During the past few months, I've spoken with numerous priests who have expressed a certain amount of difficulty with the term, "The New Evangelization." For those of us who grew up in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, were formed as Christians during that time, and who were ordained during or since that pontificate, "the New Evangelization" is basically how we see ourselves. We are part of something new. The term doesn't threaten us or insult us.
But, I've come to appreciate the fact that a lot of older priests are bothered by it. I think when they hear the term, they interpret it as meaning that they've spent the last 30, 40, or 50 years of their life not evangelizing. They interpret this call for a "New Evangelization" as a criticism of all of their efforts and work during the previous decades. Truth to be told, probably some of us who are younger priests have sometimes thought that the "New Evagelization" is a rebuke of what came before us and that we have arrived just in time to save the day. The call for the New Evangelization is not a rebuke to priests of any generation. It is, however, a call to all priests and to all the faithful.
Most of us who grew up surrounded by the call for the "new evangelization" see it as a movement of the Holy Spirit for the whole Church. For many of us, we've never sat back and tried to define it because we felt like we were in it. We felt like a great new moment of youth (instigated by an old Polish Pope) was being infused into the life of the Church and that we are being led to a reinvigorated missionary zeal.
When we hear Pope Benedict, for instance, make this call for a New Evangelization, we do not hear it as an attack on what came previously. We hear it as a new moment in the life of the Church. The reason for the need for a "new evangelization" is not because of the failures of others, but because we are living in a "new moment" in the history of the Church and the world. The life around us has changed and the ground has shifted. As in a sport or in a war, evangelization has to strategize and act according to what is happening on the field. So, when a battle plan is adapted or a team changes its strategy mid-game, it is not an admission of failure. It is not to suggest that the soldiers who already fought were inadequate or that the players were unfit. Strategy always needs to take into account the new circumstances.
The circumstances on the ground have dramatically shifted. The Church is bleeding members. That's why we need a New Evangelization. Secularism dominates so much of the culture and young people are being immersed in it. That's why we need a New Evangelization. There is widespread ignorance of foundational Catholic Doctrine among Catholics. That's why we need a New Evangelization. In many places, Catholics have left the Church because some other group welcomed them and taught them about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That's why we need a New Evangelization. Fewer and fewer Catholic men and women are married in the Church, are having their children baptized, or are raising their children in the Faith. That's why we need a New Evangelization.
The Faith that needs to be communicated remains the same. But, the New Evangelization is about transmitting that Faith in ways that respond to the needs of the day. I think it is not unfair to say that for a good long period of time, the Church in the United States (for instance) was able to survive on the work that was done by previous generations. But now, we desperately need to sound the trumpet and enthusiastically, intelligently, and faithfully set out to evangelize with a more robust zeal. In the past, I think it was safe to presume that Faith was present and things could be built from there. But now, I think, the popes are pointing out to us that Faith can no longer be presumed. They have been indicating to us that there is a tremendous need to return to the person of Jesus Christ and introduce people to Him anew.
The call for a new evangelization is the call for all of us to become more in love with Jesus and to communicate that love more effectively to others. It is to go back to the foundation of our Christian life and to be faithful to the experience of that friendship and to live out of that friendship. It is the call to engage the people of today, in these particular circumstances, with the good news of the Gospel.
It might require all of us to shed some ballast. It may require us to do things differently, to speak differently, to pray differently, and to preach differently. It definitely requires all of us to love Jesus more, to deepen our friendship with Him, and to bear witness more willingly to the power of Christ in our lives.
One of the things that I find difficult as a pastor is that so much comes all at once. There are finances, budgets, property issues, political battles (such as Religious Freedom, Physician Prescribed Suicide etc), and the day to day running of two parishes and a school. I suspect that most pastors feel this burden. There's always so much that has to get done and all of it is always urgent! And, all of it is part of the life of the Church. All of these things are important and necessary. But, we don't want to forget the "one thing that is necessary" and that one thing is Jesus. Everything else we do has to begin with our Faith in Jesus.
Am I insulted as a priest or as a Catholic because the Pope keeps calling for a New Evangelization? No. In part, that's because I am in need of the New Evangelization. I continually am in need of returning to Jesus and remembering what He does in my life. I need to bear witness to that in my life. I need to share that with others and I need to hear others witness to their encounter with Christ.
The New Evangelization is about Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But, the world has changed dramatically during the past few decades. The New Evangelization is a call for us to feel once again the urgency of the Mission of the Gospel. It is to feel once again overpowered by the Love of Christ compelling us to proclaim the Gospel to those around us.
This urgency is something I need in my life. It is something I need new in my heart every morning. I need every day to come face to face with the fact that Christ makes all things new and I need Him to put into my heart an urgency to share that fact with others. For me, this is the the New Evangelization. And, I'm not insulted by it because I need it!