What is evangelization, and what does it have to do with religious communities? Until recently, I didn't really know what this "new evangelization" business was all about, though I've been hearing the phrase for at least ten years. Now that I'm taking a course on it, I've realized that evangelization is important not only for Protestants, but for Catholics too. Evangelization, in short, is important at every level, for the health of my personal spiritual life as well as for the vitality of our religious communities, parishes, and the Church universal. As John Paul II noted in Redemptoris Missio #2, when we share our faith with others, we strengthen our own.
Evangelization is our mission in the Church. It's the mission Jesus gave us when he said, "Go and make disciples of every nation..." (Matt. 28:19). If we have been baptized into the Body of Christ, and given the Holy Spirit to share in Christ's mission, we have to do what he did: seek out the lost, gather people together, and share the good news of salvation. At the end of Eucharist, we are sent forth like the disciples: "Go, and proclaim the Gospel with your life!" The spiritual and corporal works of mercy also embody this call. When we do this, we build up the Body of Christ.
The Church has issued various documents on the importance of evangelization since Vatican II, most recently, Pope Francis's The Joy of the Gospel. Perhaps one of the most useful documents is the U.S. Bishops' 1992 national plan for evangelization, calledGo and Make Disciples. In this plan, they give us three basic goals, and a number of concrete things we can do at the parish level, that to some extent apply also in religious communities. The main goals are these:
- Increase enthusiasm for faith so that we live it and freely share it with others.
- Invite all people to hear the message of salvation in Jesus so they may come to join us in the Catholic faith.
- Foster gospel values in society, promoting human dignity, the family, and the common good, so that the nation may be transformed by the saving power of Jesus.
In short, we are asked to deepen in holiness so that it can't help but overflow into our living. We are asked to invite others, to welcome them into relationship with Christ and our communities. Lastly, we are called to work for the transformation of the world.
Evangelization can take a lot of forms, and involves all kinds of people. While we definitely want to seek out inactive or alienated Catholics, children, Christians of other traditions, and those with no faith in Jesus, it's also about helping practicing Catholics deepen in their faith and to realize that we all are called to be disciple-makers. We aren't just religious consumers trying to sell our goods to other consumers. We are inviting others to share in a mission, the mission of Jesus. This may be a new orientation for some of us, and perhaps a new orientation for our communities.
Reaching out and inviting others to participate in what has been life-giving for us should be a joyful duty, but a lot of times we think matters of faith are so personal they ought to be private. We're afraid of being seen as coercive. We don't want to shut down valuable dialogue with those of other traditions. On the contrary, evangelization means reaching out to those who aren't presently with us, so it's going to be public. At the same time, real Catholic evangelization is never coercive; people need to be free to make their own choices. This is not about going door-to-door to harass people, though evangelization may mean talking about faith where we may not have expected it. Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue is also important; without denying the goodness of others' beliefs, these kinds of interchanges allow us the opportunity to share the truth of Catholic teaching.
Ultimately, it seems evangelization means we need to keep pointing to Jesus. It's not just about attracting others to us or to our communities. It's about seeking God, and helping others to do the same.