Evangelization: Why is the Gospel good news?
The word “evangelization” comes from the Greek “Euangelion” meaning the announcing of good news. St Paul and the apostles were excited about the person and message of Jesus. They had encountered Jesus as a Savior, who by His cross and resurrection, has triumphed over sin and death, and who has sent His Holy Spirit to accompany His followers in all things. The command by Jesus to “go teach all nations” was not felt as a burden imposed upon them, but as a joyful obligation. They had experienced true freedom in the Gospel “for freedom Christ has set us free”, and they wanted to proclaim this to the world, that God has made adoption as His children possible in Christ.
Through the preaching of the apostles, those who became Christian in the early Church felt the same freedom. St. Justin Martyr felt that Christ was the fulfillment of his vocation as a philosopher. St. Agatha felt herself to be a spouse of Jesus. To preserve her vow of virginity, she refused marriage to a pagan noble and suffered martyrdom as a result. St. Augustine, after living a chaotic life, famously declared after his baptism, “You have made us for ourselves O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The ancient world was stirred by Christ and His message. The human person has a royal dignity and a direct link with the Creator. God in Jesus Christ is the friend of the human person. And the countless Powers—gods, spirits, demons—weighing upon the soul with all their terrors, now crumbled into dust.
Why a “new” evangelization?
If evangelization is the announcing of good news, why the need for a new evangelization? John Paul II, who first coined the phrase “new evangelization”, clarified that the message of the Gospel has certainly not changed. What has changed however was the fact that
i. A growing number of Christians, in traditionally Christian countries, no longer experience Christianity, especially its moral teaching, as liberation but as a burden. They practice their religion “as if they have just returned from a funeral.”
ii. Increasingly educated and exposed to science and reason, the doctrines of Christianity were also experienced as somehow pre-scientific and having no rational basis.
Two convenient options
Faced with these two challenges, a Catholic can take the “soft” option. He can (at least in his own mind) “water down” the Church’s moral teaching, especially its difficult and inconvenient ones. Faced with accusations that he is being “pre-scientific”, he could also discard the seemingly incomprehensible “supernatural” doctrines of Christianity (the resurrection or the virgin birth, for example) and focus on what seems to be “reasonable.”
He can also take the “hard” option. In the face of a hostile world, he can retreat into his private Catholic space, with other like-minded Catholics, viewing the “hard” teachings as a necessary burden to attain heaven in the next life and diagnosing Catholics who have difficulties in believing as somehow lacking in faith. “If only they pray more and have more faith and don’t question too much.”
The teaching of the New Evangelization proposes a third option. John Paul II declares that the new Evangelization must be new “in ardor, methods and expression.” Let’s look at these in turn.
New in Ardor
Ardor refers primarily to enthusiasm and excitement. This is something that cannot be “faked”. It has to be real. It has to flow from an encounter, or a re-encounter with the person of Jesus Christ. Hence, Singapore Archbishop William Goh’s emphasis on the “conversion experience”, where one recognizes that he is a sinner in need of grace. Jesus Christ is experienced no longer as simply a great moral teacher but one’s personal savior. To continue fanning the flame of conversion, the Archbishop insists on the cultivating of an intense prayer life and on-going formation so that the converted disciple can better share the Gospel with others.
New in Method
There is a move away from teaching Catechism as simply “doctrines to be learnt” or “moral teachings to be followed.” Rather, at the heart of Catechesis is to facilitate for the child an encounter with the person of Christ. Doctrines and the Church’s moral teaching flow from that encounter. They liberate the person to live a new life in Christ. They point to Him. They are not ends in themselves. The catechist is not “the teacher” but a “facilitator.” Christ is the Teacher. The catechist is there to facilitate the encounter. He is not “God’s lawyer.” Rather, he is a co-pilgrim with his students in the journey of life. He has nevertheless found Christ in his pilgrimage of life and is thus there to share this with his students.
I remembered one incident that might illustrate this new approach. I bumped into my student who was hanging outside church and not attending Mass. In my earlier years as a Catechist, I would actually have focused straight away on his non-attendance at Mass and tell him that what he is doing is very wrong and that he should go for confession and then for Mass the next time. This time, I did something different. I said hello and asked him if he would like to chat a while as he seemed to have things on his mind. What followed was a 30 minute conversation where he shared about how he felt that Church teaching is restricting his freedom and that his family situation is unhappy. I acknowledged his feelings as very real and shared with him how, in my own experience, I too had these feelings but had gradually found Christ to be a source of freedom. I did not focus on what he “did not do.” A year later, while preparing another batch of students for confirmation, he waved at me and said that he too has decided to get confirmed. He too had experienced the love of Christ for him and found in the Catholic faith a source of true freedom. While I would never dare to take any credit for his conversion, I nevertheless shudder to think what might have happened if I had “scolded” him for not attending Mass during our first encounter, out of a sense of misguided zeal.
New in Expression.
It is easy to simply reduce the phrase “new in expression” to the need for Catholics to be “up to date”, especially in the use of social media (Facebook etc). While social media is certainly an important means of evangelization, the call for a “new expression” is deeper than that. It is a call to re-present the person and message of Christ in a manner that is comprehensible, challenging and compelling to a new generation. It would be no use for instance to say “Jesus Christ saves you from sin” when the culture has lost a sense of sin. Rather, a patient dialogue about the nature of right and wrong would be an important first step in precisely recovering such a sense, and then showing how Christ saves us from the burden of an overwhelming guilt. The art of learning how to understand the cultural situation in the light of Christ would require formation. But the acquiring of such knowledge is not simply “book knowledge” but flows from the fervor to make Christ known to others.
Conclusion: Mary, the Star of the New Evangelization
On 27th Sept 2014, Archbishop William Goh consecrated Singapore to Mary, the Star of the New Evangelisation. In this, we ask not only for our blessed Mother’s powerful intercession, but also through the studying of her life, we will know how to go about our tasks of evangelizing. As the Archbishop declared in his pastoral letter, it is from Mary that we learn i) that the New Evangelization is urgent. That it is ii) principally a witness of love. That it must iii) begin from a contemplation of the Word of God and that iv) it must possess a spirit of poverty and the recognition of the primacy of grace.