by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The Catholic Church is going through the most remarkable development of her twenty centuries. At the heart of this development is her growth in understanding the revealed faith bequeathed to her by Jesus Christ. Another term for this growth in understanding the faith is development of doctrine.
No other aspect of the Church’s teaching has grown more rapidly and more profoundly than her grasp of the meaning of evangelization.
In order to begin to appreciate what this means, it will be useful to see how the concept of evangelization has developed from the pontificate of Pope Paul VI to that of John Paul II.
Then we shall look briefly at the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to see what it says about evangelization.
Finally and mainly we will examine how Pope John Paul II applies the latest understanding of evangelization to awaken the sleeping giant of the Catholic Church. The Pope foresees the twenty-first century as the dawn of the greatest renaissance in Christian history, on one condition. Believing Catholics must be aroused from their stupor and inspired to proclaim Jesus Christ and His Kingdom as has not been done since the dawn of Christianity.
Development of Doctrine
Pope Paul VI spoke and wrote extensively on evangelization. In his historic document, Evangelii Nuntiandi, he declared, “Evangelization means to bring the Good News into all the straits of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new, ‘Now I am making the whole of creation new’ (Revelation 21:5). But there is no new humanity if there are not first of all new persons renewed by baptism, and by lives lived according to the Gospel”(18).
On these terms, evangelization includes three distinctive elements: antecedent conversion to Christ and His Church; affecting not only the individual person but the whole culture; and as a result changing this culture and its institutions to make them Christian and Catholic.
Pope John Paul II fully accepts the teaching of his predecessor. He points out that Paul VI “rightly stressed that evangelization- which has the aim of bringing the Good News to the whole world, so that all may live it.” This, he added, “is a rich, complex and dynamic reality, made up of elements, or one could say moments, that are essential and different from each other, and that must all be kept in view simultaneously. Catechesis is one of these moments – a very remarkable one – to the whole process of evangelization.”
Having said this, Pope John Paul emphasizes that there is a difference between “the initial conversion – bringing proclamation of the Gospel” and “educating the true disciple of Christ by means of a deeper and more systematic knowledge of the person and the message of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Catechesi Tradendae, 18).
What are the implications of this distinction? They are crucial. This is not toying with words or making subtle theological speculations. This is literally a matter of supernatural life and death.
Since 1950, the population of the world has increased by more than three billion. By the middle of the twenty-first century, it is predicted it will be some eleven billion people in the world, with most of them in the mainly non-Christian countries of Asia and Africa.
After twenty centuries from Christ’s declaration to His disciples, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” only a fraction of the human race has even heard the names of Jesus and Mary.
Only God knows why. But surely one reason is that those who profess to believe in Christ do not take seriously St. Paul’s sobering words, “woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (I Corinthians 9:16).
Why are so many Catholics apathetic about sharing the riches of their faith? Because they do not appreciate the treasure that God has given them. In more simple language, they do not understand the faith which they verbally profess.
Not only are they not eager to share what they believe with others. So many, as we are tragically seeing in our country, give up their faith for a mess of pottage and take up one bizarre sect or cult after another. The number of closing and closed Catholic parishes in the United States is a tragic commentary on the lack of zeal among professed Catholics to share their religious heritage with people who are literally starving for the truth.
The key to opening the door to the apostolic zeal which is so needed in today’s world is a deep, clear, and convinced understanding of Christ’s revelation.
Evangelization Through Understanding
In his apostolic constitution which introduces the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul explains why the catechism was written. Its first purpose is “to allow for a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for enlivening the faith of the people of God”(2).
This knowledge, the Pope explains, includes “both the new and the old, because the faith is always the same, yet the source of every new light”(2).
What is new about the catechism? It is new in many ways but, for our purpose, especially in providing our separated Christians and the non-Christian multitude a synthesis of all the essential teachings of Jesus Christ.
Certainly this catechism is given to the Church’s members as “a sure and authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine.” But it has two other important functions:
- “It is meant to support ecumenical efforts that are moved by the holy desire for the unity of all Christians, showing carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the Catholic Faith.”
- “The Catechism of the Catholic Church…is offered to every individual who asks us to give an account of the hope that is in us, and who wants to know what the Catholic Church believes”(3).
The closing words of the Holy Father’s presentation of the catechism could not have been more emphatic. He prays that, through the catechism, “the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Incarnate Word and Mother of the Church,” will “support with her powerful intercession the catechetical work of the entire Church on every level, at this time which is called to a new effort of evangelization. May the light of the true faith free humanity from the ignorance and slavery of sin in order to lead it to the only freedom worthy of the name, of life in Jesus Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, here below and in the Kingdom of heaven, in the fullness of the Blessed Vision of God face to face”(3).
We could quote passage after passage from the catechism to illustrate how important is a deeper knowledge of the true faith to inspire enlightened Catholics to communicate the Gospel to a world that is still ignorant of Jesus Christ.
Our main focus, however, will be on the numerous statements of the Vicar of Christ on evangelization, since his publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Unity in Multiplicity
Within weeks of publishing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul expressed his great joy at what he called “a special gift of Divine Providence.” Not coincidentally he gave the address on the vigil of Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception.
He stressed the fact that the catechism is not only a gift to all Christians but to all people of good will. No one in today’s divided world has any illusions about the need for unification. Our media of communications have made our planet a global village. We are more conscious than ever of the differences in language, customs, and culture than ever before. The problem is how to unite what is more than disparity; it has become so competitive that the twentieth century has bred more deadly hostility than all the previous wars of human history.
“The catechism can be a loving appeal even to those who are not part of the Catholic community. May they understand that this instrument does not limit, but rather broadens the field of unity in multiplicity. It offers new momentum on the path towards that firmness of communion which reflects, and in some way anticipates, the total unity of the heavenly city ‘in which truth reigns, charity is law and whose extension is eternity’”(Dec. 7, 1992).
What is the Holy Father saying? He is telling those who are not Catholic or even Christian that there is only one foundation for unity in a divided humanity. This is the possession of the truth.
On these premises, the doctrine expressed in the catechism is the divinely provided means of restoring solidarity in today’s broken society. A single word like “divorce,” illustrates what has become a commonplace in so-called developed countries like America.
What the Holy Father is telling us is that evangelization is the indispensable means for unification. Why? Because only those who share the truth can be united among themselves. The catechism as a compendium of revealed truth is a divinely assured means of reuniting a dismembered world.
The Worst Challenge to Evangelization
Since Christ’s commission to the apostles to preach the Gospel to all nations, the Church’s missionary zeal has been constant and unchallenged. But theological speculators in our generation have raised questions which threaten to undermine the very concept of evangelization. Among other terms, they have coined the expression “anonymous Christians.” According to their view, the Church has no business trying to “convert” those who do not believe in Jesus Christ. Allow the Muslims to remain believing Muslims, who deny the Incarnation. Allow the Hindus to remain Hindus, who believe in endless reincarnations of human beings.
Pope John Paul faces this anti-missionary falsehood in unequivocal language:
According to this viewpoint, evangelizing activity should give way to interreligious dialogue, which would consist in an exchange of opinions and information in which each party makes known his own “creed” and is enriched by the others’ thought, with no concern about reaching a conclusion. This would entail–it is said–that Christians renounce guiding non-Christians to the way of the Gospel, refrain from proposing or encouraging conversion, and exclude the prospect of Baptism. Thus the way of salvation followed by each according to his own education and religious background would be respected.
Is such a concept of “evangelization” consistent with the teaching of Christ? Absolutely not! In the words of the Holy Father, it is “incompatible with Christ’s mandate to the apostles handed down to the Church, and with authentic ecclesiology.” God does indeed want the salvation of all mankind. But “Jesus Christ is the ‘only Mediator’, the One who gave Himself as a ransom for all…neither is there salvation in any other.” What logically follows? “Everyone, therefore, should be converted to Christ, who is known through the preaching of the Church, and they ought, by Baptism, to be incorporated into Him and into the Church which is His body. Christ Himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith in Baptism.”
In the light of this revealed truth, we can see “the inconsistency and superficiality of a relativist and irenic attitude regarding the way of salvation in a religion different from that based on faith in Christ”(May 10, 1995).
The Vicar of Christ knows the teaching of the Church and of Catholic theology too well not to know that those who are not Catholic can be saved. But what a difference between the possibility of being saved and claiming there is no need to proclaim the Gospel to the whole human race.
Behind the necessity for evangelization, therefore, is the need for the human mind to know the truth. That is why God became man. Jesus Christ is the Truth. No one is saved except through Him because no one can reach heaven except by knowing and living the truth.
We have no idea how deeply the missionary apostolate has suffered since the errors of anonymous Christianity have penetrated Catholic circles. It is safe to say the effect has been, in many countries, nothing less than disastrous.
Obstacles to Evangelization
Pope John Paul II is not a visionary. He knows only too well the problems facing evangelization in the modern world. He does not hesitate to say that, humanly speaking, these obstacles seem insurmountable and lead to discouragement even to the point of giving up the prospect of converting people to the true faith. In one paragraph he summarizes these obstacles:
These are primarily: a certain waning of missionary zeal; the sad experience of past and still present divisions among Christians; the drop in the number of vocations; the counter-witness of all those who are not faithful to their missionary promises and commitments; the indifferentist mentality marked by religious relativism, which makes many of our contemporaries think and say that “one religion is as good as another.”
But these obstacles should not deter us from evangelizing our contemporaries. Just the opposite. They should serve “ to increase our understanding of the challenge that missionary commitment must face today more than ever.” Then the Pope reminds us that as overwhelming as are the problems in our day they are minor compared to the humanly insurmountable difficulties that the early Church had in converting her pagan contemporaries. The Bishop of Rome asks, “How could the small group of fisherman from Galilee make disciples of all the nations”?
How did those first followers of the Master respond to Christ’s mandate? “They believed in Him, in His presence and in His power over life and death. The early Church was nourished by this same faith”(May 17, 1995).
That is what we need today. We must react to the difficulties of evangelization with the humility and faith of the first believers. What does this mean in practice? We must, to repeat, “increase our understanding” of the faith we profess.
There is no choice. Either present day Catholics grow in their understanding of what they believe or the twenty-first century will be no less sterile in reproducing the religion of Christ than it has been for the last twenty centuries. We are saying more than most people realize. As education becomes more widespread, and the human mind more advanced in secular knowledge, it must correspondingly grow in its understanding of what Jesus meant when He said, speaking to His heavenly Father, “This is everlasting life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ”(John 17:3).
Evangelization as Inculturation
As Christ founded the Church, He intended her to be both one and universal. Already in the Acts of the Apostles we read that the local churches were formed within the one universal Church. Thus a distinction appears between the universal Church entrusted to the apostles under the guidance of Peter, and the local churches with their own pastors.
By the beginning of the second century, the Church had spread throughout the Mediterranean world. As the people were evangelized, they retained their ethnic culture. But when they became Christians, there was an inculturation in two ways. Evangelization took place “not only through its adaptation to the cultural expressions of the various people, but also through a vital integration of the Gospel into their thought, values, customs, and prayer.”
In context, the Pope is speaking of the missionary task of the local churches. He knows only too well the dangers of syncretism, about which he warns the faithful. Syncretism has come to refer to the misguided claims that religious unity can be achieved by ignoring the differences between faiths on the assumption that all creeds are essentially one and the same. This would be just another form of the “anonymous Christianity,” which has been so harmful to evangelization.
Assuming that the Gospel should be preached to people while respecting their cultural heritage, the main question is how should this be done. Once again, the Vicar of Christ provides an answer to what is surely one of the most delicate areas of evangelization:
The Gospel message, in its essence as the revelation of God through the life and teaching of Christ, should be presented to different cultures by fostering the development of the seeds, longings, expectations–it could be said, almost the presentiments of Gospel values–already present within them. Consequently a transformation can take place which does not result in the loss of peoples’ cultural identity. On the contrary, precisely because this is a message of divine origin, it tends to enhance the local culture, stimulating it and encouraging it to yield new fruits at the highest level to which Christ’s presence brings it, with the grace of the Holy Spirit and the light of the Gospel.
These directives for combining evangelization and inculturation are not easy to put into practice. More than that, an erroneous understanding of their combination has become a major obstacle to the Church’s missionary enterprise.
People are naturally attached to their own culture. In fact the culture of a nation is almost a definition of its personality. Pope John Paul urges us to deeply respect the culture of a society, even as we strive to Christianize that society. It takes more than natural ingenuity, we could say it requires supernatural enlightenment to remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ while adapting the culture of a nation to the Gospel. The key issue is priority. The integrity of the Gospel truth must remain the foundation for adapting this truth to the traditions of a people.
Nor is this all. The Vicar of Christ is more than sympathetic with the cultural distinctiveness of the various peoples in the human family. He knows that there has been, what we call a primitive revelation to the human race. Every nation under the sun has inherited elements of truth and richness of insight that go back to the dawn of human history. Moreover every nation is composed of people who have the capacity for using their reason. All of this should be kept in mind as the Gospel is proclaimed to an almost infinite variety of peoples throughout the world.
What those who evangelize may not forget is that their apostolate must be “a valid and fruitful missionary task.” What norm must be observed? Pope John Paul II tells us, “The criterion everyone must follow is that in every culture it is possible to find and to discern authentic values, but in none is there absolute truth nor an infallible rule of life or prayer”(June 14, 1995).
The two words “absolute” and “infallible” are at the heart of evangelizing while sincerely inculturating. Only the Incarnate God can teach the world what it needs to know with absolute certainty in order to be saved. Only Jesus Christ can provide the infallible norms of morality and worship for reaching our eternal destiny.
Pope John Paul Speaks to Americans
During his most recent pilgrimage to the United States, the successor of Saint Peter did not hesitate to thank God “for the extraordinary human epic that is the United States of America.” He assured his audience that “the Church is alive in you! God, who is the Master builder of His holy temple, has poured His love into your hearts through the Holy Spirit. You have received the gift of new life. You have been charged with bringing the Good News to all creation.”
Having said this, the Pope drew the obvious conclusion. A nation as blessed by God’s gifts as America has the corresponding responsibility to share these gifts with the rest of humanity. This means nothing less than the stirring challenge of the new evangelization.
The new world was discovered by Christopher Columbus because he wished to spread the Gospel of Christ to what he believed were the people of the Indies.
Providentially the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued exactly five hundred years, to the day, after Columbus sighted the new world. By the middle of the sixteenth century, no less than ten million native American Indians became professed Roman Catholics. In the five centuries since then, the faithful of both North and South America have performed wonders in spreading the true faith to the farthest reaches of the globe.
What the most materially prosperous nation of the Americas needs to be told is the duty it has to evangelize. Pope John Paul calls it the new evangelization. He also identifies its purpose. “The aim…is to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the center of history, the hope of humanity and the joy of every heart.”
American Catholics are therefore to proclaim Jesus Christ. This means to reach out, first of all to their fellow Americans, that God became man in order to save sinners from the consequences of their sins and for an eternal beatitude in heaven with God.
American Catholics are to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the center of history. The history of the human race has two parts. The first period is before Christ (B.C.); the second period is since Christ (A.D.). The most important earthly event has been the Incarnation, when the Creator of the universe was conceived in the womb of His Virgin Mother Mary. Everything before that was a preparation; everything since has been the possession of such blessings as only God can confer on His creatures.
American Catholics are to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the hope of humanity. The United States has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Every twenty minutes an American takes his own life. In one state after another so-called assisted suicides are practiced by the medical profession. Why do people take their own lives? Because they lack the virtue of hope which gives meaning to the trials of this life. People without faith cannot have hope. Only faith in Jesus Christ is the ground for hope in what He promised to those who believe in His name. We who have the Christian faith are obliged to share this faith with those millions whose lives seem hopeless because they do not believe.
American Catholics are to proclaim that Jesus Christ is the joy of every heart. What is joy except the experience of doing the will of God. Our Lord could not have been more plain. He tells us that He came into the world to teach us the secret of true happiness. “These things I have spoken to you,” He said, “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full”(John 15:11). All that the world has to know is what is God’s will in their lives; and then do it. The result is joy.
What a grave responsibility we have to make people happy. What more can we do for others than to bring joy into their hearts. How is this done? By following the message of the angel to the shepherds in Bethlehem when he told them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all the people; for today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord”(Luke 2:10-11).
Evangelization brings satisfaction. As people come to believe in Christ and put His teaching into practice in their lives, they experience the deepest satisfaction in this valley of tears. It is the satisfaction of knowing that I am loved by the One who died on the cross out of love for me.