Before we really get into the topic, let’s define a term first. Evangelization. What is it? Evangelization is the making known of the Gospel of Christ by word and deed. The Church has engaged in evangelization from the very beginning when Jesus sent his disciples and apostles out 2 by 2 to the villages He intended to visit. In His parting words to the Apostles in the Gospel of Matthew, he said, “Go make disciples of nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all I taught you.” For two thousand years, apostles, the missionaries have gone throughout the four corners of the world making known the Gospel and the life it calls us to.
The call to evangelization has always been central to the Catholic Church. From the missionary activity of the Apostles, the great missionaries like St Patrick, St. Boniface, St Francis Xavier, and St Isaac Jocques to the establishment of parishes and school throughout the world, The Church has an extensive infrastructure in which to accomplish this task. Parishes are more than a local place to get sacraments, but were set up to be centers of evangelization in which the Gospel became more known to the local community. Those parishes are full of people who were baptized into the missionary and evangelical call of the Church. The local parish is the birthplace of disciples.
That new birth comes through baptism. When we are baptized we are brought into the triple office of Jesus: priest, prophet, and king. Evangelization is part of that prophetic vocation to which we are baptized. When are anointed with Sacred Chrism, we are told we now share in the mission of the Church. These are not hallmark words said to enhance the moment, but a reality the Church has for all her baptized. When you had your children baptized, whether you realized it or not, you were committing to raising disciples and evangelists of Jesus Christ.
So, then, what is new about the new evangelization? Before the Second Vatican Council, the Church noticed a unwelcome development. Although most people went to Mass, both the knowledge of the faith and the living of the faith were dropping. They knew this trend, left untended, would lead in a free fall from faith. Something was disrupting the way to paradise. They noticed that the world was plunging in madness, as it waged world wars, genocides, and devolved into totalitarianism. It wasn’t merely non-Catholics engaging in such behavior, it was Catholics engaged in the behaviors; even leaving behind faith to do so. One of the principle theologians of Vatican II, Cardinal Carol Woltyja, a man caught in the carnage of both the totalitarian regimes of Nazis and the Soviets, knew that a re-engagement of the Catholic faithful in the knowing and living out of the faith was needed. He called for a new evangelization, a new re-engagement with faith so that what was happening within the Eucharist was being lived outside of Mass. This was tackeled at Vatican II. This call is seen weaved throughout the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church (Lumen Gentium) and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Guadium et Spes). A call for evangelization was being made; this time not to the those who were not yet baptized, but now to those who were already baptized. Cardinal Woltyja was elected to the papacy and took the name of John Paul II, now St. John Paul II, and called all the more for this new evangelization to roar like a wildfire.
Both in St. John Paul’s writings and in the writings of Vatican II, a renewed emphasis on the central role of the family was made. The family is called the domestic Church, the basic building block of the larger parish, diocesan, and universal Church. It’s health or lack thereof would have a bearing on the rest of the Church. The role of the parents, particularly of the fathers, was given a central role in the passing on the faith. This is not a innovative teaching of the church, but a understanding of reality. Children, we know from the behavioral sciences as well as from our faith, follow the example of the parents in how to deal with reality, what is worthy of their time and effort, how to process a wide range of realities based on the witness of their parents. The baptismal rite for Children recognizes this multiple time. When you had your child was baptized, you were instructed of your central role, a number of times which you acknowledged by a yes or I do. You parents are the first evangelizers of faith to your children. What is done is schools, classes, and programs is meant to be supplemental to your instruction. As I tell my own parishioners who are parents: we are your reinforcements, not your replacements.
Our Lord knows that your task isn’t easy; in fact, it is getting more and more difficult. Most parents feel inept to the task. I do not blame them. Our catechesis for decades has been subpar. This cannot be ignored. Despite the constant call of the popes to dive deeper, too often this call did not filter down to the local parishes. There are many reasons. However, we can dissect this death, or look to how we turn it around.
How do we turn it around? First, we need to distinguish between knowing about and knowing. To give an example: I am fairly good ST Louis Cardinals fan. I can study everything there is to study about the cardinals. I could tell you all there is to know about their stats, playing ability, and even personal lives. The question is: do I know them? Do I know Carpenter, or Wainwright, or Adams, or Piscotty? No. Knowing about a person and knowing a person are not the same. If I were to want to know them, it would mean striking a relationship with them. In the course of that relationship, I would come to know them, perhaps even with it growing into a friendship. If we are to engage in the new evangelization, it will come through understanding that the end goal is an eternal relationship, specifically a child/parent relationship with God. Part of that relationship will mean coming to know about God as well. However, if we are to engage in evangelization, it has to start with the understanding of introducing a person into a relationship with God and His Church. Growing in that relationship is not merely growing in some kind of an emotional attachment. No, it is far more consequential: it means growing in the ability to selflessly love God. Evangelization always has this as its primary end.
Second, we know that catechesis has been deficient over the past decades. I do not say this to disparage teachers who have tried their best. But as with all education, if the reality is not lived in the home, the education will usually fall on deaf ears. Many times the reality is not lived because it is unknown. We who have been given the position of leading, you as parents and I as a priest, have an obligation to deepen our understanding of the faith so that we might live it more clearly and give greater witness to what it looks like. It is not as if we do not have many books and other learning available to us. We have to make the choice to engage. That might mean turning off Grey’s Anatomy or whatever sporting event you’re wanting to watch, and using part of that time to pick up a Bible, attend a class, or something that will inform us. That way when we are given the job of witnessing and teaching, we know better what we are doing and where it is leading.
My brother priests and I have an obligation to pass on this knowledge. Most of us have degrees in these fields. We will say we are busy, but how can we as the fathers of the parish tell our parents they need to grow in their understanding of the faith if we do not do this ourselves? It is called giving example. WE can say we are busy with a whole host of things, and we are. But do not parents rightfully say the same. The very limited time we have in Mass during the homily is not enough, especially if we are to correct lost decades. If the priest AND parents are engaged in this new evangelization, how powerful a witness will that be?!
However, the new evangelization digs deeper than knowledge. There is an ancient saying in the Church: Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex Vivendi. The law of worship/prayer, the law of belief, the law of living. In other words: What we worship reflects what we believe, determines how we live. Worship and prayer are the power train of the new evangelization. The surest way to kill evangelization is to first minimize then eliminate prayer and worship as part of the expression of our Catholic lives. There is no surer deterrent to evangelization than a disconnection from the sacraments. It is the equivalent of starving oneself to death. Engagement in the sacraments, though, is more occupying a pew for x amount of minutes. It is actively engaging in thanksgiving and worship of God. I would posit, though, where prayer is an outsider in the home, engagement in the sacraments will falter. Prayer as family is so very important. You dads: do you lead your children in prayer? Do you lead your wives in prayer? Are you not aware that St. Paul reminds you that you ARE…not should be or can be…but ARE the spiritual heads of your home? Many men have left their wives to do it, and those wives and mothers are doing the best they can. That said, multiple studies confirm what we already knew: the likelihood of the faith of a child growing is directly tied to the faith of the dad. We can be the physical and fiscal provider of the family, but if we are not the spiritual provider of our families, we will have failed in our primary duty in the eyes of God.
Prayer is communication with God, a personal engagement with God. It is more than the saying of words, memorized or otherwise, but an intentional engagement with God. When you as parents pray with your children you send a powerful evangelical message that engaging God in conversation is necessary for their relationship to grow. It also ensures that what happens on Sundays and Holy Days is not an anomaly to their Catholic lives, but a continuance.
Secondly, we must nurture within our families and parishes an atmosphere of selflessness. Selfless service is at the heart of what we Catholics mean by the word love. Without a willingness to embrace the sacrifice and suffering that are a part of the core Catholic life, evangelization cannot be realized. Evangelization requires taking the moral teachings of the Gospel and the Church in a public way so as to positively witness to the transforming power of Christ. It calls for a courage and heroism to be willing to stand out in what are considered by this society as extraordinarily counter cultural ways. Without this lived witness and sacrifice the words of evangelization are reduce to mere and quite empty words. In evangelizing our youth we are reassuring them that despite what they see, that the popularity the world offers is a cheap consolation for what a lived Catholic life offers. Selflessness give flesh to the words of evangelization!
Finally, why is the new evangelization so critical? Of course the salvation of our children and spouses is of great importance, but it is a good likelihood that if evangelization within our homes and parishes isn’t taking place, then our engagement in evangelizing the world around us is not either. The call of Christ to His apostles at the end of the Gospel of Matthew still rings every bit as it did when first uttered: the making disciples of all the nations is still central to our call…but that making disciples starts not out there, but in here…in our homes and our parishes. Parishes are to be hotbeds of evangelization. For that to happen, families must be incubators of evangelization…after all, it is what was promised at baptism.