Monday, November 6, 2017


- Encouragement in the New Evangelization 
promoted by two recent popes

One of the recurring themes of Joseph Ratzinger’s ministry (before as well as after he became Pope Benedict XVI) is the Catholic life as an ongoing personal encounter with Christ.

In 2004 he observed that in the West 'Christianity is seen as an old tradition, weighed down by old commandments, something we already know which tells us nothing new; a strong institution, one of the great institutions that weigh on our shoulders . . . If we stay with this impression, we do not live the essence of Christianity, which is an ever new encounter, an event thanks to which we can encounter the God who speaks to us, who approaches us, who befriends us.'

That puts it in a nutshell.

Cardinal Ratzinger went on to say that if we fail to understand Christianity 'in a personal way, from the point of view as encounter with Christ . . . if this encounter is not realised, which touches the heart, all the rest remains like a weight, almost like something absurd.' (An interview published in the Italian Catholic weekly Vita Trentina 8th May 2004, Translation by Zenit)

Benedict and those around him continued to use the expression 'the new evangelization' which had been coined by Pope St John Paul II. What is 'new' about it? Evangelization has always meant reaching those who have never heard the Gospel so that they might encounter Christ, and become part of the Church - his community of faith and love. But in our time John Paul and Benedict added a new dimension, a new focus . . . the 're-evangelization' of peoples and cultures that were once Christian but have become 'post-Christian.' Indeed, ever the realist, Benedict has for years seen the entire West in that category. Hence his prophetic radio talk as a young theologian in 1969, outlining what some now call the 'Benedict option', when it’s not really an 'option' at all, but a realistic prediction of how normal it will be for western Christians during the next couple of generations to live, worship and evangelize in small clusters of supportive, praying communities wthout a lot of the props that 'Christendom' has provided over the centuries, and on which we have come to rely.

'A post-Christian man is not a Pagan'

Another fairly brutal realist when considering the complexities of even communicating the faith in post-Christian Europe was C.S. Lewis. In his 1945 lecture De Description Temporum he pointed out the foolishness of imagining that 'the historical process allows mere reversal'; that Europe can come out of Christianity ‘by the same door as in she went’ and find herself back where she was. It is not what happens. A post-Christian man is not a Pagan; you might as well think that a married woman recovers her virginity by divorce.'

That this is true hardly needs to be stated. Although it is not unfashionable in our day to speak of 'spirituality' as a warm and fuzzy aspect of being human, and although there are still amiable agnostics and friendly atheists about, modern European culture clearly nurses at its heart a specific hatred for creedal Christianity in general and for the Church in particular. Without disputing that much of this is well deserved, the impartial observer is puzzled at the way it contrasts with the amazing lengths to which the same liberal culture will go in its accommodating and even encouraging Islam.

'The gift of Christ's Spirit and his love
are meant for each and every people and culture"

For John Paul II the New Evangelization certainly included the faithful proclamation of the Gospel so that those who respond will personally encounter Christ. (Remember that on the very night in 1978 of Cardinal Wojtyla’s election as Bishop of Rome, the evangelist Billy Graham was preaching the Gospel message in the Cardinal’s cathedral in Krakow!). But, according to his Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America (1999) the New Evangelization also includes the renewal of the Church in the Holy Spirit, so that she might live in the world truly as a supernatural community of faith and love that works toward the 're-evangelization' of the West, even in the sense of developing 'a clearly conceived, serious and well organized effort to evangelize culture.' He went on to say that 'the gift of his Spirit and his love are meant for each and every people and culture, in order to bring them all into unity after the perfect unity existing in the Triune God.'

Unfortunately, the New Evangelization is itself a vision that easily fragments. There are those who concentrate only on Gospel proclamation to the individual, and those who neglect it. There are those who concentrate only on congregational life, and those who neglect it. And there are those who concentrate only on being the yeast leavening the lump of culture and those who neglect it. As understood by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the New Evangelization is an integration of these aspects of what it means to be living in an ongoing encounter with the Lord. It gives us a vision for bearing witness to Christ in a post-Christian world that enables us to persevere in times of discouragement and difficulty.

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This is my column for the November 2017 New Directions 
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