What I Gleaned From Word on Fire’s New Evangelization Series

As always Father Robert Barron displays a masterful command of his subject matter in the latest documentary and study from Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. If I’m correct in what I’ve gleaned, he and his crew are fully in tune with the Church’s call to modern Christians. My one concern, however, is that some may lose the force of the study as it moves from New Ardor into New Expressions. I’d like to offer here a summary vision for anyone interested in this course specifically, but also as an overview of the New Evangelization in general, which I’m so grateful to Word on Fire for providing.

The Background
The study begins with a brief history. Many will be shocked to see Vatican II portrayed as a Council calling for a New Evangelization but, after reflecting upon Father Barron’s insights, I’m willing to boldly assert that that’s precisely what it was. Pope John XXIII, and later Paul VI, recognized a dire need for the entire Church (clergy and laity) to respond as a crisis of faith was so clearly sweeping over the modern world. The Gospel wasn’t being heard; or if it was, the message was being misinterpreted and stripped of its power. The risen Christ was not being encountered, and the Church had to act.

In 1974, Paul VI realized the Council had been hijacked by distraction and misinterpreted by political agendas. He called an Extraordinary Synod of bishops to summon the Church back to the true vision of the Council: the goal was not at all to modernize the Church, but to Christify the world. (Yes, this might require a certain amount of “modern” moves, but the goal is to raze the bastions, to let down the external walls of the Church and to flood the world with the light of Christ.)

A year later, in his 1975 encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI coined the term “new evangelization,” and four years after that, Pope John Paul II explicitly summoned the Church to it’s modern mission under that title.

So what is the New Evangelization? In the words of Pope John Paul II, the Church must reintroduce the world to Christ, and it must do so with “new ardor, new expressions, and new methods.” These three characteristics provide the basic structure of the study. But first, it tackles the question of how we got into this mess in the first place.

The Perfect Storm
The study focuses on the United States in particular. In an interview with Ross Douthat, four major causes for the crisis are briefly identified, though it was indeed a “perfect storm” and these are by no means the only factors.

Douthat points first to politics. Beginning in the 1940s and ’50s, political polarization began to undermine the Gospel, tempting the faithful to pick sides as different necessary aspects of the Gospel were painted in opposition. Furthermore, as decades passed, “to be Christian” became a political category rather than the radical reorientation of one’s life to something (i.e. someone) who transcends and confounds politics, and who calls all platforms to conversion and transformation.

Additionally, radical individualism began to surface in a more practical and infectious way, affecting both public and private life. Douthat highlights three aspects. The sexual revolution kicks God out of the bedroom. An unrestrained capitalism nurtures unprecedented prosperity, but does so as it simultaneously kicks God (and objective morality) out of the budget. Increasing globalization exposes the once-Christian culture to a host of new spiritualities and worldviews, leading to a syncretization of religion. Everything was now open to personal preference and individual opinion.

Catholics Leave the Ghettos
American Catholics had begun to lose their European, incarnational heritage, and to what? It was a culture of political polarization, with an individualistic worldview: sexual, financial, and religious relativism. Everything was undermining the faith, and they hadn’t the tools to combat it. The generation before them may not have been catechized sufficiently, but they relied upon their cultural heritage to fill the gaps. The “newly Americanized” generation that followed often retained their faith because they remembered what it was like. But what about their children? They would have neither the catechesis nor the culture.

Catholicism in America started out as European ghettos, and so thrived. The way of life continued to teach the faith even when sound catechetical formation began to fade. When the Catholic bubbles began to pop, however, and European Catholics became widely accepted in American culture, what was left to teach their children? So many came to see themselves as Americans above all else – and Catholics “in name only.” 

“Beige Catholicism”
Father Barron explains, a colorless, powerless faith emerged. Most (not all) of those who did continue to practice the faith, which was increasingly fewer each year, did so not from the heart of the Church and with the power of the Sacramental life, but instead through “a vague, abstract spirituality” tainted by individualistic principles, new age understandings, and a compartmentalized American (i.e. secular) lifestyle. Faith had been reduced to feelings and personal experience, the Gospel was whitewashed into a humanitarian ideal, Jesus was domesticated, the Bible was undermined by skepticism and academic theories, and the divine power of the Church and her Sacraments was all but forgotten.

Now we can begin to understand Pope John Paul II’s characterization of a New Evangelization, beginning with New Ardor. For if the world is going to be brought back into conversation with Jesus Christ, Catholics must rekindle an apostolic ardor for the Gospel. “Beige Catholicism” is the enemy of this New Ardor. Father Barron, therefore, presents four secrets to overcoming the colorless faith of his generation and enkindling a new passion for the work of evangelization.

First, we must refuse to domesticate Jesus by calling him a good teacher, a great prophet, or a positive role model. He is none of these. He claimed to be God and that makes him a dangerous, subversive figure. If he is God, then he cannot be conformed to our modern projections. We must conform to him. As C.S. Lewis described Aslan, his Christ-figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, he’s “not a tame lion.”

Jesus surprises us at every turn. The depth of encounter with his love is always unexpected. He’s alive, and in full control. This is the second secret to new ardor. We must open ourselves to the reality and understand the importance of the resurrection. This is the basis of our hope, and it embodies Christ’s victory over sin and death. His bodily resurrection is the fulfillment of the Gospel, and our belief in the Risen Christ gives to us the capacity to actually encounter him.

Then, everything changes. When we encounter the Risen Christ, we’re transformed from the inside out. We experience his love and begin to live in the freedom of his truth. Only then does a deep desire to spread the Gospel begin to well up in our hearts.

But one last “ingredient” remains. We must be filled with the Holy Spirit. The secret to new ardor is the fire of God’s love burning within us, and overflowing out of us. It’s one hundred percent Him. 

The New Evangelization begins with new ardor, for we cannot give what we do not have. But before we answer this great call to share the love of God, Father Barron points out key cultural dispositions we need to understand. Certain ways of thinking keep the culture from encountering Christ. These obstacles cause people to misinterpret the Christian message, and we quickly begin talking past one another. Father Barron explains that we must come up with new and deliberate ways to communicate the Gospel, expressions that speak directly to these cultural obstacles, or we’ll be hard-pressed to bear lasting fruit.

The first obstacle is widespread misconceptions about God. The cultural definition of God is not the Christian definition. We need to be clear on what God is: existence itself. We’re not talking about one being among many, like the “flying spaghetti monster” idea that Richard Dawkins uses to poke fun at the Gospel. God is the ground of all being, and in Him everything is held together.

We need to be clear about where God is: continually creating us, here and now. This is not a God who put the world together like a clock and then stepped away from it. He’s intimately involved in every aspect of existence, and this remains compatible with the discoveries of science.

Finally, we need to be clear on who God is: a communion of love. This is not a God we need to be suspicious of. He’s a loving Father. This is a God who has called us to share in the great gift of life, and who intimately and lovingly holds us in existence.

A second cultural obstacle is widespread disenchantment. The world isn’t seen as a mysterious gift speaking to us the wonder of its Creator. Rather, it’s seen as mechanistic, purely material, and reducible to its observable parts. There’s no mystery left, only questions science has yet to answer. Truth and beauty, meaning and purpose, moral goodness, the modern experience has been stripped of any objective criteria on which to gauge these. Now we’re left with a hodgepodge of opinions and preferences, and we’ve reduced all meaning to projections of the mind rather than to hidden spiritual mysteries behind the physical.

The third obstacle is relativism. Nietzsche argued that with the triumph of science, there’s no longer any grounds for claiming an objective moral order to things. We now live in a world of contradiction. Case in point: so often, the same people arguing all morality is constructed are zealous advocates for human rights. These two claims cannot co-exist! Relativism allows us to hold them both without having to think it through.

So when we take up the call to evangelize with new ardor, we must speak to these cultural obstacles, and this requires new expression. What I find most fascinating about the idea of new expressions is that they’re virtually unlimited. Everyone is unique. With the triumph of relativism, each person is – in a sense – their own culture. When we evangelize, therefore, we must be creatively looking for ways to express the faith in a way this person can understand.

Moreover, we all experience the love of Christ differently, and we all share that experience differently, according to our gifts and talents, our backgrounds, and any number of other combining factors. The call for new expression is indeed (potentially) limitless. Our responsibility, therefore, is to be vigilant in sharing the Gospel with new expressions that are faithful to the message (i.e. in keeping with the Tradition and not watered-down).

That being said, the Magisterium has expressed a need for us to focus on 3 Overarching Expressions that find universal appeal: beauty, joy, and community.

Beauty impresses itself upon us. Whether we “prefer” it or not, authentic beauty, objective beauty, appeals to the heart like no argument ever could. As we give witness to Christ, may we point to the beauty of the message expressed in the Church’s great works of art, architecture, music and literature; and may we appeal to this same beauty – ever ancient, ever new – lived out in the lives of the saints.

Joy is contagious. This culture is desperate for it. The “post-modern” mind has abandoned the great hope of the enlightenment. We recognize the emptiness of the American dream. Money can’t make you happy, etc. But what can? When someone sees true joy, it sparks curiosity. We must learn to overcome discouragement and share the Gospel with the joy only Christ can give.

The culture is desperate for community. The Church must become the family that it is. Our lived witness of love must be tangible. If it is, the Gospel is pure dynamite in a world of busy isolation and unexpressed loneliness.

The study comes to a close by recognizing the way in which modern culture communicates. St. Paul used the Roman roads to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. The modern “road,” quite frankly, is a digital highway in cyberspace. If the Church didn’t take advantage of modern means of communication, it would be a great disservice to the work of evangelization. Nearly one billion people communicate on Facebook, for example. If Catholics don’t saturate Facebook with the truth of Christ, we’ve missed an unprecedented opportunity.

Art, literature, movies, Youtube, blogs, websites, Twitter accounts, and countless other methods of spreading the Gospel exist today. Twenty-five percent of Catholics attend Mass. How will we reach the other seventy-five percent? We’re going to do it through a new ardor for the truth of Christ, with new and powerful expressions this culture can understand, and by the new methods available to us in the vast world of social media.