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New Evangelization: What Does It Mean?

Many of the young theologians who gathered at Boston College for the Catholic Conversation Project have been invited by the USCCB Committee on Doctrine to a symposium in September entitled, “The Intellectual Tasks of the New Evangelization.” The fact that the bishops are reaching out to these theologians is a good sign that the kind of dialogue between bishops and theologians everyone seems to want is indeed starting on this most important project.

“But what does it mean?” This is still the most common question I get when the subject of the New Evangelization comes up. And, it is not easy to answer, in part, because the New Evangelization is designed to re-introduce a sense of wonder, not just a sense of comprehension, about the claims at the heart of our faith. Put differently, as Archbishop Martin of Dublin observed, Ireland may be the most catechized and least evangelized culture in Europe. That distinction between catechesis and evangelization is at the heart of what the New Evangelization is about.

The New Evangelization is in direct continuity with the ressourcement theology that preceded and informed so many of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The effort is to return to the sources, the writings of the early Church Fathers, for whom the radical claims of Christianity were still new and fresh and, indeed, scandalous. Today, in the West, we associate religion with propriety. We see a cross on top of a steeple and we think, “Good neighborhood.” Back then, in the early centuries of the Church’s life, the cross was still a sign of scandal, a stumbling block. Back then, the claims made about the person of Jesus Christ were outrageous to contemporary ears. A God-Man? Perish the thought. The New Evangelization seeks to reclaim some of that wonderment about the foundational claims of the Christian faith.

To be clear, the claims of our faith are not in doubt. But, they are not really in focus either. Too often, our faith is reduced to ethics and being Christian is reduced to being kind, or being sexually conservative, or some such anthropomorphic ethical belief. What is distinctive about Christianity is how we worship and whom. The New Evangelization seeks to re-focus the attention of Catholic Christians on our Creed and on our God.

The thought occurs, that I might usefully show the difference between catechesis and the New Evangelization by taking some of the episcopal mottos of our bishops and seeing how the reveal what is distinctive about the New Evangelization.

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Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston’s episcopal motto is “Quodcumque dixerit facite” or “Do whatever He tells you.” These are the words of the Blessed Mother to the waiters at Cana. (As a former waiter, I have always loved those words.) We might say that catechesis focuses on the content of what “He tells you” but that the New Evangelization focuses on the fact that it is He who is doing the telling. We should not do whatever He tells us because it is good advice, or it will make us rich, or happy. We should do what He tells us because it is He who tells us.

“In Oboedientia Veritatis” is the episcopal motto of Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, O.P., and it is a reference to the First Letter of Peter: Having purified our hearts in obedience to the truth, let us love one another intensely from the heart.” A catechist will rightly focus on what the truth demands, but the New Evangelization will focus on the fact that there is such a thing as Truth, that as Catholics we believe Jesus reveals the Truth, and that obedience to that Truth is, consequently, not just a mandate, but a response, indeed the only response, to the deepest yearnings of the human heart.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington’s episcopal motto is “Thy Kingdom Come.” Cardinal Wuerl, who is a master catechist as anyone who has enjoyed his sermons at St. Matthew’s can tell you, can wax eloquently about what the Kingdom demands, what we can do to instance the Kingdom in our lives, what does the Kingdom look like. But, the New Evangelization would focus on the word “Thy” and note that the key thing about the Kingdom is that it is His, and that by addressing God in the second person, we are acknowledging an already extant relationship with God. Insofar as secularism is acting as if God did not exist, the Lord’s Prayer is the great antidote to secularism, affirming a relationship that makes secularism nonsensical.

In Los Angeles, the new Archbishop Jose Gomez’s motto is “Adeamus cum Fiducia as Thronum Gratiae” – “Let us go forward to the throne of grace.” A catechist would need to focus on the steps we take to move forward in the Christian Life. The New Evangelization would say: Keep your eye on the Throne of Grace and the walking will become, if not easy, indeed in many ways more difficult, but it will become second nature. The supernatural will become natural because the Throne of Grace is Jesus Christ in whom the supernatural did most emphatically become natural.

“Christo Gloria in Ecclesia” is the episcopal motto of Cardinal Francis George: “To Christ be Glory in His Church.” This is an easy one: I do not know what a catechist can do with these words, but they are the heart of the New Evangelization. The Church is Christ’s. The Church is called to bring Glory to Christ. The Christian faith is all about Him, and therefore about us, not the other way round.

The episcopal motto of New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan is similar. “Ad Quem Ibimus” – “Lord, to whom shall we go?” There is no provision for including question marks in episcopal coats of arms, but in the Gospels, these words of St. Peter’s come after many have deserted the Master because his teachings are hard and Jesus asks the apostles if they, too, will leave. Just as the most heartfelt prayer when we have sinned is the simple, “Lord, Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner,” these words that Archbishop Dolan has selected are the ones I speak most often in prayer when I find the Master’s teachings hard. (And if you never find the Master’s teachings hard, you are not paying attention!) There is a whiff of post-modernism in St. Peter’s words, almost an exasperation, a sense that, yes, there are alternatives to the Gospel, and those alternatives are both real and sometimes attractive, but once bit by the Holy Spirit, we know in our hearts that there is no one else to whom we can truly turn. We can go be satisfied for an hour or for a year, maybe even many years, but that if we are following anyone but the Master, we are going astray. We the baptized are and must be, as they say in poker, “All In” with Jesus.

The New Evangelization, then, is not so much a program of teaching, still less a new revelation of God. It is about discerning a different point of departure for Christians, starting with the very foundational claims of the faith, the Creed, and then, and only then, moving on to the discussions about social justice and sexual morality that so dominate religious talk these days. Those discussions are important, to be sure, but unless we see with the eyes of faith, unless we shine the light of Christ on those issues, we are only joining the cacophony of opinions you find on cable news. Because, in the end, Christ is always authentically new and only He. Without Him, it is always “Groundhog Day” and how often have theological discussions of late seemed exactly like that movie! It will be fascinating to walk with these young theologians as they turn their minds to the intellectual tasks of the New Evangelization.

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