By Carl E. Olson
If asked to complete this sentence, "The entire mission of the Church, then, is concentrated and manifested in –", how many Catholics would finish it with the word "evangelization"?
That sentence is from Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles Laici, "On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World." It was written by the late Holy Father at the end of 1988 in response to the 1987 Synod of Bishops, which had focused on the theme "Vocation and Mission in the Church and in the World Twenty Years after the Second Vatican Council." Forty years have now passed since the conclusion of the last Council and the topic of evangelization remains as vital and urgent as ever.
It also remains something of a mystery or afterthought to some Catholics. After all, isn’t evangelization something that Evangelical Protestants do? Doesn’t it mean knocking on doors, preaching in public squares, and rubbing friends and co-workers the wrong way? And yet John Paul II stated inChristifideles Laici that "the lay faithful, precisely because they are members of the Church, have the vocation and mission of proclaiming the Gospel: they are prepared for this work by the sacraments of Christian initiation and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit" (CL 33).
John Paul II’s call to evangelization was not, of course, a unique innovation. Rather, it was a reiteration of the Council’s repeated call for the entire Church, and especially the laity, to be involved in evangelizing the world. The word evangelization coming from the Greek word for gospel, or the "good news" of Jesus Christ. Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, stated that the laity "have the exalted duty of working for the ever greater spread of the divine plan of salvation to all men, of every epoch and all over the earth. Therefore may the way be clear for them to share diligently in the salvific work of the Church according to their ability and the needs of the times" (LG 33). So what exactly does that involve?
What is Evangelization?
There are many elements to evangelization, but three are especially important: proclamation, transmission, and introduction.
Simply put, to evangelize is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the good news of his Incarnation, life, Passion, death, and Resurrection. In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), Pope Paul VI wrote: "Thus it has been possible to define evangelization in terms of proclaiming Christ to those who do not know Him, of preaching, of catechetics, of conferring Baptism and the other sacraments." (par. 17). So this proclamation is to both non-Catholics and Catholics; we are all in need of evangelization.
This goes hand-in-hand with the second element: transmission of the Faith. "The transmission of the Christian faith consists primarily in proclaiming Jesus Christ in order to lead others to faith in him," states the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "From the beginning, the first disciples burned with the desire to proclaim Christ: 'We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.' And they invite people of every era to enter into the joy of their communion with Christ…[see 1 John 1:1-4]" (par. 425). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Christians should have the desire to pass on the good news of the Savior of mankind.
Thus, the proclamation and transmission of the Gospel has a singular goal: to introduce people to the Person of Jesus Christ. This is beautifully expressed in John’s first epistle, where the Apostle states that "what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:3). John Paul II summed it up by insisting that "evangelization’s only point of departure is Jesus Christ, ‘the Way, and the Truth and the Life’ (John 14:6), the answer to the question that is every human life." (Springtime of Evangelization [Basilica/Ignatius Press, 1999], 58).
Who Evangelizes? And Why?
The entire Church is called to evangelize, for the Church is "by her nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, she has as her origin the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit" (LG 33). As the Father sent the Son and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Triune God sends the Church – the Body of Christ guided by the Holy Spirit – to "make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in their Spirit of Love" (CCC 850).
It may surprise some Catholics to hear that the laity are especially called to evangelize. In fact, this was one of the central messages of Vatican II. Ad Gentes, Vatican II’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity, explained that the laity’s "main duty, whether they are men or women, is the witness which they are bound to bear to Christ by their life and works in the home, in their social group, and in their own professional circle" (AG 21). This is a participation in the prophetic mission that each Catholic receives at baptism. It takes place in the ordinary activities and circumstances of life: at home, in the work place, at school, and everywhere in between.
Far from being a dreaded burden, evangelization should come from a desire for all to be saved, flowing from our love for Christ and the recognition of the dignity and value of every man. "From this loving knowledge of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him, to 'evangelize', and to lead others to the 'yes' of faith in Jesus Christ," states the Catechism (CCC 429). Elsewhere, theCatechism repeats Saint Paul’s reminder that it is the love of Christ that urges us on (2 Cor 5:14) and that God "desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4; see CCC 851). Just as Christ came to do the will of the Father, all those baptized into Christ should seek to do the same.
How To Evangelize?
Early in his pontificate John Paul II began to consistently call for a "new evangelization." By this he did not mean that the content and message of the Gospel had changed – since it cannot change – but that evangelization should be new in its methods and approaches. Even this idea was not new; it was as old as Christianity itself, as a study of the work of Saint Paul or the early Church Fathers reveals. It was also addressed by Pope Paul VI, who wrote, "This question of ‘how to evangelize’ is permanently relevant, because the methods of evangelizing vary according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture, and because they thereby present a certain challenge to our capacity for discovery and adaptation" (Evangelii Nuntiandi40).
An essential form of evangelization is witness, in both words and deeds. As John Paul II noted in Redemptoris Missio ("The Mission of Redemption," 1990), "People today put more trust in witnesses than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and actions than in theories" (RM42.1). The concrete, visible way that a Catholic lives what he believes can sometimes say more – or say it with more poignancy and effectiveness – than simply talking about what he believes.
That witness should include what Paul VI called "indispensable personal contact." "In the long run," he asked, "is there any other way of handing on the Gospel than by transmitting to another person one's personal experience of faith?" (EN 46). This is where Catholics can sometimes struggle, not always comfortable talking about their beliefs or sharing parts of their spiritual journey. But reflecting on the purpose of evangelization and praying that God will guide us when opportunities to evangelize arise helps us be better witnesses of the Gospel.
In addition, other means of evangelization include preaching (both within and outside of liturgical celebrations), which Paul VI says is "an important and very adaptable instrument of evangelization" (EN 43), catechesis, and mass media. And John Paul often pointed out that we evangelize one another within our families and homes, the "domestic Church": "The immediate and in many ways most important arena of the laity’s Christian witness is marriage and the family" (Springtime, 95).
Ultimately, there must be a recognition that evangelization is a great responsibility that bears great rewards. "Woe to me," Saint Paul lamented, "if I do not preach the Gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16). "Faith is strengthened," John Paul II exclaimed, "when it is given to others" (Redemptoris Missio 2.3). We who have been given much by Jesus Christ are asked, in turn, to give the good news to others. Evangelization, in other words, is completely Catholic.
• Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World) Paul VI (1975)
• Redemptoris Missio (The Mission of Redemption) John Paul II (1990)
• Lumen Gentium (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church)
• Gaudium et Spes (Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World)
• Ad Gentes (Vatican II’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity)
• Springtime of Evangelization: The Texts of the 1998 ad Limina Addresses to the Bishops of the United States — John Paul II (1998)
• Christifideles Laici ("On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and in the World") John Paul II (1988)
• Catechism of the Catholic Church, 849-856, 898-900, 904-907.
[This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the June 26, 2005 issue of Our Sunday Visitor.]
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