Evangelization means reaching out.
The Church teaches that evangelization involves going forth and reaching out to others, becoming involved in people’s lives, and accompanying others on life’s journey. It is first being the presence of Christ to others before starting a process of catechesis, apologetics, or theological instruction.
Pope Francis explains it like this:
“An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time” (Joy of the Gospel, 24).
Catholics cannot evangelize, however, if this has not happened for them personally. Thus, it makes sense that if most of our people have been “taught” the faith through a CCD model and brought up in the customs and culture of an institutional culture, they will not be able to evangelize others.
Honestly, most Catholics have little capacity to evangelize because they have had little experience of it within their own lives. This is the direct consequence of our parishes not having missional focus and why the New Evangelization zeroes in on post-baptismal proclamation to our own people. We must evangelize our own if we want our people to become an evangelizing community to those outside the Church.
Apologetics and catechesis are important forms of engagement for the already initiated and (at least somewhat) mature disciple. Yet to think that these methods on their own are the work of evangelization is deeply mistaken. This is particularly problematic when we take this approach with children. Certainly, some adults will encounter God by these means, but most people come to Christ through an experience that looks a lot like that of the Apostles, including Paul—through a personal encounter and relationship with Jesus.
Conversion always begins in relationships of charity, mercy, and deep personal interest and not with someone presenting a set of propositions or beliefs. Unfortunately, our repeated attempts to rely so heavily on intellectual modes of engagement, which is so indicative of the rationalism of the modern age, suggests that we are not convinced by the Gospel’s clear emphasis on the relational dimension of disciple-making, or that tending to the heart must precede the mind’s adherence to revealed truth.
Let me further clarify why this is. The act of faith by which a person gives their life to God is not the same kind of act by which a person assents to a natural or philosophical proposition. If one is learning math, so long as the individual has a basic grasp of numbers, he will almost automatically assent to the proposition that two plus two equals four, if he understands the proposition. The person does not have to move his will to assent because the mind simply accepts it. With Christian faith, it does not work this way. For the mind to assent to a covenant relationship with God, grace must move the will through love.
As the Gospels demonstrate, this movement of love can only occur when a person has a deep interpersonal encounter with the Lord or his disciples and not only exposure to the doctrinal content of the faith. As St. John describes it, “By this we know love that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:16-18). This is the principle modality of missionary discipleship and evangelization.
Keep in mind that, after the Reformation especially, but perhaps even before this, the Church drew her pastoral mode of engagement largely from St. Paul’s epistles. Paul’s epistles communicated primarily on the level of catechesis, apologetics and theology, for communities that had already come to faith in Jesus. During the Counter-Reformation period, perhaps theological clarity seemed an appropriate response to Protestantism, which placed so much emphasis on the Pauline epistles and raised so many theological questions.
Yet, in the end, this was not an adequate mode of engagement for the long-term sustainability of the Church. We cannot assume what Paul could in his letters, except at the cost of continued decline. We cannot forget the relational and missionary work Paul did in those communities prior to writing his letters.
Today, we are not addressing communities whose members have come to faith in the person of Jesus through the witness of evangelization. Our people are largely cultural Catholics raised in a tradition with which they feel comfortable and accustomed. Both outside and inside the Church, we are engaging people largely formed by a post-modern and post-Christian, secular culture. Most of our people have not experienced a missionary culture in their parish, so we can hardly expect them to go on mission to the world next door or across the street.
Originally published on Catholic Exchange, May 11, 2020.