By Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.
Since the pontificate of Blessed – soon to be canonized – Pope John Paul II, the phrase “new evangelization” has become part of our Catholic vocabulary. As he used it, the term describes an effort in the Catholic Church to reach out to baptized Catholics who have, for any number of reasons, drifted from the practice of the Catholic faith.
In my opinion, that “drift” was preceded, even occasioned by, a significant lack of knowledge and understanding of the Catholic faith.
After all, how can one practice what one does not understand? And how can one understand what one does not know? And how can one know what one is not taught? Long before these questions surfaced in contemporary analysis, St. Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10: 13-15). In the Catholic Church, for the past 2,000 years, we have called on and believed and heard and preached. Why, therefore, do we need a “’new evangelization?” Again, in my opinion, for any number of reasons, many baptized Catholics have lost their way. Has Jesus Christ changed? No. Has the Gospel changed? No. Has the deposit of faith changed? No. Has the Church changed? Yes, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Adaptation is the key to survival. The Church has continued to call on, believe in, preach and teach Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the deposit of faith – that aspect of the Church has not changed – but what has and continues to change is the way that the Church presents the Catholic faith to an ever changing community of believers. When the substance of that faith endures in a conviction about the truth of what the Church teaches and believes, a certain stability is evident no matter how people or society may develop or change over the centuries.
The adaptation not of the “substance” but, rather, of the manner in which the Catholic faith is presented by the Church affects the way that it is heard, understood, embraced, applied and lived.
There is an old saying, the truth of which is hard to deny: “Children live what they learn.” Adults do, too. For faith is a life-long process of learning and a life-long process of living. In that respect, evangelization is, in the words of St. Augustine, a “beauty, ever ancient, ever new” (Confessions, X). For all of us in the times in which we live, St. Augustine’s confessional lament also needs to be considered; he prayed: “too late have I loved thee.” I wonder if we might say: too late have I practiced thee, too late have I heard thee, too late have I understood thee, too late have I known thee, too late have I taught thee.
But is it too late? If the substance of our faith is constant, true and enduring, the answer is “no.” Hence, a “’new’ evangelization” is not only called for; it is imperative and essential. As Catholics, we will “live what we learn” if we do everything possible to learn or “relearn” what we need so that we might live. And that is Jesus Christ, the Gospel, the deposit of faith, “ever ancient, ever new.” It is not too late. In Jesus Christ, it is never too late.
As a Bishop and Successor to the Apostles, it is my obligation and responsibility in the Church to reflect upon the transmission of faith in the local Church and to propose how that needs to be accomplished in the broadest ways. Parishes in turn – which are where the diocese lives and breathes – under the guidance of their pastors, priests and catechetical leaders, need to concretize that transmission of faith through effective programs created and offered for that purpose.
I suggest three areas for our consideration of the transmission of faith so that all today’s Catholics, regardless of age, might continue to “live what they learn.” They are (1) adult faith formation; (2) Catholic education; and, (3) the transformation/conversion of culture.
In the next several editions of The Monitor, I will share my reflections on each of these three areas and their impact upon the “new evangelization.”