All posts by Seth Evangelho

Seth Evangelho serves as a fulltime evangelist and youth minister in Laconia, New Hampshire. Originally from California, he holds a masters in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is married with two young children. Read more on his blog: From the Trenches at WWW.SETHEVANGELHO.COM

If Saints Were Superheroes

I am a product of our culture. Like it or not, I find myself not only impressed but also convicted by “new expressions” of faith called for in the New Evangelization. Recently, I heard a talk by Fr. Mike Schmitz that I found to be not just a clever example of one such new expression but (probably because I’m a product of modern culture) a penetrating insight into the nature of the universal call to be a saint. Below, I summarize his explanation of life in Christ given to a group of young adults. Pay attention to the theological depth present through such a relatable cultural medium. In my opinion, Fr. Mike is a shining example of who the “new evangelist” is called to be.The question: If a saint were a modern day superhero, to which one might he or she best be compared? In his talk on Baptism titled “Changed Forever,” Fr. Mike explores four options.  
1. Is it Superman? Are we all closet Clark Kent’s walking around in disguise? There are many who claim that the saint is someone who learns, not only to realize, but to actualize his full potential as a human being. Certain philosophers have argued that human nature is comparable to Superman (Fr. Mike points out Rousseau, but Nietzsche actually calls the fully evolved person The Superman). The overarching idea is that we’re all perfectly good just as we are. All we must do is free ourselves from the chains of social conditioning and expectation, and simply recognize the truth about who we are. This, of course, is absurd. We all know we have weaknesses, flaws, imperfections, limitations, and – yes! – sinful desires. 

Superman is an illusion.

2. What about Batman? Is Bruce Wayne the modern model of sanctity? Here, I think is humanity’s greatest temptation. The idea is that, if we work hard enough, if our desire is strong enough, we can overcome all of our weaknesses and imperfections. This, of course, is a 1600 year old heresy called “Pelagianism.” A bishop named Pelagius, in the fourth century, argued that man could work his way to heaven. It would require years of hard work and utter dedication, but it could be done, the potential is there. 

Thank God the Lord gave the Church St. Augustine and put a stop to this nonsense (at least on paper). Batman is bogus as well. The truth is, without the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, man is a slave to his fallen nature and could never do anything to fully satisfy his natural desire for happiness or to make himself worthy of heaven.

“The law…contributes nothing to God’s saving act: through it he does but show man his weakness, that by faith he may take refuge in the divine mercy and be healed.” (St. Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter)
3. “Might the saint be Iron Man?” asks Fr. Mike. It sounds a little bizarre, given his private life, but could Tony Stark represent the secret to holiness (metaphorically, of course)? The saint, after all, as St. Paul says, has “put on Christ.” Sure, Tony Stark, the billionaire genius, is endowed with incredible natural gifts, but without his suit he’s left with the same brokenness and sinful desires, not to mention a heart condition that will surely take his life in short order. With the suit, however, he’s unstoppable and possesses superhuman capabilities. He can soar to the heavens with a savior-like quality. 

Does Tony Stark represent the nature of a saint: a man clothed with Christ, but deep down the same broken sinner? This is a devastating temptation for many faithful men and women. (Martin Luther called us “dung covered with snow.”) Oh, how deeply we misunderstand the incredible goodness and dignity of God’s design for us if this is how we define salvation! It’s true that we put on Christ and that it is indeed his righteousness that saves us, but the Father in heaven sees far more than a worthy shell when he looks upon his sons and daughters. To be clothed in Christ, as the title of Fr. Mike’s talk suggests, means that, at the deepest core of who we are, we are truly changed forever. The power of putting on Christ and his righteousness effects a transformation in us that is supernatural; we become children of God, healed of our brokenness, transfigured by his glory, and transubstantiated into his likeness. 

In other words, by grace, we become what Jesus is by nature. In Christ, we do what we otherwise could not do. We become what is otherwise impossible.

“For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” (St. Athanasius,CCC 460)
4. No, Fr. Mike explains, if the saint were a superhero he couldn’t be a Superman, a Batman, nor an Iron Man; he’d have to go by the name of Steve Rogers. Here’s a man who longed, more than anything else, to be a great soldier; and, no matter how hard he tried, he always came up short. “You’re too weak. You’re too slow. You don’t have what it takes to be among the greatest.” His life was a constant disappointment… until he discovered the “super-secret soldier serum.” Suddenly, overnight, he possessed a kind of strength above and beyond even the greatest of soldiers. He became Captain America, a man fully perfected in his humanity but also elevated to supernatural capacities.

Here’s the point. In The Avengers, Tony Stark (Iron Man) smugly dismisses Steve Rogers and says, “There’s nothing special about you that doesn’t come from a bottle.” Applying this to personal holiness, what if someone were to say to the Blessed Mother (or any of the Saints), “There’s nothing special about you that doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit”? How do you think she would respond? 

“And? Your point is…?”

When we say yes to Christ, when we put on his righteousness, and allow his Holy Spirit to work a miracle of grace in us, everything changes. It’s true there’s nothing special about us that doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit. So what! We’re children of God now, and by his grace, everything about us is special. This is Baptism!

Of course, we’re not called to be superheroes. Saints are far more than that, and the process of sanctification doesn’t happen overnight as it did for Steve Rogers. However, this reflection on Baptism is an example of what Pope John Paul II meant by “new expressions.” It exhibits cultural relevance without compromise of the Gospel, it’s challenging, and it’s fun. This is one of many new and engaging ways that Fr. Mike is helping so many (especially youth and young adults) not just to understand, but to enter more deeply into the beauty and mystery of life in Christ. Fr. Mike Schmitz is a priest of the New Evangelization. His gift for bringing the Gospel to life through relevant cultural expressions is a model for us all. 

Lighthouse Catholic Media carries a number of Fr. Mike’s talks (available on MP3 or CD format at wholesale prices). If you’re interested in ordering, CLICK HERE 

Resist the Temptation to Make Easter an Empty, Cultural Ritual

Nearly everything human (and worthwhile) is ritual if you think about it. A purely utilitarian approach to family dining, for example, would consist in standing around a pot on the stove, each person with a spoon in hand – that way we all eat at once and “efficiently” save the most time (it might even be best to just share a spoon and save on dishes as well). Clearly, however, we attach something more to our time together at table than simply physical sustenance that gets us through the day. 

This “ritual” of communal dining is widely accepted as a genuinely human experience worth far more than the nourishment provided by food. It’s a fruitful, spiritual (or at least psychological) time of relationship building and togetherness. 

A living Catholicism, however, adds even more depth. For Catholics, mealtime is quasi-Eucharistic. We begin “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” taking up our physical (and communal) nourishment and making it part of something much fuller, and far more meaningful. “Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we are about to receive,” we pray. Make this time holy, we ask. Set it apart by your blessing and let it become something to sustain not just our earthly life, nor even our communal fellowship, but something that mysteriously (i.e. “sacramentally”) shares in the very life of heaven.

So enough accusations of “empty ritual” against the Catholic Church. For nowhere do we find more meaning to the countless rituals of human experience than in the teaching and praxis of Catholicism. 

Yes,” you might say, “but when the culture (or Protestantism) accuses the Church of empty ritual it’s referring specifically to worship.” Here, the accusation is even more tragically ironic. To begin with, let’s make a distinction. It’s one thing to argue what the Church teaches is false, and quite another to argue that it’s activities are meaningless or empty. Pick anything, any devotion or rite, any doctrine or moral precept, any celebration or feast day, and you’ll find two thousand years of rich, multivalent meaning behind it. The informed Catholic understands this. We don’t do things blindly. The truth is, any Catholic who practices his faith blindly is bound to fall away, at least in his heart. For those who understand the richness of a ritual, however, we’re drawn deep into the mystery of it all and experience anything but emptiness.

So let’s get something clear. The culture is guilty of empty ritual, not the Church. In fact, the Church continues to plead with the culture. The Church continues to call the culture (and her faithful) to a more meaningful life. It’s the culture that strips everything of meaning and tempts Christians to do the same. Who’s evangelizing who here? 
Case in point: We find it relatively common still to have “Easter” celebrations in our culture. Sure, if they’re public they’re generally stripped of religious meaning and tend to focus on bunnies and candy – a far less meaningful ritual, no doubt – but the spirit of the season is still acknowledged. What really gets me is the loss of the Church’s festivity, however. The entire country celebrates “Easter” until the season actually arrives! While the Church retreats in preparation for the most glorious time of year, the culture prematurely, and blindly, sells the holiday before the appropriate (i.e. meaningful) time. Ironically, the cultural Easter celebrations take place in Lent and then, when the Church begins the fifty day celebration, the culture has already moved on. 

Why not wait until the Easter season begins before having the parties? Because, once Easter Sunday comes and goes, we’ve moved on. Easter’s over. The meaning is lost and another year of empty ritual is habituated. That, if at all, is how the culture celebrates Easter.How does the Church celebrate Easter? For starters, the day itself is an “octave” of days. Easter Day is celebrated eight days in a row! Most Catholics don’t even fully recognize the significance of this. We all realize Easter is the high point of the year – without the Resurrection nothing we do would matter (see 1 Corinthians 15:14) – but the profound richness of the Tradition isn’t always understood. The idea of an “octave” celebration comes from our Jewish brothers and sisters; and, for the Jews, it’s not the first day of the octave but the eighth day that is the high point of all the celebrations. That, believe it or not, means that the high point of the Church year is notEaster Sunday, but rather Divine Mercy Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter and the eighth day of the octave.

This concept of the “eighth day” holds even more significance of meaning for the Church. The Jews don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ, where as we do. The resurrection of Christ, for us as Catholics, is the first day of the New Creation, or… the eighth day. It’s clear that the culture has infiltrated even the Church’s practices, is it not? When was the last time everyone and their mother flooded the churches on Divine Mercy Sunday?

If that’s not a ritual packed with enough meaning, let’s not forget that the Easter season lasts fifty days. The celebrations are supposed to continue to Pentecost. We don’t move on. We marinate in the resurrection of Christ. We ruminate day after day on the glorious freedom of the children of God, the gift of the Holy Spirit and the promises of eternal, resurrected life in Christ. Year after year, we enter more deeply into this mystery, taking fifty days of reminder again and again, so that the gift of new life in Christ is never taken for granted.
Finally, let’s not forget that every Sunday throughout the year is considered a “mini Easter” celebration. That’s why Sundays in Lent are technically not part of the fast. We break the fast (if we so desire) as a reminder that the “ritual” of Lenten observance is a preparation for the season to come, but that we live in the reality of the Resurrected Christ even during our forty day Lenten observance. 
The real goal of the Church’s liturgical life and ritual is that we never allow the ways of the world to rob us of the richness and meaning of resurrected life, and to guard against any aspect of life becoming empty ritual. As soon-to-be-Saint John Paul II said (his canonization is on Divine Mercy Sunday this year!), “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.” May the coming Easter season be for us all a real encounter with the Risen One and, through the rich meaning behind everything we do to celebrate it, may we find heavenly strength to help our culture discover the hidden joy of redemption.

7 Reasons Pope Francis Makes Me Want to Be a Saint

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Is Pope Francis a saint? God only knows. I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that he has truly dedicated the breadth of his energies to becoming one. Since his appointment to the Chair of Peter, I’ve experienced a renewed hunger for goodness in all its forms, as well as a deep, conscious desire to be a saint. Here are seven reasons why I believe Pope Francis has been such a catalyst.
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1. His ‘Obsession’ with the Gospel:  The saving power of Christianity comes not from the reasonableness of our arguments but from a personal encounter with the love of God revealed in the Person of Jesus. When the secular media interpreted Pope Francis as downplaying certain moral teachings of the Church, they missed his point altogether. The light of truth and the strength by which we follow that truth is a gift. It comes not from the efforts of human reason but from our communion with the Son of God who makes his dwelling within us.How easily I forget the gift of faith and fall prey to the temptations of pride: “If only I articulate the Church’s teachings with enough precision and philosophical force, then they’ll have to believe,” I tell myself. But now I hear Francis, echoing the Tradition, and reminding me that my faith is undeserved and beyond my abilities to reason toward. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

The message of the Gospel is not a philosophical argument. It’s an event, an encounter with the Word of God, made flesh, crucified and now risen. Jesus is alive. He moves among us. As we awaken to this reality, sin and death lose their grip and no longer have any power over us, and the Church’s moral teachings become more obvious, if not beautiful.

“Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (Evangelii Guadium8).

Pope Francis has instilled in me a renewed focus on the love of God made manifest in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, through the wisdom of his teachings, I hear the LORD calling me deeper into the mystery of Christian joy.

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2. His Identity with the Mission: The catechism defines the Church as the “sacrament of Christ’s mission” (CCC 737-738). As a member of this great sacrament, Pope Francis sees no distinction in regard to himself. He frequently refers to himself as a “Son of the Church,” and his identity is bound up with the mystical Christ:“My mission of being in the heart of the people is not just a part of my life or a badge I can take off; it is not an “extra” or just another moment in life. Instead, it is something I cannot uproot from my being without destroying my very self. I am a mission on this earth; that is the reason why I am here in this world” (EG, 273).

If that’s not the self-identification of a saint, I don’t know what is. Francis calls me to lose myself in Christ. He has reminded me of the saint’s mission, and why my entire life must be taken up into the gift of salvation that comes to us through the Church.

“We have to regard ourselves as sealed, even branded, by this mission of bringing light, blessing, enlivening, raising up, healing and freeing…But once we separate our work from our private lives, everything turns grey and we will always be seeking recognition or asserting our needs. We stop being a people” (EG, 273).

When I read this, I’m reminded that my mission is the mission of a saint, and I feel called to let this mission be intentionally integrated into everything I do.

3. He Actively Seeks Out the Poor: Rumor has it, the Holy Father has been sneaking out at night to serve the needy, to eat with them, and to let them know they’re loved. We aren’t completely certain about his late night activities since becoming pope, but this was a consistent habit of his as a cardinal, and we do know he has appointed someone to the little-known office of “Vatican Almoner” as an extension of himself in these matters. Archbishop Konrad Kajewski reported these words from the pope when he accepted the position: “Sell your desk. You won’t need it.” See the entire article here.

The Vatican Almoner is said to have given out over two million euro this year. Francis has been aggressively using this position, as it cuts through the bureaucratic red tape and meets the immediate needs of the poor in Rome as they arise. He goes out to meet them. “You need to get out of the Vatican. Don’t wait for people to come ringing. You need to go out and look for the poor,” he told the archbishop.

How has this inspired me? I get so caught up in my own concerns. Something deep in my heart resists the other-centeredness I need to truly love the poor who are always with me (Matthew 26:11). In still another way, Pope Francis reminds me what it really means to strive after holiness.

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4. He Took Off the Red Shoes: I love Pope Benedict, and I love the red shoes. However, I never reflected upon their meaning until Francis took them off.When Pope Benedict XVI put on the red shoes, it was an act of sheer humility. He was giving himself to the Church. Standing on the blood of the martyrs, he swore to guard the faith they died to bring us. The shoes were for him a constant reminder. Yet the world scoffed at the sign as an act of triumphalism.

It’s not without irony that Francis’ removal of the red shoes became the symbol of humility the shoes once were. He’s on a mission and he hasn’t the time to explain the richness of a symbol the world doesn’t want to understand. He wisely “puts on” a synonymous symbol the world does understand, by taking them off. I have to admit that my own conditioned sentiments received his action more readily. Maybe that’s a modern weakness of mine, but this pastoral move of his has been a powerful reminder of my own call to Christ-like humility, and it’s even helped me to appreciate more fully the red shoes themselves.

A saint is willing to express the truth of Jesus Christ with cultural relevance. Pope Francis challenges me to pay attention to how my actions are being interpreted, and to be humble enough to adjust my efforts accordingly.

5. He Convicts Me of My Sinfulness: Like a true father, Francis is unwilling to take sides as he courageously calls all of his spiritual children higher. If you haven’t yet read Evangelii Gaudium, do so and you won’t be disappointed. Chapter two (especially paragraphs 76-101) was particularly powerful for me. It left me so clearly convicted of my own broken behaviors and sincerely repentant for my part in the scandal of sin among Christians. I found myself continually “scolded” by his penetrating boldness into the many sinful ways of acting and thinking that I’ve come to justify as necessary, unavoidable, out of my control, or even good. It read for me as a thoroughly relevant and convicting examination of conscience.

Much of what he said cut to the heart, but here’s an example that left me particularly devastated by some of my actions. Say “No to spiritual worldliness,” he admonishes:

“Spiritual worldliness, which hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church…a subtle way of seeking one’s ‘own interests’…based on carefully cultivated appearance” is fueled by a “self-absorbed promethean neopalagianism…ultimately trusting only in their own powers and feeling superior to others because they observe certain rules. A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying” (EG, 93-97).

If I’m brutally honest with myself, he’s right. In different ways, I find myself tempted by this “insidious worldliness” at every turn. The truth is, everything he mentions in that section of the letter, at least in some way, speaks directly to an area of sin in my life. How grateful I am for this much needed examination of conscience, and to Pope Francis for encouraging me (as a father should) to overcome these temptations.

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6. The Undeniable Goodness of His Actions: Time and again, the Holy Father has become a visible symbol of the love of Christ. I’m not generally one to concern myself with secular media, but when Time magazine names an uncompromisingly conservative pope “Person of the Year,” clearly his goodness is evident. He has cast aside the pope mobile (a risky move, if you ask me), he kisses the feet of the sick, and he embraces those who’ve been marginalized and forgotten.The world is taking notice, and its been a powerful reminder in my own life as well. When I saw him holding the man with neurofibromatosis so tenderly in his arms, the indifference in my soul was shattered. How many times have I hardened my heart to the “deformed ones” in my life and failed to let the love of God flow from my own acts of tenderness and compassion. In an undeniable way, Pope Francis shows me what love looks like.PicturePicture

7. His Continuity with the Tradition and the Modern Mission of the Church: When I came to realize the full magnitude of the Catholic Church, it was her unbroken tradition of doctrinal development and moral teaching that sealed my gratitude. How powerful my encounter with Christ became when I could finally open my heart with full assurance in regard to what I believed to be true. Now Francis echoes it all with his own, unique gaze of faith, and – be it in word or deed – I find myself drawn deeper into the heart of the Church with each passing day of his pontificate. My love for the Tradition only grows, but a new fire has been set ablaze as well. Francis is advancing the call for a New Evangelization and, above all, showing us what it means to live it.As Vicar of Christ and visible head of the Church, the mission comes to me with penetrating clarity through his representative status. Pope Francis’ teachings, as well as his living example, appear to be the next stage in my formation. I’m confident his papacy is a divine appointment, and a true gift to the modern world, because I’ve never been more convicted of my call to be a saint.

John Paul II was a warrior poet, a true philosopher pope and a saint. Benedict XVI is arguably the greatest theologian of the twentieth century. Francis? He’s no slouch when it comes to philosophy and theology but, above all, he’s proving to be the pastoral pope. I believe his predecessors have faithfully prepared the way for a saintly shepherd the Church’s lost sheep will finally follow. I know I will.

Scripture Matters, But Only Science Disproves Science

As I sat up in our Youth Lounge listening to some of the youth group kids rehearse their lines for an upcoming play, I was appalled at the indoctrination I was witnessing. The play was Inherit the Wind, which recalls an early twentieth century trial over the teaching of evolution in school. The debacle sets up a false dichotomy between science and faith, between evolution and the Bible. And these young high school students now think they must choose between the two, with the obvious answer being evolution since the trial depicts the alternative to be an irrational, close-minded and naïve, blind leap of faith.

I’d like to scold the schools for promoting such ignorance of thought, but it’s no less the fault of well-intentioned but ignorant Christians. This is not, mind you, an argument for evolution. I simply want to convey the calm, level-headed position the Catholic Church has always held (at least officially), as well as my personal frustration that so few otherwise bright men and women seem to be willing to listen to the reasonableness of the claim.

Here’s the problem. Scientists are using scientific discoveries to disprove religious conviction, and believers are using Scripture to disprove scientific discovery. Both sides are being dishonest.

Science is limited to what can be observed through experimentation (to material and efficient causality), but it can answer very little, if anything at all, in regard to meaning and purpose, to the existence of a (non-observable) spiritual realm—since, by its nature, science has no means to determine formal and final causality. But many scientists ignore that limitation and use their discoveries to back-up their religious and philosophical premises: atheism, materialism, and random chance. Even if evolution is true, it does not follow in any way whatsoever that there is no God or that God does not create with a loving, meaningful intention with his hand intimately involved in all aspects of created reality.

To make that connection isn’t just bad philosophy, it’s bad science.

However, I’d also like to scold believers for getting drawn into the debate. In a very real way, well-intended Christians have created this debacle by not listening to the Church. Many faithful men and women have taken the bait. By using the Bible to argue against science, we’re telling the world that atheistic scientists are right to blur the lines and to ignore the limitations of scientific discovery. And this, in large part, is due to our own misuse of Revelation. The Bible is not a science book. It asks the question “Why” God created the world, not “How.”

Science is not disproven with Scripture, it’s disproven with science.

The creation-evolution debate is a false dichotomy because atheists who appeal to evolution are bad philosophers, but also because Christians are misreading Scripture. For a solid explanation of the proper way to approach Scripture (hermeneutics), read paragraphs 100-140 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Within this framework no scientific discovery has ever disproven the Word of God, and none ever will.

If evolution turns out to be true, says the Church (and ancient Judaism), that’s perfectly reconcilable with the creation accounts in Genesis. The primary meaning of the first three chapters of Genesis has nothing to do with God literally creating the world in seven days. It has everything to do with God creating the world as a cosmic temple, within which Man exists as the “high priest” of creation and thereby the conscious, free and personal representative of that creation to receive the gift of life from God and offer it back to him in thanksgiving. If science proves that man in fact evolved through a material process over the course of billions of years, it just means that the (unintended) literalist interpretation of the creation narrative is indeed false. But the Jews were never really worried about that question anyway, and neither is the Church.

For a solid (but quite scholarly) article on the creation account as a highly symbolic, temple-building narrative, click here.

For a simpler read that expresses much of the same, click here, or for a more in-depth look into the relational (more personal/intimate) aspects of the narrative, click here.

At this point, we don’t have to believe in evolution. But we do have to understand the science of Scriptural interpretation. When we do, we can trust that no amount of science can ever debunk anything God has revealed in Scripture. He’s the author of both “books.” Faith and reason are of  a piece, a wedding, as it were. Grace builds on nature, and God does not deceive our senses. So while scientists must be honest about the limitations of their expertise, believers must also be honest about the gift of human reason and the goodness of scientific discovery. The natural design of the created order is just as much an insight into the mind of the Creator as the Revelation we could never have known through our human efforts. And neither book should be read into for the sake of our own preconceived notions. We must let God speak, and be willing to listen. Truth will never contradict.

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.

4 SECRETS TO A NEW ARDOR
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. 

3 CULTURAL OBSTACLES
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.

UNLIMITED NEW EXPRESSIONS
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.

NEW METHODS
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.

A Vague, Abstract Spirituality No More

Growing up as…well, what I’m coming to find out was a typical Catholic experience, an American first, and generally void of any substantial access to the living and transformative power of the Holy Spirit. I never understood the difference between the Christian life and the American dream. If there was a difference, they were reconcilable enough to cause little turbulence in my plans to get rich and live happily ever after.

But after a dramatic about-face to the love of Christ, I found myself floundering in the tangled web of confusion that swept over the Church in the twentieth century. What in the world happened?

It would be impossible to untangle that web completely here, or maybe ever, but I’ve been reflecting upon Father Robert Barron’s new series, The New Evangelization, and he definitely seems to have some of the answers I’ve been looking for. As he lays out the need for a “new ardor,” Father Barron categorizes the modern crisis of faith in the Church as a “Beige Catholicism.” He describes one of the characteristics of this “colorless faith” as “a vague, abstract spirituality devoid of concrete traits distinguishing it from other religions and ideologies.” I’d like to point out three expressions of vague abstraction I found so commonplace in my lived experience growing up as an average Catholic Christian, a so-called spirituality that left me in serious need of a savior.

The first commonplace phenomenon is the expression “I’m spiritual, not religious,” to which now I always want to reply, “Hmm…well, so is the devil.” Obviously this kind of bluntness is not a wise pastoral move in most situations, but it’s still true, and it must be overcome. The devil is definitely spiritual; he’s pure spirit. And, of course, as embodied spirits, we’re all spiritual. So it’s a true statement as far as human nature goes, but it says nothing of what we actually believe or how we think we ought to live. There’s no confrontation with our own faults and weaknesses, and there’s certainly no challenge from such a spirituality to let in the transforming power of the Gospel. To be religious means to be in conformity with what’s due to God in justice. The devil wants to be like God, without God, without the “parameters of love” (and authentic human flourishing) that God has revealed to be the fullness of truth in Christ. Religious practice, while it must be taught and lived in such a way that modern minds can understand its richness, is a divine prerogative. God desires us to worship him in specific ways. It was clear and specific in the Old Testament, and it’s even more precise in the New Testament: Communion with Jesus Christ.

One “colorless” expression of faith I’m still struggling to overcome is praying to, and talking about, a “Nameless God.” He has a name, and at his name every knee shall bend. When the name of Jesus becomes primarily a way to express frustration and anger, the power of the Gospel has been stripped of its lifeblood. There’s power in the name of Jesus. He is God. From this crisis of faith the Church is experiencing, a new culture must emerge. I don’t presume to know what it should look like, but I do know that the name of Jesus must be spoken, boldly, with devotion, and as often as possible. Pray to Jesus, and to the Father through him.

Finally, there is a third experience of vague abstraction. I call it “The Fallacy of the Good Person.” Protestants have a field day with Catholics who’ve fallen into this “works-based” idea of heaven. In my culturally Catholic upbringing, when asked whether I thought I was going to heaven I would confidently reply, “Well, yeah, I’m a good person. It’s not like I’ve killed anybody.” But good people don’t go to heaven. Saints go to heaven. And saints are sinners. Some of them have even killed somebody! Scripture is crystal clear on this: “Jesus is the One Mediator between God and man,” and “lest any man should boast,” we are saved by the sheer, unmerited gift of grace. We don’t earn heaven. Salvation is a gift. And, if I can take it a step deeper, salvation is Jesus. He is the gift. Our unity with Christ is a participation in divine, Trinitarian life. I’m going to heaven because, by grace, I have received the gift of faith and now live in a transforming communion with Christ. In the hope of his unconditional, merciful love, I have an assurance of salvation. And it has nothing to do with whether or not I’m a good person. I’m not loved (or saved) because I’m a good person; I become a better person because I’m loved and am now experiencing the gift of salvation.

A vague, abstract spirituality has no power, and quite frankly it’s unattractive and rightly dismissed by my generation. We need to do it with love and pastoral sensitivity, but we must overcome the modern pressure to water down the Gospel for the sake of “political correctness” and “tolerance.” God’s love is boundless, and we’re right to hope in the salvation of those who don’t profess Christ in this life. But if they are to be saved, it’s because, somehow in death, they’re given again the choice to accept Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” and there, before him in all his glory, (praise God) they say yes.


Seth Evangelho serves as a fulltime evangelist and youth minister in Laconia, New Hampshire. Originally from California, he holds a masters in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville and is married with two young children. You can read more from Seth at his blog, From the Trenches.