The “new evangelization” has problems, but a synodal approach can help

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People pray during mass on April 17, 2016 at Holy Redeemer Church in Detroit. The Mass was the site of a “Mass Mob” event, an evangelistic effort to boost regular Mass attendance. (CNS/Jim West)

“Evangelism” has been a buzzword for American parishes and dioceses for a few years now, partly in response to declining Mass attendance and the absence of large swaths of young people from life. from the church. Every diocesan mission and vision statement suddenly has “evangelism” at the top of its list of goals.

Lay ministers, especially those who lead adult faith formation or the adult Christian initiation rite, find evangelism initiatives stapled to their long to-do list. More forward-thinking parishes and dioceses are hiring directors of evangelization, charged with training “missionary disciples” and re-evangelizing committed Catholics, reconciling with ex-Catholics, and somehow reaching another all those who may never walk into a church, let alone grab a church bulletin.

And the Catholic media industry is moving towards creating evangelistic programs with ready-made video series and training events. There is a lot of money to be spent (and earned) on evangelistic efforts.

All for good reason, as anyone with an eye on demographics can see. We envision a very real future of empty churches, closed schools and shrinking dioceses.

Anecdotally, I’m sure we can all tell of friends and family members who are now former Catholics, sometimes proudly. Among a lifelong group of friends of about 20, all of whom attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools, perhaps four of us send our children to Catholic schools and consider ourselves active Catholics.

Students from St. Alphonsus/St.  Patrick Catholic School in Lemont, Illinois, pray Oct. 19, 2019, during the Holy Fire Chicago youth event.  (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

Students from St. Alphonsus/St. Patrick Catholic School in Lemont, Illinois, pray Oct. 19, 2019, during the Holy Fire Chicago youth event. (CNS/Chicago Catholic/Karen Callaway)

Most others have followed the same patterns illustrated in the groundbreaking 2017 CARA report “Going Going Gone: Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” Some were hurt by the church, some disagreed with the teaching of the church, and some just walked away and lost interest.

The data also indicates that the #1 reason a young Catholic will remain Catholic is if they have a lived relationship with God in Christ, and experience that relationship as strengthened or enriched by the church community. Even among people who have a deep spiritual desire, there is no social or cultural pressure to be Catholic or to attend Mass. In fact, there’s quite a bit of pressure not to do these things.

While I love the new focus on evangelism, there are issues with how we sometimes want to implement it. Often our evangelistic efforts are tied to poor theology that underpins clerical attitudes toward ministry (of clergy and laity), which in turn leads to a colonial approach to evangelism (or conquering and submission) of a secular world.

Add to this the arrival of many evangelizers (both lay and clergy) who have been trained and commissioned with an ossified sense of tradition and their own place within it, and intermingled with a renewed (and totally misguided) interest. for two-level Thomism. of neo-scholasticism, and you have a recipe for stifling any authentic evangelizing spirit.

This two-tiered approach over-emphasizes the distinction between grace and nature to the point of believing that there is a small, pure and perfect “church” within the larger Catholic Church. This “church” is made up of “true” Catholics, who follow a sort of fundamentalist version of Catholicism and, ironically, often openly disagree with the pope, and then there’s everyone else.

But when we try to evangelize from this perspective, we lose the heart of the gospel message (that is, God’s infinite and unequivocal love for us incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ) and the replace it with a sort of code of moral and liturgical purity.

Moreover, we are beginning to look less like a church, a complex and interconnected community of faith, hope and charity, and more like a multi-level marketing system trying to coerce or manipulate people into believe and act as we would prefer them to. We go through the complexities of people’s lives and separate everything into “of God” or “of the secular world”, and fail to recognize that God is already at work in people’s lives long before they enter a church.

If our public witness does not always evangelize in a broad sense, we are just another private country club, another gated community in a world of growing inequality and isolation.

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Worse still, many would-be evangelizers speak quite openly about correcting the “errors” of the Vatican II generation of Catholic priests and lay people, who often tried to meet the people and the culture in which they found themselves. Whether or not they perceive the empowerment of the laity for the evangelization and consecration of the world – a key element of both the new evangelization and the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 (and I would add, the Gospel of Jesus -Christ) – as part of the “mistakes” they seek to correct remains to be seen.

But the data on evangelism is clear: when lay people aren’t trained, empowered, and don’t actively participate in their parish communities, they leave, joining the growing crowd of the unborn or finding another place of worship that includes them. in the work of redemption. In short, the rise of this new colonial/clerical/neo-scholastic approach is not just an intra-ecclesial question, it is an existential question.

A better approach to evangelism, both from a theological and sociological perspective, would be to realize that everything we do as Catholics is a touchpoint of evangelism. We evangelize by the way we welcome people to mass every Sunday; how we treat our friends and family; how we spend our money as individuals, parishes and dioceses; how these same groups care for the poor and reach those on the margins; and how we disagree and dialogue with each other.

Parishioners of the Holy Name of Jesus Church in Washington prepare meals for the poor, June 25, 2017. (CNS/Jose Montoya)

Parishioners of the Holy Name of Jesus Church in Washington prepare meals for the poor, June 25, 2017. (CNS/Jose Montoya)

If our public witness does not always evangelize in this broad sense, we are just another private country club, another gated community in a world of growing inequality and isolation.

I agree with James Joyce when it comes to my understanding of the Catholic Church: “That’s everyone.” And so I am continually inspired by the vision of the church articulated in the Vatican II documents: the people of God walking together, in community, dedicating the world to God in Christ as we share it”joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties“of all those with whom we walk.

It is a vision of a pilgrim church that resonates richly with my lived experience of fruitful lay-clerical collaboration, dynamic interrelation and interpenetration of nature and grace, and our call to to awaken us to the incarnate presence of God both within and beyond the sacramental life of the Church and to accompany this presence in the social, economic and existential peripheries of our world. It is where Christ longs to be seen and encountered, and where people yearn for healing, opportunity and meaning. This is our mission territory: to heal all that is broken.

Pope Francis dreams of our local parishes being “islands of mercy in an ocean of indifference”. It’s my dream too. Parish life, as ordinary and unglamorous as it is, has much to offer our world: the stability and diversity of our communities; self-transcending service opportunities; the potential for intergenerational dialogue and sharing of wisdom; and the prophetic call to remain united in community, even in communion, with Christ and with each other in a world that divides us by ideology. And that does not even speak of the richness of our common sacramental and liturgical life.

Prof. Ron Belitz, pastor of St. John Nepomucene Parish in Little Chute, Wisconsin, greets fifth-grade students from St. John Nepomucene School on September 10, 2021, as they enter the church for the first Mass for the whole school.

Prof. Ron Belitz, pastor of St. John Nepomucene Parish in Little Chute, Wisconsin, greets fifth-grade students from St. John Nepomucene School on September 10, 2021, as they enter the church for the first Mass for the whole school. The school and the parish rolled out a red carpet at the entrance to the church to welcome students and teachers. (CNS/The Compass/Sam Lucero)

All of this paves the way for cultural and social healing and true evangelism that liberates, heals and redeems peoples and communities. We have many wonderful gifts to give to culture, and culture has many wonderful gifts to give us. This holistic, synodal and local approach creates a natural appeal for our faith and also means that we do not have to rely on coercive or manipulative means to evangelize, invite and heal people.

In the midst of all of this, the 2021-23 Synod on Synodality asked us to create an intentional time to reflect together on becoming a more dialogical, loving and listening Church. This is a true evangelistic initiative, and perhaps the answer to a lifetime of silent prayers uttered by all who feel the need to turn their backs on our church to find a deeper relationship with God.

Synod is still shockingly on the back burner in many American dioceses, but the parishes and dioceses that are thriving right now are those that welcome, love, and listen. In short, they are synodal: laity and clergy walking together, growing closer and closer in friendship with each other and with Christ as they reach out to those on the margins and serve.

If we want to implement the new evangelization, we need look no further than ourselves and our communities, and to all those who feel excluded from them. In short, if we are to authentically proclaim the good news, then we must become the good news. And if so, we all have a lot of work to do, together.

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