The new evangelization and social justice
Speech to Arise participants, Fort Wayne, August 20, 2013
Since my ordination as a bishop in December 2004, I have been asked, both back in Harrisburg and here in Fort Wayne-South Bend, what are my vision, goals, priorities, as bishop? My response has always been the same: the new evangelization! I believe this is the great task of the Church in our times. Of course, the proclamation of the Gospel (evangelization) has always been the fundamental mission of the Church, since Jesus sent the apostles on mission. The Church has always had this missionary mandate: to make disciples of all nations. Recent Popes have reminded us that the Church exists to evangelize. Faithful to the command of Jesus, the disciples went out to the whole world to announce the good news, spreading Christian communities everywhere. Thus the Catholic Church has grown and spread throughout its 2,000 year history. Here on the American continent, the first evangelization took place some 530 years ago. At various times and places in history, God has raised up dynamic missionaries for the spread of the Gospel.
In our day, Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have called us to a renewed evangelical dynamism. The Church continues the mission “ad gentes,” “the announcement of the Gospel to those who do not yet know Jesus Christ and his message of salvation.” But the Church is embarked today also on what is called “a new evangelization”, which is “directed principally at those who, though baptized, have drifted away from the Church and live without reference to the Christian life” (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily Opening World Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization 10/7/12).
Back in 1983, Pope John Paul II, speaking in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, spoke of the need for a commitment to an evangelization “new in ardor, methods, and expression.” John Paul, Benedict, and now Pope Francis, travelled throughout the world leading this new evangelization. Pope Benedict established a new Vatican office for the new evangelization, and he called for this Year of Faith to help us rediscover the truth, beauty, and power of the Catholic faith.
Last year, the World Synod of Bishops met to discuss the theme: “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. was the Relator of the Synod. He explained the need for the Church to re-propose the Gospel, the Catholic faith, today in these words:
“Across the Church we deal in many instances but particularly in most of the so-called First World countries with a dramatic reduction in the practice of the faith among those who are already baptized.”
Cardinal Wuerl quoted Pope Benedict’s specification of
“the work of the new evangelization as the re-proposal of Jesus Christ and his Gospel ‘in the countries where the first proclamation of the faith has already resonated and where churches with an ancient foundation exist but are experiencing the progressive secularization of society and a sort of eclipse of the sense of God.’”
The Cardinal spoke about the upheavals in the 1970’s and 80’s, about poor catechesis or mis-catechesis in the Church, and aberrations in liturgical practice contributing to today’s negative situation. He said the following:
“Entire generations have become disassociated from the support systems that facilitated the transmission of faith. It is as if a tsunami of secular influence has swept across the cultural landscape, taking with it such societal markers as marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong. Tragically, the sins of a few have encouraged a distrust in some of the very structures of the Church herself.
Secularization has fashioned two generations of Catholics who do not know the Church’s foundational prayers. Many do not sense a value in Mass attendance, fail to receive the sacrament of penance and have often lost a sense of mystery or the transcendent as having any real and verifiable meaning.
All of the above resulted in a large segment of the faithful being ill-prepared to deal with a culture that, as our Holy Father (Pope Benedict) has pointed out on his many visits around the world, is characterized by secularism, materialism, and individualism” (Opening Remarks at Synod).
Cardinal Wuerl’s assessment of the contemporary situation was not all bleak. My own experience is that the Church indeed faces these great challenges, but there are increasingly positive signs: better and stronger catechesis; stronger Catholic identity in many schools; more young people getting involved in the Church; some increase in vocations to priesthood and consecrated life; a growing number of deeply committed Catholics (though the decline in Mass attendance and sacramental practice is still a major concern), success of small-Christian communities like Arise; renewal of parish life (in some places). These are all important components of the new evangelization and priorities of my episcopal ministry. Also, better use of new media of social communications (internet, Catholic radio and television, social media), but we must do much more in this area.
This Year of Faith is a good opportunity for active Catholics to deepen their faith, intellectually and affectively. With renewed confidence in the truth of our faith, people are inspired with a new enthusiasm to spread and defend the faith. Many are recognizing their role as instruments of the new evangelization – in the home, the workplace, and the wider community. This begins with one’s own deepened understanding and appropriation of the faith. It begins with one’s own continual conversion and own personal relationship with Jesus Christ in His Church. One’s own spiritual life (prayer life) is essential – one’s own personal encounter with the Lord Jesus.
At the heart of the new evangelization is the encounter with Jesus, His Gospel, and His Church. It involves our mind and our heart (the intellectual and the affective). We need to promote the diligent study of Sacred Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as the practice of daily prayer (of individuals, families, and also small prayer groups). We need to help people to make openness to the transcendent, conversation with God, a consistent part of their lives. We need to attend to God and God’s call in our own hearts, making space for God and for silence in our lives. I especially believe in the great value of praying with Scripture and of the holy rosary. These provide the fertile soil for the growth of the new evangelization. Also, good, dignified, reverent, and beautiful celebration of the sacred liturgy! The bishops at last year’s Synod wrote that “the beauty of faith must particularly shine in the actions of the sacred liturgy, above all in the Sunday Eucharist. It is precisely in liturgical celebrations that the Church reveals herself as God’s work and makes the meaning of the Gospel visible in word and gesture” (Message to the People of God #3).
Another vital component of the new evangelization is the promotion of the social doctrine of the Church. We need to promote a deeper knowledge and understanding, as well as practice, of the Church’s social teaching. The Church’s rich tradition of social doctrine needs to be more widely known. It is truly an important part of the new evangelization and the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel in the context of present-day realities and social life. As Blessed John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis: “the teaching and spreading of her social doctrine are part of the Church’s evangelizing mission” (#41). In another of his great social encyclicals, Centesimus Annus, John Paul wrote that “the Church’s social teaching is itself a valid instrument of evangelization. As such, it proclaims God and his mystery of salvation in Christ to every human being, and for that very reason reveals man to himself. In this light, and only in this light, does it concern itself with everything else: the human rights of the individual, and in particular of the ‘working class’, the family and education, the duties of the State, the ordering of national and international society, economic life, culture, war and peace, and respect for life from the moment of conception until death” (#54).
What does social justice and our engagement with society have to do with our evangelizing mission?, some may ask. The Gospel we preach is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. This salvation is fully realized only in the Kingdom yet to be fulfilled, in the new life of heaven. We live as a pilgrim people on this earth. At the same time, we recognize that the Gospel of salvation also pertains to life in this world and that the Church is called to bring the saving light of Christ to temporal and social realities. The Second Vatican Council taught that “at all times the Church carries the responsibility of reading the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel” (GS 4). It spoke of the mutual penetration of the earthly and heavenly city and the Church’s mission “to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and (its) transformation into the family of God” (GS 40).
The Church has a salvific purpose. The Church’s identity as “the universal sacrament of salvation” is lived out in her missionary activity which has as its ultimate purpose that of bringing people into the communion of life and love of the Most Holy Trinity. Yet, this takes place “in the world.” The drama of salvation necessarily impacts social life. We are social beings, members of the human community. Pope John Paul II stated in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio: “Jesus came to bring integral salvation, one which embraces the whole person and all mankind, and opens up the wondrous prospect of divine filiation” (RM 11). The second chapter of that encyclical is entitled “The Kingdom of God.” John Paul reminds us that God’s Kingdom aims at transforming human relationships through love (cf #15). He reminds us that “the Kingdom is the concern of everyone: individuals, society, and the world. Working for the Kingdom means acknowledging and promoting God’s activity, which is present in human history and transforms it. Building the Kingdom means working for liberation from evil in all its forms. In a word, the Kingdom of God is the manifestation and the realization of God’s plan of salvation in all its fullness” (RM 15). In our journey to the eschatological Kingdom of heaven, we must also recognize the temporal or earthly dimension of the Kingdom and our call to serve the Kingdom by spreading the values of the Gospel in society. Again, in the words of the great John Paul II: “the Church contributes to humankind’s pilgrimage of conversion to God’s plan through her witness and through such activities as dialogue, human promotion, commitment to justice and peace, education and the care of the sick, and aid to the poor and to children” (RM 20). The Gospel we teach and strive to live and bear witness to, the Gospel of the Kingdom, the good news of salvation in Christ, has a social dimension. Christ’s new commandment of love, for example, necessarily requires the promotion of peace and justice in society. The Church cannot be indifferent to social matters. The Gospel has public relevance. And the Church has the right and the duty to bring the light of the Gospel to human and social affairs.
When we teach and strive to live the Church’s social teaching, this has an evangelizing potential. Our shared commitment to the principles of the Church’s social doctrine is part of the new evangelization. These are the principles: respect for the life and dignity of the human person; dedication to the common good; a recognition of the universal destination of the world’s goods; as well as the embrace of the principles of subsidiarity, participation, and solidarity. We promote fundamental values that are inherent in the dignity of the human person: truth, freedom, and justice. The inner wellspring of our activity is always love, the greatest of all the virtues, the core of the Christian message, and the heart of the Church’s social doctrine. Jesus Christ reveals to us that “God is love” and that our vocation as creatures in His image and likeness is to love. “Love is the only force that can lead to personal and social perfection, allowing society to make progress towards the good” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church #580). Thus, the Church seeks to build a civilization of love. Pope Benedict XVI devoted his first encyclical to the theme of divine and human love, reminding us of love’s centrality in our Christian identity and in the Church’s identity as a community of love. He invited us to reflect on, and be inspired by, the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. As Saint Paul wrote: “the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14). Pope Benedict wrote: “love is the light – and in the end, the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working. Love is possible, and we are able to practice it because we are created in the image of God.” This lesson, perhaps often taken for granted, is one to be lived and learned at every level of the Church and in every parish and ecclesial community.
The new evangelization necessarily includes the commitment to Christian charity and social justice. Works of charity and justice, inspired by our faith, are part of the plan of God to bring about His Kingdom. Being involved in service ministry (and there are many opportunities in our diocese), promotes the new evangelization. It involves living the Gospel, taking it to the streets, to the peripheries of society (as Pope Francis has said). As Catholics, we have a firm belief in the sacredness of human life. That is why we fight for the rights of the person from conception to natural death. That is why we strive for justice for the immigrant and worker, for the imprisoned, the hungry and the homeless. That is why we defend the rights of the sick and the elderly to be cared for with love and compassion. Our many works of charity and service help to build a culture of life and civilization of love. Our love for Christ demands that we build a society that is more worthy of the dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. The proclamation of the Gospel binds us to be with the poor and the suffering. When we are, people are drawn to Jesus and His Church. This is evangelization through witness. We are to recognize Jesus in the least of our brothers and sisters. If the new evangelization is authentic, it involves this social dimension, seeing Christ’s face shining in the face of the poor and suffering. A commitment to charity and justice is integral to the new evangelization and to our formation as disciples of Jesus.
All of the sacraments of the Church remind us of our social mission. I would like to speak about the sacrament that is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (LG 11), the Holy Eucharist. It is true that the Eucharist draws each of us closer to Christ as individuals, but also as a community. It has an important social dimension. As Catholics, we never really worship alone. At Mass, we gather with the young and the old, the rich and the poor, as well as millions around the world and the saints in heaven, to celebrate Christ’s sacrifice. This powerful reality reminds us, in the words of Blessed John Paul II that “a truly Eucharistic community cannot be closed in upon itself.” Pope Benedict also reminded us that “A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented.”
Following are quotes from Sacraments and Social Mission (USCCB):
1) The Eucharist is a sign of our incomparable dignity as human persons. This dignity, given to all equally, regardless of our social or economic status or where we come from, causes us to recognize “what value each person, our brother or sister, has in God’s eyes, if Christ offers Himself equally to each one… If our Eucharistic worship is authentic, it must make us grow in awareness of the dignity of each person” (JP II, Dominicae Cenae 6).
2) The Eucharist unifies and heals divisions. Saint Paul taught that the celebration of the Eucharist is insincere if there are divisions within the community based on class, status, or privilege, or if there are factions within the community. Partaking in the Sacrament as equals in the Body of Christ challenges us to unity as one family.
3) The Eucharist sensitizes us to those who suffer. As we meditate on the Eucharist, we experience Christ’s love for us – and for others. In the depth of prayer, we become so moved and sensitized to his love for those who suffer that the words of Saint Augustine become a reality for us: “The pain of one, even the smallest member, is the pain of all.”
4) The Eucharist moves and inspires us to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Contemplating Christ’s sacrifice for the world in need, we are compelled to follow his example. Drawn “into the very dynamic of his self-giving” we are moved to self-giving action in solidarity with the members of our human family who face injustice.
5) Eucharistic love allows us to live out our Christian vocation. Blessed John Paul wrote that our ability to go and do likewise in imitation of Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet is the “criterion by which the authenticity of our Eucharistic celebrations is judged” (Mane Nobiscum Domine 28). “Eucharistic worship,” he said, “is the expression of “the love that springs up within us from the Eucharist” – that love which is “the authentic and deepest characteristic of the Christian vocation” (Dominicae Cenae, 5).
6) The Eucharist challenges us to recognize and confront structures of sin. The Risen Christ in the Eucharist acts as “a compelling force for inner renewal, an inspiration to change the structures of sin in which individual, communities and at times entire peoples are entangled” (Dies Domini 73). These structures include racism, violence, injustice, poverty, exploitation, and all other systemic degradation of human life or dignity. As Pope Benedict reminded us, our “fraternal communion” in the Eucharist leads us to “a determination to transform unjust structures and to restore respect for the dignity of all men and women, created in God’s image and likeness” (Sacramentum caritatis 89).
7) The Eucharist prepares and strengthens us for mission. In the face of the sin and injustice we see present in our communities and in our world, the Eucharist “plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us,” challenging us to live “Eucharistic” lives. It affirms our role… in “contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God’s plan (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 20). The Eucharist “increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today.” (ibid). Filled with awe for all we have received in Christ’s self-gift, we respond with service and works of charity. After Mass, we return to our daily lives, strengthened for mission, to live out our baptismal consecration in the world. We are thus called to make our whole life a gift, a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God. We are sent forth from Mass to glorify the Lord by our lives, our actions. We are sent forth to evangelize in word and deed!
Finally, it is important to always keep in mind that the task of the new evangelization is God’s work. The Holy Spirit is the agent or protagonist and we are to be His instruments. He gives us strength, courage, and joy, all necessary qualities for evangelizers. The saints are our models. Pope Benedict emphasized the universal call to holiness as essential in the new evangelization. He said that “the saints are the true actors in evangelization in all its expressions…. With their intercession and the example of lives attentive to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they show the beauty of the Gospel to those who are indifferent or even hostile, and they invite, as it were, tepid believers to live with the joy of faith, hope and charity, to rediscover the taste for the word of God and for the sacraments, especially for the bread of life, the Eucharist.” The saints” speak a language intelligible to all through the examples of their lives and their works of charity.”
It was not mere coincidence that Pope Benedict canonized seven new saints in the middle of the Synod on the New Evangelization last October, including Saint Kateri Tekakwitha and Saint Marianne Cope from North America. Each of these saints “with heroic courage spent their lives in total consecration to the Lord and in the generous service of their brethren.” In this way, they were truly evangelizers, witnesses of the love of Christ, who attracted others to follow Christ. They teach us that more important than any program, project, or activity in the work of the new evangelization is the example of men and women whose lives “testify that Jesus Christ is real and that his Gospel is the path to true happiness” (Pastoral letter of Archbishop Gomez). May God bless you!