For nearly a year now I have been travelling around southern England speaking to Catholics about the “new evangelisation”. The meetings range from parish and deanery groups to diocesan gatherings and meetings of Catholic societies. My talks are practical and motivational. I explain the need for Catholics to evangelise, encourage everyone to be involved, then show some of the resources that are available. I should say that I am not doing this work in any official capacity, or with any fixed financial backing. I’ve simply taken the initiative, along with the moral support of one of my publishers to enable and invigorate evangelisation in the Catholic Church.
What am I finding? Are the people ready and eager to proclaim the Gospel? Are the clergy and laity on fire to reach the next generation with the good news of Jesus Christ?
The results are mixed. There are some definite hot spots. Within the Catholic Renewal movement there is a readiness and zeal to evangelise. The Catholic Bible School in Chichester is under new management, and going strong. The Sion Community in Essex is booked solid for two years in advance for parish and school missions. St Patrick’s Parish in Soho runs a school to train lay missionaries. The Catholic Evangelisation Service continues to churn out excellent materials, and its CaFE course is starting to be picked up around the world. The Miles Jesu community runs missions and organises the Keys to the Future conference, and an increasingly popular newsletter. Other new communities and ecclesial movements like Mary Ministries, the Pilgrim Community, Faith Movement and Emmaus are also instrumental in reaching out to the Church and the world with the Good News.
The Birmingham archdiocese has just started a new centre for evangelisation. Youth 2000 run a course to train and send out lay missioners, have started a dynamic new website for young people and were instrumental in distributing thousands of free booklets at the showing of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The Catholic Truth Society has a new breed of writers and designers producing a fresh range of resources and materials.
Among them is the Christianity Pure&Simple project. It has caught the imagination with five booklets that introduce the Catholic faith to people in the street. The project also includes a “seed leaflet” which is a simple, attractively designed brochure that gets people asking the essential questions that lead them to inquire more about the Christian faith. These leaflets are designed to be handed out or distributed by any Catholic anywhere to as many people as possible. When the reader replies he gets a copy of the first of the Christianity Pure&Simple booklets free of charge.
I’m afraid, however, that these hot spots are like those hot springs in the midst of snowbound Siberia. In my travels, I am finding widespread complacency and ignorance when it comes to evangelisation. For many Catholics the whole idea of evangelisation simply does not compute. They don’t seem to know that the Catholic Church is now, and forever has been, a missionary Church. They seem never to have heard John Paul II’s famous saying that “to be a Christian is to be a missionary”.
The whole topic of evangelisation is surrounded by confusion and fear. There is a widespread feeling that “we ought to be doing something.” But many are not sure what that “something” is. Individual priests, lay people and communities are getting on with the job, but the reaction on the official level reflects the confusion and fear I see among the majority of people in the pew. As a result, when Church officials do spend some of our collection money on evangelisation the event is usually a lukewarm, churchy talking shop. It might be “a day of reflection about what it means to evangelise” or “a deanery meeting to discuss and celebrate evangelisation”. No evangelisation is actually undertaken. Instead Catholics meet together to talk about doing something.
On the positive side, the Bishops’ Conference is to be commended for setting up a new agency to promote evangelisation, CASE (the Catholic Agency for Supporting Evangelisation). This has taken a year to set up. It has four full-time staff members and its brief is to help individuals and new ecclesial communities work together in support of evangelisation. It’s true that the staff members of CASE aren’t actually doing any active evangelisation themselves; nor is there any funding available for new initiatives, but at least this new agency provides an excellent enquirer’s website and an infrastructure for moral support and encouragement of those who are involved in evangelisation.
CASE is a small sign of hope from officialdom, but why should the official Church be so confused, lukewarm and timid about evangelisation? Much of the problem goes back to questions about what the church is actually for. The generation of Catholics now in leadership has been influenced by a stream of thought that said the Church’s raison d’être was “making the world a better place”. This was to be done through a blend of mild political activism and “Catholic education”. Thus, a friend told me about a recent survey asking Catholics coming out of Mass what they thought evangelisation was all about. Most of them said it meant “giving more money to Cafod”. The aid agencies do fantastic work, but good works are only one half of evangelisation. We need to give people bread, but we also need to give them the Bread of Life.
Positive political change and continued Catholic catechesis are good things, but they are not what we primarily consider to be evangelisation. In fact, making the world a better place, and continuing to instruct the faithful are fruits of the Gospel, they are not the Gospel itself. Of course we must live radical Christian lives and teach the faithful. That is the primary call, but it is not the priority.
In his 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, the Pope makes this interesting distinction. He says that the primary call is to lead radiant Christian lives of charity. But while he acknowledges this primary call he says, “the priority is proclamation”, and proclamation is not confined to continued Catholic catechesis. The Holy Father reminds us in words worthy of Billy Graham: “The aim of proclamation is conversion. Conversion means accepting Christ, becoming his disciple in a dynamic and life-giving process. The Church calls all people to conversion. It is not sufficient to help people to become more human, to be more faithful to their own religion, or to build communities working for justice and solidarity.” If we are followers of Christ we can’t avoid his stark words when he commanded us to “go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel: those who believe will be saved. Those who do not believe will be condemned.” Echoing St Paul, the Pope says: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” We must certainly practice what we preach, but we must also preach what we practice. Proclamation is a necessity because without it, the reason and drive for our Christian charity cannot be known. Preaching to the choir and maintaining a Christian social witness are vital, but it doesn’t take too much thought to realise that if the Christian message is not also proclaimed to the wider world, then it won’t be long before there is no Christian faith. And if there is no Christian faith, then before long there is no Christian charity either. If we practice our faith without preaching it, there will soon be neither preaching nor practice.
The message is simple: Christ died on the cross and rose again on the third day for the forgiveness of sin. This means we can be converted into his likeness. To change the world, this Good News needs to be proclaimed to the world.
Could it be that we are so timid in this task because we don’t really, deep down believe it? Could it be that we are frightened to proclaim the message of conversion because we have yet to be truly converted ourselves?