Friday, March 21, 2014

Evangelization: The Plan Should Follow the Evidence

Bureaucratic changes have the power to excite some people.  They excite bureaucrats.  A new parish phone system, a new email list,  or a new organizational chart will undoubtedly give the few persons who utilize those things a sense of accomplishment.  And, we've all been there.  A friend of mine once said that the way to tell how many superiors a particular religious house has had is to scrape the walls and see how many layers of paint are on them because every superior comes in and paints the walls.  It gives us a sense of accomplishment.  And, new systems and organizational stuff may indeed be necessary and helpful.  But, I think we shouldn't waste a lot of energy trying to get people excited about such things.  People work for companies who have better phone and computer systems.  They don't really care all that much about the parish phone system or the diocesan organizational chart.  Again, they may be great things, but nobody is going to martyr themselves for an organizational chart.

A few months ago, a friend of mine posted on her Facebook page, "I hate the New Evangelization."  At first, I was kind of shocked by that statement, but it only took me a few seconds to understand what she was talking about.  Too often, we conflate the New Evangelization with pastoral planning.  While the two may be related, they are not the same thing.  When we expend tons of energy trying to get people excited about something that is really kind of mundane, "organizational charts, new job titles, and telephone systems," we make the Church sound kind of flat and boring.  Oftentimes, pastoral planning involves changing staff and schedules.  Trying to make these things exciting to the average parishioner is a bit like telling somebody that they have to move out of their home, but that the new home will have state of the art appliances.  While the new appliances are nice, trying to excite people over that seems like wasted energy.  Similarly, when we equate structural and bureaucratic alterations with the New Evangelization, it doesn't help to sell the alterations.  It only serves to undercut the New Evangelization.

Can structural changes, technological adaptations, and bureaucratic alterations assist the New Evangelization?  Of course.  But, the only people who get really excited about a new phone system are the five or six people who use the new phone system.  So, I think we ought to avoid talking about these things as though they were cutting edge evangelization.  Instead, we ought to talk about Jesus.  The New Evangelization is about encountering Jesus Christ and witnessing to that encounter.  This ought to be our focal point.  Evangelization is about the preaching of the Gospel.  Does that sound trite?  I suppose it does.  But, this is what has been missing from so much of parish and diocesan life. The great need today in the life of the Church is not a new organizational chart.  What's needed is a new zeal to preach Jesus Christ.

I think this is what Pope Francis meant when he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium, "There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling”, any new structure will soon prove ineffective."  In the life of the Church, the Gospel must be at the foundation of everything.  There is a temptation to rely upon everything but the Gospel.  We live in a hope that if we fix all of the structural issues, suddenly the Church will be alive. This is the temptation of the Tower of Babel.  

I recently read an article about a diocese that is beginning a new pastoral plan.  As a first step, the bishop asked all Catholics to enshrine an image of the Sacred Heart in their home.  When I read that, I thought, "This is evangelization!"  At the heart of their pastoral plan is the Heart of Jesus.  We definitely need to reform structures on diocesan and parish levels, but this reformation cannot be merely cosmetic nor can it be ideologically driven.  It has to begin with the Heart of Christ and pour out into the lives of bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity.  

One of the most critical structural issues that hampers evangelization is an entrenched ideological resistance to the shape the New Evangelization has taken.  How so?  There are religious orders that are flourishing, but cannot get a step into the door in some dioceses because of ideological resistance.  Eucharistic Adoration attracts young people and is often the source of vocations.  Yet, places that provide significant opportunities for adoration are often met with institutional opposition.  Although the Charismatic Renewal, the New Movements, and Traditional Latin Mass communities are drawing people into the life of the Church, they are often treated poorly and with suspicion by those who exercise authority.  Instead of looking around at what is working and then encouraging it, there can be a structural resistance put in place that seeks to thwart the New Evangelization.  

Not every movement or way of praying is going to be perfect, nor
are they going to be equally attractive to everybody.  But, all of us have to be careful not to allow our own preferences to become an obstacle to true evangelization.  There can be a temptation to oppose growth in the Church if that growth does not arise from my own ideological predispositions.  Not every parish will be the right fit for LifeTeen.  Not every parish will be the right fit for the Neocatechumenal Way, Opus Dei, or Communion and Liberation.  Not every parish is the same.  But, there can be an institutional animus towards legitimate forms of new life in the Church.  Sometimes in the life of the Church, enthusiastic groups can come across as presenting themselves as the only legitimate option.  While this needs gentle correction, the answer is not to suffocate these groups.  The answer is to allow diverse paths of Christian discipleship to flourish in the life of the Church.  Pastors and pastoral planners ought to be committed to encouraging those who are on the path of discipleship.

The New Evangelization actually seems to be in a very fragile position right now.  A significant threat to the New Evangelization is reducing it to a corporate reorganization.  While reorganization might be the right thing to do, very few people are ever going to be excited about it.  The New Evangelization has to be about people meeting Jesus Christ and being transformed by that encounter.  The structures of the Church ought to be encouraging those places where the New Evangelization is actually occurring.  When our focus is too much on organizational matters, we run the risk of attempting to turn parishes and Catholic institutions into branch offices of the corporation--every parish being the same.  This is deadly for evangelization.

The heart of our evangelization efforts has to be a renewed zeal for Christ and His Gospel.  The institutional changes have to flow from this and not the other way around.  Whatever institutional alterations are made, they must be at the service of the encounter with Christ.  Where are people meeting Christ today?  Where are priestly and religious vocations flourishing?  Where are people praying, supporting the missions, and serving the poor?  Where are people worshipping God, studying the Word of God, and evangelizing?  Wherever there is a legitimate and faithful expression of Catholic life, the institution ought to support these places, encourage them, and build upon them.  

Instead of making evangelization fit into our plans, we ought to build our plans around evangelization.  We don't need to invent evangelization.  We just need to acknowledge where it is happening and follow its lead.  

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