On June 28, at the Roman basilica built over the human remains of the great apostle St. Paul, Pope Benedict announced that he was founding a new Vatican dicastery, which will be called the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. In contrast to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which is entrusted with supervising the Church’s classical missionary work in remote areas where the faith has not yet been planted or grown, the new Pontifical Council will be given the task of re-proposing the Gospel to areas that have already been Christianized but where many have given up the practice of the faith.
Pope Benedict — and the Cardinals who elected him — have long been concerned with the rapid secularization, de-Christianization and desacralization of the West. Countries or regions that fifty years ago seemed to be vibrant places of faith — European countries like Holland, Belgium and France, North American regions like Quebec and the northeastern United States— have not only seen a massive exodus of practicing Catholics in recent decades, but also experienced a radical rejection of the faith in public policy and culture through attempts to enshrine a practical atheism as the religion of their land and to push policies with regard to abortion, euthanasia, marriage and education that are total contradictions to the Christian message.
The creation of a Vatican dicastery is always an institutionalization of a priority. The creation of this new dicastery is a palpable sign of Pope Benedict’s and the Church’s commitment to respond to what Pope Benedict on June 28 called “a serious crisis of the meaning of the Christian faith and of belonging to the Church.” The principal task of the new Council, he said, will be to “promote a renewed evangelization 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.’” In a March 2009 letter to the world’s bishops, Pope Benedict described that the “real problem at this moment of our history” is “that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.”
The re-evangelization of the West is not something that can be accomplished by a Vatican office, no matter how many competent and diligent staff members it will employ. It’s something that will only occur if those who still believe in Christ throughout the world collaborate in the effort. The documents of the Second Vatican Council stressed that the Church’s missionary efforts are not the task of a few specialists in missionary orders but the responsibility of all the people in the Church. During the evangelization of several African countries in the 20th century, when the Church wanted to bring the Gospel to a particular village, the first step was not to send in a team of foreign missionaries to proclaim the truths of the faith with words; it was to seek one or more Christian families that would be willing to move there in order to proclaim the truths of the faith by the way they lived each day. Likewise, for the cultures and societies of the de-Christianized West to receive the Gospel again, it is not going to happen principally by beautiful documents prepared for by the new Pontifical Council, but by Christians living a sincere, ongoing, saving encounter with Jesus Christ who invite others into that communion.
Pope Benedict made this point a decade ago, prior to being elected pope, in a powerful December 2000 address to catechists who had come to Rome during the Jubilee Year. This lengthy speech on the new evangelization crisply defines what evangelization is and isn’t, and what ought to be its structure, methods and content. His insights should serve not only as marching orders for the new Pontifical Council but for all believers called to collaborate in bringing about the new evangelization of our culture.
Evangelization does not mean to communicate isolated truths but “to show [the path to happiness], to teach the art of living,” Cardinal Ratzinger noted in that discourse. Jesus came to proclaim the good news to the poor and the “deepest poverty” is the “tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice—all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world. This is why we are in need of a new evangelization: if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works.” Jesus came precisely to teach the art of living by example, to say, “Follow me!,” to become the Way toward happiness. The new evangelization is needed because “a large part of today’s humanity does not find the Gospel in the permanent evangelization of the Church; that is to say, the convincing response to the question: How to live?” Christianity for them is no longer considered a way of life but often a group of teachings that fail to connect them to Jesus the Way, Truth and Life.
Cardinal Ratzinger said that the method of re-evangelizing the desecularized world cannot be just to use the new means of social communication — television, internet, Facebook and Twitter— to announce our faith in Christ, but must involve re-introducing people to the Lord. “Words and the whole art of communication cannot reach the human person to such depths as the Gospel must reach,” the future Pope said. To proclaim the kingdom of God is to proclaim that God is alive and calls us to enter into his reign, and for evangelization to be effective, those proclaiming the kingdom must give evidence of the fruits that come from union with Christ. This means at least two things. First, “the word of the announcement must always be drenched in an intense life of prayer,” which is “faith in action,” when we seek union with the God we proclaim is alive. Second, the proclamation must be united to suffering together with Christ out of love for others, by united oneself to his passion. Referring to the parable of the grain of wheat in the Gospel, the Pope illustrates that Jesus shows us that “we cannot give life to others without giving up our own lives.” It’s that witness of life, that willingness to suffer for God and for others, that makes the words credible.
With regard to the content of the message being proclaimed by words and witness, Cardinal Ratzinger specified four essential parts: conversion, the kingdom of God, Jesus Christ and eternal life. To convert means “not to live as all the others live” but to seek to live like Christ, to live for love of God and love of others. Living in the Kingdom means that “God exists, God is alive, God is present and acts in the world, in our — in my — life.” To preach Jesus means not merely to say we need to imitate him but rather to be “assimilated into” him, to “attain union with him.” That’s why the sacraments can never remain “a secondary theme,” but must be presented and lived as the “realization of our relationship with God.” Finally, to preach eternal life means that God “enters into history to do justice,” and that our and others’ actions matter; they have eternal consequences. “Only if the measure of our life is eternity,” Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, will “this life of ours on earth” become “great and its value immense.”
Evangelization in short is not to speak about “whole lot of things” but simply to “speak about God and man,” and to bring God and man together. This is the task of the Church. This is our task, which, God-willing, the new Pontifical Council will catalyze.