gospel,” or evangelium. The Gospel is the announcement of the “Good Message” or “Good News” that Jesus is God’s Son and our Savior. 

Jesus himself established evangelization as of the very nature and essence of the Church when He gave His disciples the commission to evangelize, that is, to announce this Good News “to all the nations,” (Mk 13:10; Lk 24:47) and to spread the Gospel by going forth “into the whole world” and to “proclaim the Gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15; Mt 28:19-20). 

The New Evangelization recognizes that the Great Commission is equally valid for us today, but in no small part we are speaking the Gospel to those who feel they have already heard it and think that it has no particular meaning for them. 

The context of the New Evangelization helps explain its focus. It is now generally recognized that we deal with several generations, of faithful who have been poorly catechized, even miscatechized. During his visit to the United States in 2008, our Holy Father pointed out that there are also a number of barriers to the proclamation to the Gospel. These include the secularism, materialism and radical individualism that are so much a part of our culture. 

This year during the United States bishops’ ad limina visits, a group in which I was included heard the Pope speak eloquently and poignantly of our current secularized culture: 

To the extent that some current cultural trends contain elements that would curtail the proclamation of these [unchanging moral] truths, whether constricting it within the limits of a merely scientific rationality, or suppressing it in the name of political power or majority rule, they represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself and to the deepest truth about our being and ultimate vocation, our relationship to God. 

But just as he diagnoses the problems, so too does our Holy Father present a practical solution and a challenge. He specified the work of the New Evangelization as the reproposal of Jesus Christ and His Gospel “in the countries where the first proclamation of the faith has already resonated and where Churches with an ancient foundation exist but are experiencing the progressive secularization of society and a sort of ‘eclipse of the sense of God’. . .” (Homily, St. Paul Outside the Walls, June 28, 2010). 

Re-propose Our Belief in Christ and His Gospel

The Pope uses the word “re-propose” to describe how we should preach the New Evangelization. Somehow in what we do and how we express our faith, we have to be able to re-propose our belief in Christ and His Gospel for a hearing among those who are convinced that they already know the faith and that it holds no interest for them. We have to invite them to hear it all over again. For some who initially heard the proclamation of the Gospel, the message has lost its savor. The vision has faded. The promises seem empty or unconnected to their lives. 

Many will hear these words of the New Evangelization for the first time. That brings us to our final question: 

How can we be engaged in this effort to which our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, is calling us? 

While at its heart the New Evangelization is the reproposing of the encounter with the Risen Lord, His Gospel and His Church with those who no longer find the Church’s message engaging, I believe there are three distinct, but interrelated stages: 

a) the renewal of our faith both intellectually and affectively; 

b) a new confidence in the truth of our faith, and 

c) a willingness to share it with others. 

The New Evangelization begins with each of us taking it upon ourselves to renew once again our understanding of the faith and our appropriation of it in a way that embraces the Gospel message and its application today. 

In the Sermon on the Mount presented in St. Matthew’s Gospel, we hear of a new way of life and how it involves the merciful, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, those who mourn, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit. Here we learn of the call to be salt of the earth and a light set on a lamp stand. Later in that same Gospel, we hear the extraordinary dictum that we should see in one another the very presence of Christ. Jesus’ disciples are challenged to envision a world where not only the hungry are fed, the thirsty are given drink, the stranger is welcomed and the naked are clothed, but also, most amazingly, where sins are forgiven and eternal life is pledged. 

That same vision is held out for us today when we open the pages of the Gospel and read about the invitation to you and to me to be branches connected to the vine of the Lord, to eat of the bread of everlasting life and to hear the words of truth, words that endure forever. 

The duty to proclaim the saving truth is not just the responsibility of clergy and religious. Vatican II highlighted the important role of “every disciple of Christ” in the mission of “spreading the faith” (Lumen Gentium, No. 18). The Council Fathers accentuated this crucial and vital point when they wrote: “The laity go forth as powerful proclaimers. . .when they courageously join to their profession of faith a life springing from faith. This evangelization, that is, this announcing of Christ by a living testimony as well as by the spoken word, takes on a specific quality and a special force in that it is carried out in the ordinary surroundings of the world” (LG, No. 35). 

In my pastoral letter on the New Evangelization, Disciples of the Lord, I wrote, “Planting the seed may mean that we learn new styles of communication, open our hearts to a more culturally diverse community, study more deeply the mysteries of the faith, reach out with confidence and invite a neighbor to attend Mass, forgive a long-held grudge, or focus on a new and more influential approach with a son or daughter, father or mother, or spouse who is away from the practice of the faith. Every moment becomes a new opportunity to connect another person with the abundant Springtime that God promises. In this, we are protagonists of hope.” 

To be a “protagonist of hope” one must be open to God’s love. To share faith requires the experience of God present in us. This only happens when we know the crucified and risen Christ. 

In his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Love of neighbor. . .consists in the very fact that, in God and with God, I love even the person whom I do not like or even know. This can only take place on the basis of an intimate encounter with God, an encounter which has become a communion of will, even affecting my feelings” (No. 18). 

Our intimate encounter with the crucified and risen Christ is the foundation of the New Evangelization. We cannot share what we do not have. We cannot transform society if out joy is not manifest — a joy which flows from a personal knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

As God was with those who first accepted the challenge, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8), so God is with us as we accept the summons to be witnesses today in all that we say and do. The New Evangelization calls us to see the world around us as the place of our witness to Jesus. The Synod on the New Evangelization invites the entire Church to reflect on how we best accepted Jesus’ challenge to be His witnesses.

CARDINAL WUERL, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., is renowned for his work in Catholic education and faith formation, and is a best-selling author of many books.