The First Beatitude: A Blessing to the New Evangelization

The quintessential focus, of identifying man’s holiness as the threshold to all evangelization, has been essential to the last four papacies because Pope Paul VI, John XXIII, Blessed John Paul, and Benedict have all stressed our call to holiness as the new evangelization.

A Pontifical Council
At Vespers on June 28, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called for another Pontifical Council to promote the New Evangelization, on the eve of the Feast Day of the great Princes of the Church, Sts. Peter and Paul. Aware of the crisis of secularization in our modern era, Pope Benedict XVI stated that such a council would give impetus to a “renewed energy towards evangelization.” Certainly, the goal of such a Council is to not only offer up some systematic rendering of what evangelization means for the 21st century, but also draw out our role in this baptismal call to preach the Gospel in word and deed. This quintessential focus, of identifying man’s holiness as the threshold to all evangelization, has been essential to the last four papacies because Pope Paul VI, John XXIII, Blessed John Paul, and Benedict have all stressed our call to holiness as the new evangelization. Let us, therefore, consider first what we mean by the phrase “the new evangelization.”

The New Evangelization
For John Paul II, the new evangelization is the “great re-launching” of the age-old call to “preach the gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). This call to “go into the whole world” (Mk.16:15) and “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) is ever-changing with the expansion of the world. Thus, the Church, with its task of evangelization, is constantly faced with the mission of presenting herself “anew” to man in every age. In the words of Blessed John Paul II: “Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world’s soul…therefore the task of evangelization is linked to the conversion of the secular model of thinking that each generation conforms itself to.” 1 These words from John Paul II highlight the incessant task of the Holy Spirit to be at work, in each generation, until the end of time (cf. Mt28:20). To evangelize the world in its “generational evolutions” is to evangelize man where the spirit of the world is strongest. Pope John Paul II called this world the “modern Areopagus,” i.e., the cultural center of the learned people of Athens (cf. Redemptoris Missio [RM] §37; cf. Acts 17:22-31). This world is made up of the sciences, politics, media, and culture as a whole. Subsequently, the immediate call is to evangelize researchers, politicians, writers, journalists and artists. 2 Interestingly, it was in his last pronouncement as Supreme Pontiff, in his Apostolic Letter on Rapid Development, that he exhorted man to evangelize individuals within the media market because of the ways in which media is shaping culture (cf. RD §3)—a very important message for us to hear today! He concluded his letter with the directive to fearlessly go forth, introducing the face of Jesus Christ into the marketplace (cf. RD §14).

The new evangelization has, as its end goal, the salvation of souls. An instrumental aspect of that is to bring the culture to bear witness to the saving grace of Jesus Christ. For this reason, individuals are called to convert; and, as a result, cultures will be transformed in truth. The process by which this takes place is called “enculturation.” In the words of John Paul II, enculturation is “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through the integration in Christianity, and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures” (RM §52).  The proclamation of Christ is at the very heart of this integration and insertion, and “is the permanent priority of mission” (RM §44).  In this way, the new evangelization has, as its offering to the world, a civilization of love”, which is the fruit of the new evangelization.

We must be careful not to invert the order of priority between man and culture: man is a creation of God; culture is a creation of man.

The Heart of the Matter
In a Sunday homily, late in the fall of 1980, Pope John Paul II addressed the issue of the cultural imbalance that appears to be at an increase over the course of the latter half century. Instead of pointing the finger at the structure of the world, he turned it back on man:

In truth, the imbalances from which the contemporary world suffers are bound up with that much deeper imbalance which is rooted in man’s heart. It is actually within man that many elements are in contrast…He is drawn by many attractions, but he is constrained to choose one and give up the others. Moreover, weak and sinful as he is, he rarely does what he would not, and does not do what he would. He, therefore, suffers from a division within himself, and from that, arise many and very grave discords in society. 3

In the early stages of his pontificate, John Paul II established that man is at the heart of the problem, not the world. If the imbalance of the world is ever to be set on its proper axis, then humanity would first have to find its own axis—Christ. In essence, before imbalanced cultures change, unsettled hearts must convert to Christ. Before we experience a transformation of the world, we must first experience a transformation in holiness, because, he states: “…all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness…” (NMI §30). This is a call which is the duty of every human being, in every walk of life.

Essentially, all missionary activity receives its “newness” out of a living encounter with Christ. Out of this encounter, man now sees earth in light of heaven, vocation in light of eternal destiny, and missionary work in light of Christ (cf. RM §15). Out from the shadows of this missionary encounter, Pope John Paul stated, in his address to the Latin American bishops, that as the message is never new, what is new in evangelization is the adaptation of the message in its ardor, methods and expression.4 This will be touched upon later. Let us now consider the word “evangelization”; how it opens us up to the need to see poverty as a principle constituent to the new evangelization.

Contemplating Truth of the Gospel Message
In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Pope offered a triptych synthesis to the work of evangelization: “Evangelization is not only the Church’s living teaching, the proclamation of the faith (kerygma), and instruction, formation in the faith (catecheo); it is also the wide-ranging commitment to reflect on truth.” 5 In this three-part summary on evangelization, John Paul II concluded that the work of evangelization is not only about the instruction and proclamation of the faith, but also a deeper contemplation of faith in truth. He crystallizes the praxis of proper evangelization in Redemptoris Missio, “…unless the missionary is contemplative, he cannot proclaim Christ in a credible way” (RM §91). In effect, before we exist for others, we must first exist in Christ. So, without the contemplative gaze into truth, first, for our own self-reflection, the work of evangelization as a three-fold structure will collapse.  It will ultimately struggle to achieve its end goal: to introduce someone into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Here, it is helpful to understand truth as, not so much a what, or a something; but rather a Who, or a Someone—the person of Jesus Christ.

It is Pope Benedict XVI that helps bring into focus the essence and meaning of truth: what is at the heart of what we are contemplating. He states: “In Christ, God entered the world and set up the criterion of truth in the midst of history (Christ). Truth is outwardly powerless in the world…Yet, in His very powerlessness, he is powerful: only thus, again and again, does truth become power.” 6 Here, Pope Benedict XVI draws our attention to the great “kenotic” hymn where Christ empties himself, in a profound revelation, into the very life of the Trinity (cf. Phil 2:6-11)—sonship by way of obedience and self-denial!

Consequently, it is this revelation of truth that we are to imitate and embody in our own divine adoption in Christ. For it is in this emptying of self that we discover the power of truth. Here emerges the need to see the exponential power behind Christ’s words: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and come follow me. For whoever will save his life, will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it” (Mt16:24-25). In order to “deny self,” one must first know “ self,” and for this reason, all contemplation of truth must begin with a visual rendering of Christ, the Incarnation of truth. From that portrait, man can begin to understand the lifestyles and habits that do not belong to God. Through self-denial, we can begin to mature more fully in Christ, discerning more clearly the will of the Father, and our vocation to love. As the book of Sirach reminds us, “the riches” of God are found in the poverty of “self-denial” (Sir 11:18; cf. Ps 49.10; 2 Cor 8:9). Essentially, conversion is ongoing. Thus, man ought never to be content with self; only to the extent he is willing to turn his life over to Christ will his soul be at rest. We are who we are intended to be, when we are still working on who we are intended to become.  That being said, it is the opening beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Mt 5:3), that establishes the proper disposition—being powerless in the power of Christ.

The First Beatitude
The spiritually poor are those who possess a “poor person’s soul,” 7 relying on Christ for all things. To understand this, we must return to the beatitude itself: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (Mt 5:3). Here, The Greek term for spirit is pneuma, which can be translated as “breath,” or “wind.” 8 This truth underscores spiritual poverty as a dependence upon God for our whole existence. The Lord’s providence is antecedent to our every need. Effectively, this kind of radical poverty is “to depend upon God in the same way our lungs and our voice depend air.” 9 Otherwise, spiritual poverty—known as the poverty of heart (cf. CCC §2544-2547)—is a life in Christ; it is what forms and informs virtue, unlocking the door to the Kingdom of Heaven. Existentially speaking, it is summed up well in the words of Paul, “it is no longer I living, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). In other words, possessing a “poverty in heart,” lays the foundation for a life of blessing, bringing order and deeper meaning to a life in God, enriched by his grace.

Furthermore, the opening beatitude to the charter for holiness, highlights not the action one takes that defines us as Christians, but the disposition and longing for God that leads to that proper action. Let us pause to consider what I believe to be a most salient truth, often overlooked when reading the beatitudes. We find it by observing what Christ is not saying. He does not say: “Blessed are those who serve the poor, feed the homeless, visit the sick, etc…” (he gets into that later as part of the gospel message). Certainly, these are those actions that act as a real litmus test to the Christian life, but Christ said first: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Mt5:3). The message is clear, before we receive the grace and strength necessary to serve God in charity, we must first be panting for God with our every breadth. That is to say, if we are to do what God wants us to do, we must first be unswerving in our commitment to Christ. This was the kind of personal entrustment to God that Christ was talking about in his Sermon on divine providence. We must not be pre-occupied with material matters (cf. Mt 6:25-34).  Certainly, we can say that when we give up one thing, we make room for another thing. In other words, less becomes (and is) more. This is why detachment from material things is necessary for a proper disposition towards God.

Moving forward, let us now consider some key parables, from the mouth of Christ, to further our understanding of the dynamic interplay between conversion and mission. It relates to being poor in Christ, and what this means for the expansion of the Kingdom of God.

A Parabolic Insight
In the “Kingdom of Heaven” parables from Matthew 13, we have an arrangement of parables that highlight the centrality of being hidden in Christ—consequently, the call to lean upon Christ in a poverty of heart. Effectively, the parabolic discourse focuses in on the exponential power of being small for the sake of building up the Kingdom of Heaven. In particular, there are two parables that sharpen our understanding of the transforming power that comes with being small and hidden away: The Parable of the Mustard Seed and The Parable of the Leaven (cf. Mt 13:31-34).

The Parable of the Mustard Seed addresses the need to be, not only small—as it is the smallest of all the seeds—but to be even less than small.  Consider that the grain of the mustard seed is only a fraction of the mustard seed itself. Once again, the many paradoxes of our faith come into view; Christian greatness comes from great littleness. It has been said, that the final growth of the mustard shrub, growing along the Sea of Galilee, can reach as high as twelve feet. 10 The final growth of the mustard shrub is disproportionate to its original size. It is this very point that Christ wishes to highlight. Like that of the Church herself, which started with the Twelve, the Kingdom of God, here on earth, will continue to expand so long as we, the people of God, remain in that virtue of littleness, humility. Christ is teaching us that the highest, and most sublime aspects of the Kingdom of Heaven dwell in this overarching virtue of humility.

It is in this discussion of the mustard seed and humility, that Pope Benedict XVI strikes a chord with the new evangelization. In an address to catechists in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI (the then Cardinal Ratzinger) stated that the new evangelization always starts under the sign of the mustard seed, in both its humble beginnings, and the personal encounter with Christ flowing from it. 11 Highlighting how this personalization impacts the social community, he stated: “Conversion is humility in entrusting oneself to the love of the other, a love that becomes the measure and criteria of my own life. Here, we must also bear in mind the social aspect of conversion. Certainly, conversion is above all a very personal act, it is personalization…personalization is always a new and more profound socialization. The ‘I’ opens itself up to the ‘you’, in all its depths, and a new ‘we’ is born”. 12 Cardinal Ratzinger points out that the new evangelization is always about the interchange between conversion and mission.

In regard to the Parable of the Leaven, we find another image that God uses to provoke the mind and heart of the reader. We read: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Mt 13:33). In just one verse, Christ needles away at one of the central motifs of the parabolic discourse, that of fruitfulness by way of hiddenness. In this exacting parable, the woman “hides” the leaven until it was undetected. Only until the agent of leaven penetrated deep within, would the dough begin to wholly envelop the leaven to have it gradually disappear. 13 Here, we ought to be reminded of the words of St. John the Baptist: “He must increase, as I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). It is as if the leaven says to the dough: “I must decrease, that you must increase”. The process taking place here is one of reduction: one thing being less that another might be more.  We are the leaven, and Christ is the dough. For this reason, the Parable of the Leaven has a unique tie to understanding the function of Christ storing us up, rich in his grace.

This call to be hidden echoes the Old Testament “poor in God,” the anawim, who were hidden in God. These were the souls who were constantly “bent over” in the disposition, as one who was entirely reliant upon God for his providential care. This temperament of lowliness, seen throughout the ages, is what lies at the heart of John Paul II’s interior attitude of faith.

John Paul II and the Interior Attitude of Faith
For John Paul II, being “poor in spirit” is the necessary, fundamental attitude and behavior towards God and neighbor—a union with the heart of Christ. He saw the “poor in spirit” as those souls who had a deep sense of the interior life, and, consequently, an acute awareness into the interior attitude of faith. As his post-Vatican II work, Sources of Renewal, stated: this is quintessential to the realization of the universal call to holiness, and the springtime of the Church. The beloved pope defined the interior attitude of faith as an active relationship with Christ, but not yet in-action; the attitude that involved “‘taking up a position,’ and being ready to act, in accordance with it.” 14 For the springtime of the Church to be realized, this attitude would have to pass through the minds and hearts of all the Christian faithful.  In a homily delivered in March of 1979, John Paul II struck a very important note concerning his understanding of conversion, and its relationship to attitude: “spiritual maturity…is not a series of momentary practices, but of constant attitudes of mind, which give lasting form to our conversion to God.” 15 For the Pope, having a relationship with Christ is fundamental to being properly disposed to act in accordance with truth, and, in turn, ready to share the gift of himself to the world. We find this proposition in the story of “the rich young man” (cf. Mt 19:16-30).  Christ invited the young man to share the gift of himself with others, just as Christ turned himself over as a gift to others (cf. VS §20). Thus, Christ’s invitation was for him to become new for the sake of the Gospel by way of spiritual poverty.

Let us now revisit the aforementioned salient principles that mark the new evangelization according to John Paul II: ardor, methods, and expression. In doing so, let us set these within the context of spiritual poverty.

Ardor, Methods, and Expression
By ardor, John Paul II is calling us into the warmth and presence of the Holy Trinity. Interestingly, the word itself comes from a Latin term that means “fire, ablaze” or “passion”. We often tie the term ardor to a “zeal” or “fervor” that comes from our “passion” for God. John Paul II himself inserted fervor within the context of the new evangelization. He stated: “The new evangelization, like that of all times, will be effective if it proclaims from the rooftops what it has first lived in intimacy with the Lord. It calls for stronger personalities, inspired by saintly fervor” (VC §81).

Ardor ought to bring us back to Pentecost, the birthplace of the Church, and the realm where the Holy Spirit was manifested in the form of fire: the Holy Spirit is the protagonist of the new evangelization. By dwelling in the gift of the Holy Spirit, we live in the fire of God, sharing the warmth and presence of the Holy Trinity. The sharing of this presence will awaken our conscience to the Christian vocation of personal abandonment.

Furthermore, we must never lose sight of the words of John Paul II in his call to be intimately one with Christ: “He in me and I in him.” This exhortation, to be in union with Christ—the incarnation of holiness—is such that we understand our proclamation of the Word to be rooted in the holiness of the Word. Essentially, our ardor is sustained when our message is “actuated in union with Christ” and his Church. For this reason, Pope John Paul II connects the new evangelization with the interior attitude of faith—that covenant relationship with God where God proclaims: “I am yours and you are mine.” This overarching principle of relationship that resonates with the fire of the Holy Spirit, is foundational to the subsequent principles of methods and expression.

By various methods, John Paul II speaks to the manner in which the Body of Christ shares in the mission of the Church, by teaching according to his or her talent. Our methodology ought to be rooted in the distinctiveness of our gifts and talents. Here, we need to be reminded of the call to be aware of the concreteness, and particularity, of all that we are before God. Such attentiveness to our particularity brings together the “various tones and harmony” of the teaching of the Body of Christ. In this way, we share in the mission of the teaching Church. Our teaching methods ought to reflect the gift that God has entrusted to us, that we in turn witness Christ. By viewing our catechesis as both a sharing in Christ, and a witness in and to Christ, we route catechesis, and the methods by which we teach, back to spiritual poverty in the call of self-evangelization for the evangelization of culture.

As ardor is the precursor to methods, a method is the precursor to expression. Once we understand the call to be aware of our particular gift, we are then able to see the obligation to express this gift in a new and dynamic way. We seek creative ways in which to reach an ever-changing populous. Here, we are to see the relevance and importance of communicating the faith in an intelligible manner, in a language that our audience can understand. So, whether we are communicating the faith in creative ways—via radio, television, drama, music, etc.—we must be firmly rooted in an understanding of Christ, in order to make the message comprehensible to our audience.

Essentially, John Paul II’s threefold principle of ardor, methods, and expression, serves one single purpose: “to summon man into a personal relationship with Christ” (CT, 1). Man, rooted in constant conversion and holiness, is called to awaken and inspire the people of God into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit, according to Pope John Paul II.

Leaping with an Attitude

By way of conclusion (and on a more personal note), allow me to close with a story that brings together the relationship between the interior attitude of faith, and the conviction and loyalty that proceeds from it. When I was a young boy, it was common for me, and my ten siblings, to spend the day at an Olympic-size swimming complex, with all the amenities. On one particular sunny afternoon when I was six, I was “encouraged” to go off a three-meter diving board, having no previous experience of mounting such a height. I still vaguely recall that day. I remember my fear and trembling of not only ascending new heights, but also my anxiety of disappointing my brothers, who were expecting me to take this leap (what six-year-old does not live to impress four older brothers?). Ultimately, I did not take the leap that day, as my panic and trepidation got the best of me. Needless to say, it was a long night for me. Again, I was a six-year-old who failed to live up to the expectations of my brothers. I resolved that the following day I would overcome my fears, and take that leap. At dawn the next day, I arose, and made the short walk over to the swimming pool. I still recall hastily making my way over to the three meter board, seeking to overcome my anxiety. I climbed the steps, walked over to the edge of the board, and failed to do what I set out to do—jump into the unknown (the pool).

What happened next was my first glimpse into the importance of the father-child relationship. Failing to take the leap into the pool, I turned around and climbed down the steps. I suddenly heard a voice that I recognized as my father’s, who was standing at the bottom of the diving board, encouraging me to take the leap. I quickly climbed back up the steps, running off the board into the swimming pool, and my father’s waiting arms. Because of the established relationship I had with my father, I was willing, without fear or reservation, to make that leap into unchartered territory.

Similarly, in the Christian journey of conversion and evangelization, we are called to be utterly dependent upon Jesus Christ.  With that interior attitude of faith, resulting in an abiding relationship with Christ, we are made ready to jump into the strange, and the mysterious, for the sake of the conversion of souls.

  1. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 120.
  2. Cf. Pope John Paul II. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 112-113.
  3. Pope John Paul II. Prayers and Devotions, 323.
  4. Pope John Paul II. Origins (March 24, 1983), 661.
  5. Pope John Paul II. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 107.
  6. Pope Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: VII, 194.
  7. Cantalamessa. Poverty, 10.
  8. Lieva-Merikakis. Fire of Mercy, 186.
  9. Lieva-Merikakis. Fire of Mercy, 186.
  10. Fire of Mercy: VII, 239.
  11. Cf. The New Evangelization: Building a Civilization of Love. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger on the New Evangelization. www.ewtn.com/new_evangelization/Ratzinger.htm.
  12. Ratzinger, The New Evangelization: Building a Civilization of Love.
  13. Cf. Merikakis. Fire of Mercy, 252-253.
  14. Sources of Renewal, 205.
  15. Prayers and Devotions, 145.
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avatar About Dr. Joseph R. Hollcraft

Dr. Joseph Hollcraft is the founder of Seeds of Truth Ministries and host to the daily radio show and podcast, Seeds of Truth. Over the past 13 years, he has taught at middle school, high school, and university levels. Currently, he is primarily involved in new evangelization and catechetical ministries in northern California. He earned his B.A. and M.A. from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and received his Ph.D. from Graduate Theological Foundation, completing his studies at Oxford University. Most importantly, he is a devoted husband and father. He lives in Chico, California, with his beautiful wife Jackie, and their four children: Kolbe, Avila, Isaac, and Siena.

Comments

  1. avatar anne says:

    Dr Hollcraft: What a marvellous paper on Evangelization!! I am going to read and re-read. SO pertinent to our days. I believe we are all going through a big trial, so to be purified for the days to come, so we can speak to others FROM EXPERIENCE, from REAL experience of Christ. In fact, we are being transformed into other Christs, and like Christ, be a gift to others. Thank you for your easy to read, yet, clear and precise, uplifting article.

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