The Call of the New Evangelization for Preachers


Although the new evangelization is new in several respects, its message is the timeless Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ, following St. Paul, who writes, “What we preach is Christ crucified” (I Cor 1:23). At the heart of the preaching of the new evangelization is the proclamation of Jesus Christ, about whom the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “What Jesus Christ was yesterday, and is today, he remains for ever” (Heb 13:8).

At the same time, the message of the new evangelization may be said to be “new” with respect to its emphases, manner, and audience. Some of the major issues to be considered pertaining to the new evangelization include the universal call to holiness, the mission of all Catholics to evangelize, the renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, the dignity and vocation of the laity, engagement with what is often described as a post-Christian culture, meeting the needs of Catholics who have grown lukewarm or even cold in their faith, the role of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and the effective communication of the Gospel in an increasingly pluralistic and indifferentist world.

Practically speaking, the new evangelization is bringing new approaches to a number of dimensions of ecclesial life, including the formation of the laity, the development of parish leadership, the discernment and employment of charisms, the development of new apostolates, and a focus in preaching and catechesis on the kerygma, the proclamation of the essential elements of the Gospel. The major themes of the new evangelization are rooted in the Sacred Scripture and the whole of the Tradition, but particularly in the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and the post-conciliar Magisterium.

Specifically, we will consider here what role homilists play in the new evangelization. The Congregation for Clergy, in its 1999 Circular Letter “The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium,” summarizes the preacher’s role:

New evangelization has to underline the importance of bringing to maturity the meaning of the baptismal vocation of the faithful, thereby bringing the faithful to an awareness that they have been called by God closely to follow Christ and personally to collaborate in the Church’s mission.

The homilist’s task of “bringing the faithful to an awareness that they have been called by God” implies a measure of pastoral sensitivity and attention not only to the objective elements of the message to be proclaimed, but also to the dispositions of those who make up his congregation. Paying special attention to the interior needs and dispositions of the faithful is a common strategy of the new evangelization.

For example, a typical approach to evangelization today begins with not with proofs for the existence of God but by describing the longing of the human heart for something transcendent and showing how that longing is met in one’s encounter with Jesus Christ. As Pope Benedict XVI has written, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” This encounter with the Lord Jesus, according to the bishops of Latin America in their 2007 “Aparecida Document” on evangelization, is the Church’s “gift” from the Lord and “our only treasure.”

In his essay “Preaching Evangelistic Homilies,” Fr. Bruce Nieli, CSP, offers a number of goals and strategies for what he describes as “evangelistic” preaching. Perhaps the best summary of the aims Nieli outlines is the following: “to inspire people to fall in love with Jesus, to embrace him and to imitate him in his body, the church.” A lay expert on the new evangelization, Sherry Weddell of the Catherine of Siena Institute, has noted how many Catholics report that they do not know the Lord as a personal God. In her book Forming Intentional Disciples, Weddell expresses alarm over the implications of this deficiency of faith, writing, “How much of our faith can make sense to millions of Catholics when the bedrock foundation — belief in a personal God who loves us — is not in place?”

Homilists need to know such things about their congregants if they are to preach effectively to them. The American bishops, in their 2012 Statement Preaching the Mystery of Faith, note the importance of human subjectivity in the context of the Sacred Liturgy:

Through the prayerful celebration of the Eucharistic ritual and through the graceful and respectful proclamation of the word, all are invited to be aware of their deepest spiritual and human longings and to immerse themselves again in the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist, who alone is able to quench their deepest spiritual thirst.

The bishops call upon homilists to make clear the connection between the spiritual thirst of their hearers, the lordship of Jesus Christ, and the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. In the kind of evangelizing for which the bishops call, the message is both Christological and ecclesial, with an appeal to individuals to find in Christ and his Church the fulfillment, through communion with God, for which they long.

A personalistic approach to evangelization does not substitute subjective impressions for objective truth, but rather seeks an effective synthesis of the two. The Congregation for Clergy expresses this synthesis in its description of the ministry of the word and its role in the new evangelization:

New evangelization demands a zealous ministry of the Word which is complete and well-founded. It should have a clear theological, spiritual, liturgical and moral content, while bearing in mind the needs of those men and women whom it must reach. This is not to succumb to any temptation to intellectualism, which could obscure rather than enlighten the intelligence of Christians; rather it requires a genuine intellectual charity through continuous patient catechesis on the fundamentals of Catholic faith and morals and on their influence on the spiritual life. Christian instruction is foremost among the spiritual works of mercy: salvation comes by knowing Christ since “there is no other name in the whole world given to men by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4:12).

The preceding passage captures the blend of content and pastoral sensitivity required for effective homiletic preaching, addresses the question of style and the patience needed on the part of priests and deacons, and finally addresses the very center of all of the Church’s activity: salvation in Jesus Christ. For a variety of reasons, the salvation of souls seems to have been neglected in many quarters in the decades since the Second Vatican Council. One expert in the theology and practice of evangelization, Ralph Martin, has drawn considerable attention to this shift in emphasis away from what might be called the stakes involved in evangelization: salvation or damnation. To the degree that Catholics lose their sense of urgency regarding the issue of salvation, it stands to reason that their sense of urgency regarding evangelization will weaken as well. As Martin writes in his book Will Many Be Saved?, “If it is not really necessary to become a Christian in order to be saved, why bother to evangelize?”

Martin critiques common misunderstandings of the teaching of Vatican II on the possibility of salvation for non-Christians, including the approaches of Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar, to questions concerning soteriology that came to the forefront in the 20th century. It is not possible here to enter into a discussion of the theories and questions proposed by Rahner and von Balthasar, both of whom, according to Martin, underemphasize the danger of damnation for unbelievers and unrepentant sinners, but thinkers on every side of these questions would no doubt agree that there has been a profound shift among many Catholics in the way they view the possibilities of salvation and damnation. According to Martin, this shift is in part the result of a relative silence on the subject in the years since Vatican II:

When the eternal consequences that flow from what we choose to believe and how we choose to act are not spoken of for long periods of time, the silence on these dimensions of the gospel is often taken to mean that they are no longer important, true, or relevant.

To preach what the Church teaches concerning the possibility of salvation for non-Christians would entail presenting the Church’s teaching on sin and its consequences. The Church’s doctrine concerning both Original Sin and personal sins has an important place in the preaching of the new evangelization:

To present adequately the teaching of LG 16 would entail an unashamed explication of the teaching of Romans about what the human condition actually is apart from Christ. This would include explaining adequately the horror of sin, immorality, idolatry, and unbelief; the culpable suppression of the truth; the refusal to worship, thank, and submit; the reality of God’s wrath properly understood; and our desperate need for Christ in order for us to be reconciled with God, bringing with it an appropriate fear of the Lord.

Martin refers to this message as the “bad news” which helps those who hear it better understand and appreciate the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ:

Unless we squarely face the bad news — original sin and personal sin have severe consequences — it is impossible really to appreciate the good news (God is rich in mercy; out of the great love with which he loved us we are saved by grace through faith).

Preaching the eternal consequences of one’s choice about whether to follow Christ aims to motivate evangelization, discipleship, and holiness of life. At the same time, it must be made clear that salvation is a gift from the God who loves us, and not the product of our human choice or effort. In Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis emphasizes what he calls the “primacy of grace” and its place in evangelization:

The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift. . . . This principle of the primacy of grace must be a beacon which constantly illuminates our reflections on evangelization.

There is no opposition between the urgency of evangelization and the primacy of grace. Salvation is a “work of his mercy”, to use Pope Francis’s expression, precisely because man in his sinful state stands in need of God’s mercy and, recognizing his own sinful state, he repents and opens himself up to God’s grace and mercy.

A sense of realism concerning sin, grace and mercy, faith, and salvation also corresponds to what many lay Catholics know by an intuition of faith, that sin is real and that sinners need to be saved by God. Speculative theology has an important role to play in the Church, but it goes too far when it obscures the foundational truths of the Gospel in the minds of the faithful. Joseph Ratzinger, in his book Dogma and Preaching, writes that the “simple faith of simple people deserves respect”, a key principle for preaching:

We should mention a rather psychological fact, which of course also has its own theological depth. The simple faith of simple people deserves the respect, the reverence of the preacher, who has no right simply to play off his intellectual superiority against their still simple faith, which in some circumstances grasps the heart of the matter more surely as a simple overall intuition than does a reflection that is divided up into many separate steps and particular findings.

Ratzinger’s affirmation about “simple faith” serves as a caution against any kind of esotericism in the preaching of the new evangelization. At the same time, homilists must not pander in their preaching. One reason the new evangelization is needed in the first place, after all, is that millions of Catholics have not held to the basic truths of the faith, but have adopted the opinions of the world as their doctrines of life. Countless Catholics have adopted views that are universalist, sexually permissive, and spiritually aligned with the New Age, to name just a few prominent examples. Preaching in the new evangelization, therefore, must be rooted in biblical revelation and the Church’s tradition.

Although he is not writing specifically of the new evangelization, Ratzinger offers a helpful principle about preaching in a way that is both timely and timeless: “Preaching must be both synchronic (for today) and diachronic (timeless),” Ratzinger writes, and adds that it must “give over today’s opinions into the universal faith of the universal ‘I’ of the whole Church, where they will be purified.” As then — Archbishop Timothy Dolan wrote in his 2000 book, Priests for the Third Millennium, priests must unflinchingly preach the whole of the Church’s teaching: “To that culture looking for ease, convenience, affirmation, and comfort, we need priests who, like St. Paul, are not afraid to hold up the cross, the splendor veritatis in all its integrity.” Pope Francis emphasizes the role of the word of God in the new evangelization, writing, “The Sacred Scriptures are the very source of evangelization.” The new evangelization is not about preaching personal theories, but about preaching the timeless Gospel in new ways and with new enthusiasm, in order to share the riches of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ with the people he desires to save from sin and death and draw to himself in his Church.

The new evangelization includes much more than what has been identified here, of course, but this summary outlines some of its most important themes. The new evangelization’s call to homilists complements the more general description of homiletic content contained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, as well as various ritual books and magisterial sources. The new evangelization reminds preachers to proclaim the truths of the Catholic faith in a way that will foster an encounter with Jesus Christ in and through the Church, especially her sacraments. The homilist aims not only at fostering an encounter with Christ, but also at the formation and deepening of people’s friendship with him, as they grow in holiness of life and take up their own God-given mission of evangelization, all for the sake of the salvation of souls.

Fr. Charles Fox About Fr. Charles Fox

Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an STD in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.

Comments

  1. Thank you Fr. Fox for your very helpful overview and summary. The subject is so very important! This matter is very close to my heart – I will try to respond briefly, from the heart.

    A painfully present absence I find in our response to the New Evangelization is, in a word, depth. Instead, our efforts are defeated from within by weak preparation, formation, foundation, disposition. Catholics are getting, in some places, “crash courses” to make up for years of little to no formation and catechesis. We provide cramming in the charisms with little to no foundation in the essentials of charity and the infused (Isaiah 11) gifts of the Spirit. We offer “Catholicism 101” with Powerpoint and leave the Catechism to gather dust on the shelf. Most importantly, we search the Scripture to find our own opinions, and fail to believe and obey the words from yesterday’s Gospel of the Transfiguration, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” Listen! To Him! We are pressured to “make disciples,” while failing to be made disciples first.

  2. The New Evangelization is a joke. No preacher, bishop or anyone else is championing evangelizing anyone. Laity are not told, ever, to go and make converts. Evangelicals, Muslims and Jehovah witnesses are way ahead of us. No wonder Catholicism is shrinking. Our leaders have failed us.

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