Reclaiming a Sense of the Faith

The phrase “the New Evangelization” has been used for many years now to describe a kind of Catholic movement in the third millennium.

Pope John Paul II coined the term. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI created an entire department at the Vatican dedicated to the New Evangelization. Dioceses of various sizes refer to it as part of their mission. Some even use the phrase to describe who they are as a Catholic. One can find “I want to work for the New Evangelization” in resumes and personal testimonies.

But when Catholics are asked to explain what the New Evangelization means, a lot of us are left at a loss for words. We know what evangelization means. But what is so new about this New Evangelization? How is it different than what the Church has done in the past? Is it about how we evangelize, or is this about the content of evangelization?

“Of Christian Peoples”

The story of the New Evangelization began in 1990 with the encyclical from John Paul II titled Redemptoris Missio (“Mission of the Redeemer”). The encyclical was promulgated on the 25th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council document Ad Gentes, the Decree on the Mission Activity of the Church. In his encyclical, Pope John Paul wanted to clear up some confusion and provide a fresh encouragement to evangelization in general and to this thing he calls “the New Evangelization of Christian peoples.”

What was the confusion the Pope wanted to clear up? At the Second Vatican Council, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) taught that people can be saved if, “through no fault of their own,” they have never heard the Gospel but do sincerely seek God. At the same time, the council fathers made it very clear in that same document that many are deceived from the truth. It also explicitly teaches that the possibility of salvation for non-Catholics does not excuse the Church from the demand of Christ to preach the Gospel to all nations.

After the council, however, and amidst the rise of relativism, some theologians twisted the council’s teaching and argued that if someone can go to heaven without having heard the Gospel, then there is no point in preaching the Gospel to them. What is the point of trying to convert people in Africa or India to the Catholic faith when they are good persons who love their families and treat their neighbors well? These ideas had a devastating effect on the Church’s missionary activity around the world.

Pope John Paul II wanted to remind Catholics in Redemptoris Missio that missionary activity to non-Catholic people of the world is part of the very nature of the Church. It is what the Church does. It is what a Christian does if he or she is a committed Christian. Just like the young man in love who cannot stop talking about his sweetheart, so too a Christian in love with Christ Jesus ought to have Our Lord forever on his heart and on his lips, telling everyone about Him.

Not an Option

Evangelization in mission to the world is not optional; it is a natural outgrowth of what the Church is. But Pope John Paul also realized that we cannot give what we do not have. How is Europe or North America supposed to provide missionary zeal for the Church if the Faith is dying? According to research of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Mass attendance in Spain is below 20 percent. It is around 35 percent in Italy. France, the eldest daughter of the Church, can boast only a 12 percent weekly Mass attendance among Catholics. This is where the New Evangelization comes in.

synod of bishops on new evangelization
Pope Benedict XVI leads a closing session of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization at the Vatican Oct. 27, 2012. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters

In Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul explains that there are three situations for evangelization in the world. The first is the missionary work of the Church to lands and peoples who do not know Christ or His Gospel, the traditional mission ad gentes. The second is in communities with devoted Christians who are committed to the work of the Church. The third, however, is “in countries with ancient Christian roots” where the faith has all but been lost. The people in these nations “live a life far removed from Christ and His Gospel. In this case what is needed is a ‘new evangelization’ or a ‘re-evangelization’” (No. 33).

If missionary work to the world is going to work at all, the missionaries have to come from lands where the knowledge of and dedication to Jesus Christ are firm. The culture of relativism that has taken over the Western nations has robbed many Christians of the desire or ability to give that faith to others. According to John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio, “The churches in traditionally Christian countries, for example, involved as they are in the challenging task of new evangelization, are coming to understand more clearly that they cannot be missionaries to non-Christians in other countries and continents unless they are seriously concerned about the non-Christians at home. Hence missionary activity ad intra is a credible sign and a stimulus for missionary activity ad extra, and vice versa” (No. 34).

The New Evangelization, then, is a re-evangelization of those places in the world that have the deep roots of a Christian culture but have lost a sense of what it means to live it out. This is distinct from the evangelization of rural India, for instance, where no one has heard the Gospel or, at the least, where there is no living memory of the Faith. This is distinct too from the missionary activity to African lands with vibrant Catholic communities. Rather, the New Evangelization is an attempt to revitalize the Christian faith that lies dormant in countries such as Italy, Spain, France, Austria and parts of Canada.

The countries associated with the New Evangelization, said Pope John Paul, countries with a long Christian history, also tend to be Northern, wealthy nations. European and North American peoples sometimes lose their Christian identity, wrote the Pope, because with economic wealth comes a “moral and spiritual poverty.” Religion no longer seems important when one has so many channels to watch.

This is why a proper understanding and catechesis of the social teaching of the Catholic Church is so crucial to the New Evangelization. Through the social teaching of the Church, Catholics discover how a life lived for Christ translates into a life lived in compassion for the poor that is more than just social welfare. Living the Faith in this way can be an inspiring witness to those who have forgotten what Christianity looks like. Pope Francis has already shown the world what the New Evangelization looks like when fueled by the social teaching.

Tell People about Christ Jesus

The content of the New Evangelization is no different than the content of any effort to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. But the methods will need to be different because the target audience is new. We must be aware of the often skeptical attitudes of a society stifled by the current media culture.

Even more than in 1990, when Redemptoris Missio was released, the mission field for the New Evangelization is flooded with images and texts that often carry misinformation about the Faith.

The Internet did not exist back then, much less smartphones with the world’s information, social networks, music, video games and prurient images all at our fingertips. Therefore, the New Evangelization involves participation in all media.

The missionaries of the New Evangelization no longer travel along the ancient roads built by Rome, or camp out in secluded villages. They are not inventing alphabets to translate the Bible into native tongues. They engage the culture in film, music, social media and art of every sort. They translate the Church’s teaching into messages that are meaningful to the ever-wandering eyes of the modern man.

Yet, despite all this newness, the audience of the New Evangelization is still the same audience in the end. Our culture, for all its novel sins, is still made up of human persons who long to know what it means to love. They bear the same joys and hopes, sadness and anxieties that people have borne throughout human history. We know what it is they seek when they turn to constant distraction and substance abuse. They seek Christ Jesus, who will make them whole.

The New Evangelization is fundamentally no different from the evangelical effort demanded of every disciple of Christ. The content is the same. The human soul is the same. The difference is that we live now in a time when we are called to preach to a people who have been raised in a Christian culture of which they are not even aware.

But we must not lose sight of the fact that the New Evangelization is important so that we might better evangelize the rest of the world. Reminding our culture of its Christian roots will hopefully spur the kind of missionary zeal of ages past, when saints traveled the world to tell people about Christ Jesus.

Omar F.A. Gutiérrez studied at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and at the Angelicum in Rome, and has a Master of Arts degree in theology from the University of Dallas. He works for the Archdiocese of Omaha as special assistant to the archbishop.