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July 1, 2012

Special report: Upcoming synod to address evangelization - Evangelization in a changed world -- Don't overlook evangelization opportunities -- What "new evangelization" means - Jesus' evangelization method

In this edition:
1. This fall's new evangelization synod.
2. Evangelization in changed contexts.
3. What "new evangelization" means.
4. Jesus' evangelization method.
5. Bureaucracy and closeness to people.
6. Evangelization in action.

1. This Fall's Synod: New Evangelization

Evangelization represents the everyday work of the church, according to the Vatican Synod Secretariat. It released a working paper June 19 for the next session of the world Synod of Bishops. The paper could prove thought provoking for the church on every level.

The church and each of its parishes need to consider how they look to their own members and others, how they sound and whether they are presenting the church's message in ways that people today, living in a greatly changed world, can understand, the working paper suggests.

Moreover, it says that to evangelize effectively the church must be close to people. For one thing, that means the church needs to assure that excessive bureaucracy does not distance it from those it hopes to reach.

The synod is scheduled to meet Oct. 7-28 in Rome to discuss the new evangelization and the reasons it constitutes an urgent concern for the church.

"Evangelization is not simply one activity among many, but, in the dynamic of the church, evangelization is the energy which permits the church to realize her goal, namely, to respond to the universal call to holiness," the working paper states.

It acknowledges the considerable challenges the church faces when it comes to transmitting faith in a rapidly changing world in which people think and communicate differently than in earlier generations and often do not trust messages communicated to them by others.

Very pointedly, the working paper suggests that the synod should "attempt to discover the underlying reasons why the activities and witness of various church institutions lack credibility when they speak as bearers of the Gospel of God." The upcoming synod, it says, "can assist in raising, in a timely, in-depth manner, an awareness of the seriousness of the challenges we are facing."

Some who sent recommendations to the Synod Secretariat urged that care be taken to assure that people today recognize holiness as a contemporary possibility and not be left to think it is something confined to past heroes of the faith.

It is vital that hearers of the church's message see that "the Christian faith is not simply teachings, wise sayings, a code of morality or a tradition," the working paper comments. After all, "the Christian faith is a true encounter and relationship with Jesus Christ."

To transmit the faith "means to create in every place and time the conditions which lead to this encounter between the person and Jesus Christ," it states. In fact, it says "the goal of all evangelization is to create the possibility for this encounter, which is, at one and the same time, intimate, personal, public and communal."

This fall's synod assembly is "expected to be not only a source of encouragement but also the place to compare experiences and share observations on situations and approaches for action" in the fields of the new evangelization, the working paper says.

It observes that "generally speaking, all Christian communities need a new evangelization" -- need renewal, conversion -- simply because they are "engaged in a pastoral ministry which seems increasingly difficult to exercise and which is in danger of becoming a routine matter, and thus little able to communicate its original intent."

The working paper calls the church "an evangelizer," but adds that the church "begins by being evangelized herself."

An assembly of the world Synod of Bishops is held about every three years. Though the most recent general assembly was in 2008, in 2009 a special Synod for Africa took place in Rome.

Prior to each assembly the secretariat releases a working paper. The paper collects and shares suggestions from bishops' conferences, church leaders, communities and others throughout the world in response to questions posed in an earlier synod document known as the "Lineamenta."

2. . . . Evangelization in a Changed Context

The origin of the idea that the church should renew its evangelizing activity "can be traced to the Second Vatican Council and its desire to respond to a sense of disorientation experienced by Christians facing powerful changes and divisions that the world was experiencing at that time," the working paper explains.

The council, it says, also "saw on the horizon the cultural change we readily witness today. This change, which has created an unexpected situation for believers, requires special attention in proclaiming the Gospel if we are to render an account of our faith in the present situation."

In fact, "the term 'new evangelization' calls for a new manner of proclaiming the Gospel," according to the working paper. It observes, for example, that evangelization today confronts "social and cultural changes that are profoundly affecting a person's perception of self and the world, and consequently a person's way of believing in God."

These challenges are found not only in the older regions of the church, where many people have "abandoned the faith." The working paper also locates such challenges, though to "a lesser extent," in the "younger churches" (in Africa, for example), "especially in large cities and some heavily influenced areas of society and cultures."

A "detachment from the faith is increasingly being witnessed in societies and cultures that for centuries appeared instilled with the Gospel," it says.

The working paper recalls that in the wake of Vatican II, "Pope Paul VI perceptively observed that the duty of evangelization needed to be proposed again with greater force and urgency." This, it says, was due to "the de-Christianization of many ordinary people who, despite being baptized, live a life not in keeping with their Christian faith or express some kind of faith but have an imperfect knowledge of its basic tenets."

Pope Paul VI saw that a growing number of people wanted "to know Jesus Christ in a different way from what they were taught as children," the paper adds. In light of that, he thought "that the church's evangelizing activity 'must constantly seek the proper means and language for presenting, or representing, to them'" the message of revelation.

3. . . . What "New Evangelization" Means

"The 'new evangelization' does not mean a 'new Gospel,'" the synod working paper makes clear. But the "new evangelization" does demand "an adequate response to the signs of the times, to the needs of individuals and people of today."

Thus, for example, this mission calls upon those who evangelize to take into consideration the "cultural developments" that influence how "we express our identity and the meaning of our lives."

Cultural developments like globalization or the new digital means of communication always at our fingertips can, at once, represent both positive and negative influences, the paper indicates. Whatever the case, they represent the context in which people actually live and form their questions about life and its meaning.

According to my count, the working paper employs the term "courage" at least 10 times to identify a quality needed for carrying out the new evangelization. Having the "courage" to again raise the question of God in places that virtually have "eliminated from view any question of God" is "the specific task of the new evangelization," it explains.

Those, of course, are places inhabited by many Catholics who to a greater or lesser extent have given up the practices of the church, as well as others who never were Christians and never have heard the Gospel.

The church "wants to be the place where God can be experienced even now and where, under the guidance of the Spirit of the risen Christ, we allow ourselves to be transformed by the gift of faith," the working paper comments.

In transmitting faith today, it is important "to consider helping people conceive within themselves a vital relationship with the God who calls them," the paper states.

Of course, to be called by God is to have a vocation. In that light, a sign of the new evangelization's effectiveness "will be a rediscovery of life itself as a vocation and an increase in the personal call to a radical following of Jesus Christ," it says.

The vision of the new evangelization reflected in the working paper calls for a renewal of faith for all within the church, along with the willingness to respond to the questions of people who today live in changed environments that influence their lives.

It says many who responded to the Synod Secretariat's earlier questions "indicated that the new evangelization is precisely the church's ability -

-- "To renew her communal experience of faith and

-- "To proclaim it within the new situations that, in recent decades, have arisen in cultures."

4. . . . Jesus' Method of Evangelizing

The way he "treated people is to be considered an essential element of Jesus' method of evangelizing," the working paper says in a discussion of evangelization approaches. "Jesus drew especially near to those on the margins of society," it observes.

Jesus, it says, welcomed everyone and never excluded anyone - "first, the poor, then the rich like Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea; outsiders like the centurion and the Syro-Phoenician woman; the righteous, like Nathanael; and prostitutes and public sinners with whom he also sat at table."

The church exists "to continue Jesus' evangelizing mission," the paper states. No action of the church is "closed in upon itself," but instead "is always an act of evangelization," it says. Thus, the church's activities "all acquire their full meaning when they become an act of witness, a source of attraction and conversion, and a preaching and proclamation of the Gospel by the whole church and each baptized person."

"Healing and forgiving" are two actions "attached to Jesus' work of evangelization," the paper points out. Jesus' "multiple miracles of healing clearly demonstrate his great compassion in the face of human misery," it comments.

Moreover, these miracles "indicate that in the kingdom there will no longer be sickness and suffering and that, from the outset, his mission is aimed at freeing people from sickness and suffering."

The working paper adds that Jesus' healing miracles invite people "to faith, conversion and a desire for forgiveness." The Gospel "initiates us into a process of transformation and participation in the life of God, who renews us in the present moment," it says.

Evangelization's impact on the lives of people, beginning here and now, is clearly noted by the paper. "Evangelization consists in proposing the Gospel, which transforms the human individual, his world and his personal story," it explains, adding:

"The church evangelizes when, in virtue of the power of the Gospel . . . , she takes every human experience and gives it rebirth through the death and resurrection of Jesus. . . . [The] experience of the newness of the Gospel transforms every person."

5. . . . Excessive Bureaucracy; Closeness to People

Many who responded to the Synod Secretariat's earlier questions "attempted to identify the reasons for the decline in Christian practice" by so many of the church's people. Frequently these responses lamented "the excessive bureaucratic character of ecclesiastical structures, perceived as far removed from the average person and his everyday concerns," the working paper reports.

This bureaucratic character reduces "the dynamism of ecclesial communities" and leads to a "loss of enthusiasm," as well as "a decline in missionary zeal," it is noted. The paper reports that some responses to the secretariat's questions "complained of the excessively formal character of liturgical celebrations, an almost routine celebration of rituals and the lack of a deep spiritual experience, which turn people away instead of attracting them."

Many who responded to the secretariat also "wanted the works of charity to be given greater prominence as an instrument of the new evangelization." The working paper explains:

"The dedication and solidarity of many Christian communities toward the poor, the charitable works in which they are engaged and the simplicity of their lifestyle in a world that places great emphasis on buying and having are a particularly beneficial means in proclaiming the Gospel and witnessing to our faith."

On the other hand, the secretariat heard from many who described a church that, indeed, is "strongly engaged in the work of transformation by being present among people and within society." In the younger churches, work is under way "to enliven parishes" that often are very large, "animating them internally through a program . . . called basic Christian communities or small Christian communities," the paper notes.

In older, more-established churches, efforts also are being undertaken in parishes "to avoid the danger that their work become merely bureaucratic and administrative, and lead to undesired effects, namely that particular churches, already too busy with operational problems, might, in the end, become exclusively concerned with themselves," the working paper says.

In carrying out the work of evangelization and remaining close to people in their actual lives, the church and its parishes enjoy the benefit of "many resources," one of which is the laity. The working paper says there was agreement in responses it received "that the first resource is the great number of baptized lay people who are engaged in and decisively continue their voluntary service of building up the parish community."

It says, "Many responses refer to the flowering of the vocation of the laity as one of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council."

The paper cautions that "the church must not lose her image of being a church near to people and their families." It says that "even where the church is in the minority or the victim of discrimination, she must not lose her prerogative of remaining close to people in their everyday lives and, in that very place, announcing the life-giving message of the Gospel."

6. . . . Final Observations: Evangelization at Work

"The best place to transmit the faith is a community nourished and transformed" by its liturgical life and by prayer, says the working paper for the 2012 assembly of the world Synod of Bishops. "Liturgy and a life of prayer transform a Christian community from a simple gathering of people into a community that celebrates and transmits" faith in the God of love, it adds.

Various ongoing pastoral activities of the church are viewed in the working paper as evangelization opportunities. Take for example sessions to prepare engaged couples for marriage. The paper explains:

"These programs are not considered as simply a preparation for this special sacrament but can increasingly become true and proper ways to reacquire and grow in the Christian faith."

Also, the paper says, responses to the Synod Secretariat's earlier questions asked "that the initial proclamation of the Gospel include the care and attention given by the Christian community to those in moments of suffering and illness."

Pilgrimages and devotions are among other opportunities for evangelization mentioned. They can "provide the occasion to introduce a person to a real faith experience and to respond to the great existential questions which touch upon conversion in one's life," the paper says.

The "shared experience of faith" that can occur in these settings "opens a person to a world and life of new horizons," the paper states. It says, "Working to well preserve the richness of Christian prayer in these places of conversion is undoubtedly a challenge for the new evangelization."

The importance of catechesis in evangelization is addressed by the paper. It suggests that the synod discuss "how to devise a program of catechesis" that both --

-- Is "basic and complete, and able to transmit fully the core elements of the faith" and

-- "Knows how to speak to people today in their cultures, while listening to their questions and inspiring their search for truth, goodness and beauty."

In a noteworthy point, the working paper indicates that the upcoming synod sessions might "raise the possibility of giving the catechist an instituted, stable ministry within the church." It says:

"At this great moment of renewal in proclaiming and transmitting the faith, a decision to that effect would be seen as a very strong support and resource in the new evangelization."

Preaching is, of course, among the many evangelization opportunities underscored by the working paper. "The Sunday homily above all, as well as the many extraordinary forms of preaching (parish missions, novenas and homilies at funerals, baptisms, weddings and festivals) are excellent occasions for initial proclamation," it says.

In a recommendation related to the quality of homilies, the working paper cites the 2008 world synod assembly on "The Word of God in the Life and the Mission of the Church." Here the new working paper urges that homilies be prepared with care, giving due attention to the central elements of the message being transmitted, to their Christological character and to the employment of language that is able to inspire listeners and stir conversion.