What’s so “new” about evangelization?

Pope John Paul II devoted the last 20 years of his pontificate calling for a “new evangelization,” a call now taken up by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. Yet I sometimes wonder how many people really understand what this “new evangelization” is all about.

The glossary to the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines “evangelization” as “the proclamation of Christ and His Gospel by word and the testimony of life, in fulfillment of Christ’s demand.” In short, it involves putting people in touch with their Savior.

While many Catholics might not consider themselves “evangelists,” I think most would consider evangelization, at least in principle, a worthwhile and indeed perennial agenda for the Church.

However, the “new” part of the new evangelization may cause some initial consternation. “New” implies novelty or innovation, and perhaps implicitly denigrates the “old.” After all the changes in the Church in recent decades–some licit and desirable, others illicit and harmful–there’s an understandable skepticism when it comes to something new.

Further, a new evangelization could suggest a new Gospel, yet we know that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). The Gospel has been preserved intact through a sacred tradition dating back to the Apostles themselves, the first recipients of Christ’s mandate to evangelize the world. So, it’s fair to ask, what’s so new about evangelization?

When Pope John Paul II talked about a new evangelization, he was referring to a proclamation of the Gospel which is always new and always the bearer of new things, an evangelization which must be “new in its ardor, methods, and expression.”

Surely the “methods” and “expressions” of evangelization must correspond to the situation of today’s men and women. That’s why strategically evangelistic use of the media is so important. We truly must become all things to all men, adapting the packaging as needed without watering down the truth.

But what strikes me most about the “new evangelization” is the call for a “new ardor.” The Pope is calling for a new intensity, a new zeal, a new loyalty to Christ and His Church. The root of the word ardor means “to burn.” This calls to mind the ardor of the disciples who encountered Our Lord on the road to Emmaus: “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened to us the Scriptures?” (Lk. 24:32).

In talking about the new evangelization, Pope John Paul II was referring to an outreach to the “in-betweeners.” The Church provides pastoral care to those who are already practicing Catholics and and is also committed to missionary activity–bringing the Gospel to people or groups who do not yet believe in Christ. However, the Pope recognized a growing but not clearly defined group in the middle: people with Christian roots where a living sense of the faith has been lost and who lead lives far removed from Christ and His Gospel. This is the group that needs a “new evangelization” or a “re-evangelization.”

The United States clearly fits this description. A few years ago, a poll indicated that the second largest religious “denomination” in this country is fallen-away Catholics. There are now approximately 30 million people in that category and countless other who are slouching in the same direction.

The task is great, and the ecclesial terrain is always shifting. Ironically, noted converts such as Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, and Marcus Grodi are raising the next generation of cradle Catholics, while many of us whose families have been Catholic for several generations now see our relatives as mission territory.

In the face of such a challenging landscape, a “new ardor” seems most appropriate and needed. Yet, it’s not something we can produce at the snap of our fingers. It’s not like Emeril who, with the addition of a few spices, can kick his gourmet dish “up a notch.”

And so there’s always the danger that the new evangelization could degenerate into mere activism, because we tend to rely on our own steam. We naturally tend to put greater emphasis on doing good things instead of being good–that is, allowing Christ to change us. The new evangelization surely involves our cooperation, but it is the work of God, not man. Therefore, the Pope’s program for the new evangelization is not “new.” Rather John Paul II and now Benedict XVI are summoning us to direct our gaze upon the face of Christ, the one savior of the world.

There are plenty of things for us Marthas to do–and these things must be done–but the Popes continually remind us that Mary chose the better part in sitting at Our Lord’s feet. In other words, our own personal renewal in Christ is the necessary prerequisite for any worthwhile evangelistic activity.

The new evangelization just can’t be understood apart from the “universal call to holiness,” which simply means that our first order of business must be to recommit ourselves wholly, unreservedly, and daily to Jesus Christ and His Church. After all, first things first.

Christians are not perfect, nor are we hypocrites. We recognize and strive to live in a manner worthy of our calling as children of God. Divine grace doesn’t lower the bar, but helps us to go higher.

With the Church, let us recall Our Lord’s words to “put out into the deep” (Lk. 5:4). Let us “start afresh in Christ” each day and put all our confidence and hope in Him. Then maybe we will discover that there indeed is “something new under the Son.”

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