When Catholics hear the word evangelization, we tend to think of Protestants. This is not surprising. They have been highly visible in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ in their own way.
But Catholics also have work to do. “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. . .” instructs Jesus in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19). The Second Vatican Council affirmed this, declaring that the church is “missionary by her very nature.” The work of spreading the message of and about Jesus Christ is a calling to all Catholics.
In more recent years, church leadership has been more outspoken about the mission of the church. Pope John Paul II, at the beginning of the new millennium, began referring to a “new evangelization,” of which there are three parts: personal and spiritual renewal, witnessing to others, and the transformation of society and culture, including pro-life activism, social justice work, service to the poor and marginalized, and engagement in politics or even the arts.
St. Francis is credited with saying, “Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words,” so the “new evangelization” isn’t exactly new.
What’s changed then? Beginning with the papacy of John Paul II, church leadership has become increasingly concerned with a modern reality: secularism, particularly in the West. In response, John Paul II often talked about a need for a “new evangelization” to bring people back to the church to combat what Pope Benedict XVI later referred to as “the secularization process,” the declining power and position of the church in the historically Christian nations of Western Europe and the proliferation of positions in opposition to church teaching, such as the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, contraception, the death penalty, and lack of attention to the poor and marginalized.
New Evangelization efforts can be seen in the attempts to grow and sustain a Catholic community, which includes calling on all Catholics to share the gospel in their individual lives, creating Anglican ordinariates, establishing ongoing talks with the Society of St. Pius X to lift their excommunication, implementing changes to the liturgy, and instructing church organizations and institutions such as universities and charities to bolster their Catholic identity.
Some of the methods of the New Evangelization aren’t smiled upon by all in the church. Advocates of social justice and missionaries are concerned that an overemphasis on a Catholic identity can impede ecumenical work or even put missionaries in non-Christian nations at risk.
The church will always be examining and reexamining its place in the world, questioning how best to share the gospel and exploring what this means. In that case, evangelization is always both old and new.
This article appeared in the February 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 2, page 54).
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