While the Catholic Church’s message is timeless, how that message is proclaimed from one generation to the next may vary. The Church must constantly bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to every nation on earth. Pope John Paul II called for “A New Evangelization” on numerous occasions. He was not asking us to present new truths, but to present the truths of our faith, in keeping with the teachings of Second Vatican Council. These truths inspire those who are members of the Church to become even more involved as well as assist those who are searching for meaning and purpose in their lives to reflect upon what the Church teaches and hopefully give their lives in service to God by becoming Roman Catholics.
At Pentecost 2008, the Most Reverend Arthur J. Saratelli, D.D., bishop of the Diocese of Paterson, NJ put together, as part of his Episcopal Teaching Series, a booklet entitled,
“Evangelization: Grace and Vocation” which addresses this very important issue.
Prior to His Ascension into heaven, the Lord Jesus instructed His disciples to go forth and bring the Good News to every nation and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). In the Acts of the Apostles we have the accounts of the conversions which took place at Pentecost, when some three thousand persons became followers of Jesus after listening to the words of Peter.
Immediately after this account, Luke gathers together scattered fragments of tradition to form a mosaic of the Church in Jerusalem. He says, “These remained faithful to the teachings of the apostles, to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread, and to prayers” (Acts 2:42). This portrait of the Church suggests four essential aspects, or characteristics, of the Church’s evangelization in every place and every age. A careful look at this image, therefore, can offer ways for us to evangelize today.
The first characteristic of the Church in Jerusalem is fidelity “to the teaching of the apostles.” The Church, born of the teaching of the apostles, grows through Her fidelity to their teaching. At Pentecost, Peter was the first apostle to launch the Church’s mission to evangelize. Luke provides an interesting detail in his record of this first missionary effort. He says, “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed them in a loud voice” (Acts 2:14). The phrase “with the Eleven” is pregnant with meaning. Peter does not speak alone or on his own. He voices the faith of all the apostles. He preaches the faith of the Church. Luke continually makes this point in many of the speeches of Peter. Peter regularly includes the others as speaking with and through his words (cf. Acts 3:12, 15; 4:9; 5:32). As chosen to lead the Church by Christ, he does so in union with the Apostolic College.1
This is an essential characteristic of evangelization. In our work of bringing Christ to others, we offer them the faith of the Church. We do no one any service when we diminish or eliminate elements of Church teaching that are hard for today’s world. It is not simply our thoughts, our personal beliefs, and our own interests that we share with others. United with Peter, the Church was successful at Her first efforts to preach the Gospel. United with Peter today in the person of the Holy Father and one with the College of Bishops, we are called to remain faithful to the whole truth of the Gospel as handed down to us by the Church. Therefore, we are to do our part to put before others the richness of our Catholic faith. Our understanding of Sacred Scripture; our adherence to Tradition; our sacramental life, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation; our unity with the Holy Father; our social teaching; our commitment to the poor; our devotion to the saints, especially Our Blessed Mother: these are our spiritual and liturgical inheritance that we need to share with others.2
In every generation the Church needs to adjust her pastoral outreach to meet the ever changing lifestyle of the faithful. Saturday afternoon confessions are no longer the only way to make available the sacrament of Penance. When the faithful come for marriage instruction, when they are preparing their children for Baptism, Penance, Eucharist, or Confirmation, these moments can become moments of grace by inviting them to receive the sacrament of Penance.
Parish missions in Advent and Lent and youth gatherings provide other occasions to invite people to make a good confession. Scheduling times for confessions on weekday evenings or even before the celebration of Mass promotes a more frequent use of the sacrament. There are times such as Good Friday and Holy Saturday when many long to receive the sacraments. At these moments, dedicated and zealous priests can make themselves available for individual confession for the good of the faithful. 3
Evangelization that is faithful to the teaching of the apostles takes place in two ways. First, we proclaim the Gospel to non-believers. God makes His offer of salvation in Christ to all people. We need to extend our outreach to those who do not know the Lord. Evangelization is at its best when we present to others the opportunity to believe and to experience the salvation won for us in Christ.
Each of us has a proper role in this work. By their place within the Church, priests, deacons, and religious have a visible role in the zealous proclamation of the faith to those on the outside. 4 Laypeople have their special and proper role. They are called to go forth into the world “as powerful heralds of a faith in things to be hoped for.” 5
The laity evangelizes in the ordinary circumstances of life. Today, lay people are generously involved in the many needed ministries of the Church. However, this does not lessen the imperative of the lay apostolate in the world. By their very vocation as Christians, laypeople are called to bring Christianity into the marketplace. They are to make the word of the Gospel present in the temporal sphere by the witness of their lives and so transform the world. In the midst of their secular occupations, the laity are the leaven of the Gospel. Thus, they bring about the growth of the kingdom of God in this world. 6
Many Catholics no long attend Sunday Eucharist, frequent the Sacrament of Penance, celebrate their marriages in the Church or join in the charitable works of the Church. Some deliberately choose to stay away because they disagree with a particular teaching. Some have been hurt by those who represent the Church. Others see the reality of sin in the Church and walk away. There are others who have simply drifted away because of work or a lack of attention to their relationship with the Lord.
Therefore, besides the preaching of the Gospel to non-believers and those searching for the truth, we are called to reach out to Catholics who have fallen away for the practice of the faith. Each of us needs to make a conscious and personal effort to rekindle the faith in others, especially in our own families and among our friends who no longer attend church. We need to listen to the reasons for their absence. We need to recognize their inherent goodness and openness to the Lord. As we listen to others tell their story, we cannot and should not be ashamed to invite them home where they belong, because we love them. Young people can be most effective evangelizers when they share their Catholic faith with their peers.
In some cases, a simple invitation, a word assuring them that they are missed, can reawaken in them the desire to return. In other instances, a longer, more patient dialogue is required. Like the father of the prodigal son in Jesus’ parable, we need to leave the comfort of our surroundings to find those who have left the Father’s house. We need to hasten to them with arms open wide and welcome them with hearts overflowing with joy.
In addition to preaching the Gospel to those who have never heard it or to those who have heard it but not longer live it, evangelization also includes catechesis of those who practice the faith. Both the formation of the young and the continuing formation of adults are essential ways to “remain faithful to the teaching of the apostles.” Many Catholics do not know and understand the faith as well as they could. They have not been fully catechized. Furthermore, with the developments in medical science, biology and technology, new questions arise that need a response in our day consistent with the Gospel. 7
Homilies and sermons, Religious Education programs, family catechesis, Catholic schools, parish retreats, days of recollection, lectures on Scripture, theology, liturgy, and morality pass on the Apostolic Tradition in a way suited for our times. Every parish, therefore, should offer these opportunities for the faithful. Where it is expedient, parishes should collaborate in these efforts. Thus, they can effectively serve their people and foster a sense of Church beyond parochial boundaries.8
The second characteristic of Luke’s message of the Church in Jerusalem is fidelity “to the fellowship (қοίυαώύία).” Fellowship, or communio, is a visible effect of the Spirit of Pentecost. From the diverse groups of people from every language and race, the Holy Spirit forms one body (cf. Rm 12:6-8 and 1 Cor 12:4-30). Communio is the very nature of the Church. As a people drawn up into the divine communion of life of the Triune God, the Church actualizes Herself in the sharing of one life, both spiritually and temporally.
In his Gospel, Luke relates the story of Zacchaeus. When Jesus invites Himself to this sinner’s house, Zacchaeus is so moved by the Lord’s love that he immediately reforms his selfish life. He responds with unbridled generosity. He gives half of his property to the poor and restores fourfold anything he has unjustly taken from another (Lk 19: 1-10). As those who sit with Jesus at table, we are called to extend fellowship with others by means of our material possessions, such as giving to the poor.
Luke gives us this idealized historical note about the Jerusalem community: “all who shared the faith shared everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and distributed the proceeds among themselves according to what each needed…they shared their food gladly and generously” (Acts 2:44-46). This note teaches us that when we are joined to Jesus, we share what we have. His Holy Spirit dispels the selfish inclinations of our fallen human nature. His Spirit makes our hearts beat with the same “generosity which Our Lord Jesus Christ had, that, and although He was rich, He became poor for [us], so that [we] might become rich through His poverty (2 Cor 8:9).9
Christian life is always a life shared with others. Therefore, a parish should be more than a place where people come to discharge their obligation to worship and then leave. The parish is a network of relationships in the Lord. Every parish, therefore, becomes more effective at evangelization when the faithful form a true community.
The third aspect of Luke’s message of the Church in Jerusalem is fidelity “to the breaking of the bread”. No doubt these first Christians were following the example of Jesus Himself. So often in His public ministry was Jesus found at table with friends and adversaries alike. Table fellowship is a main theme in the Gospel according to St. Luke.
As a respected rabbi, Jesus was expected to keep His distance from sinners due to the fact that they sinners were considered ritually unclean. He did not! His enemies complained, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:2). Jesus came to bridge the distance between the holy and the unholy. He came to call sinners and to give them their place with the righteous in the kingdom. He did this by sharing a meal with them. Jesus used table fellowship for evangelization.
Any meal where Jesus is present becomes an occasion for genuine fellowship. Nonetheless, “the breaking of the bread” done in His memory makes Jesus present to us in the very mystery of His death and resurrection. In the Eucharist, we are made one with Christ at the Last Supper, one with Him on Calvary, and one with Him on Easter morning. By our sharing in His Body and Blood, we become one with each other (1 Cor 10:15-17). The Church is most truly Herself when she celebrates the Eucharist. In fact, the Eucharist makes the Church.10 The Eucharist also leads to evangelization that builds up the Church in faith and in love. The appearance of the Risen Lord to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus makes this clear.
On Easter Sunday, two disciples travel from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are distraught over the death of Jesus. Suddenly they find themselves walking with Jesus unawares. Patiently, the Risen Lord explains the Scriptures that speak of His death and resurrection. With each step, the disciples move from darkness to light, from despair to hope. Their hearts burn within them as Jesus breaks open the word. Then, when they sit at table with the Lord and break bread, they finally recognize Him. Although He immediately disappears from their sight, their faith assures them that He is truly with them as Risen Lord. They hasten in joy to Jerusalem to share the good news with the others. Their Eucharistic experience on the road to Emmaus sets them on the journey of evangelization.11
Like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, those who are one with the Risen Lord in the sharing of His Body and Blood reach out to others with the good news of His Presence. Communio impels one to missio. Likewise, missio leads to communio. Those who accept the Lord become one with the Lord in His Body the Church. In fact, evangelization finds its finality in the Eucharist, which makes real the communion of divine life that is the Church. Communio and missio cannot be separated. Eucharist and evangelization belong together. 12
Parish life, therefore, should be so lived in such a way that the Eucharist, especially on the Lord’s Day, is central. The faithful should be encouraged to attend Mass as often as possible. In this way, the faithful can share more readily in this gift of divine love. Every parish should provide the daily celebration of the Eucharist. In those parishes where this is impossible, the faithful can be directed to neighboring parishes. Daily Mass should not be replaced by communion services because nothing should be done to diminish the uniqueness of the Eucharist as our participation in the Sacrifice of the Cross and as the summit and source of the Church’s life.
The fourth characteristic of the Church in Jerusalem is fidelity “to the prayers.” These first Christians treasured their faith in the Risen Lord as the fulfillment of the promises and hopes of their Jewish heritage. “They went regularly to the Temple” (Acts 2:45; Lk 24:53). They also met in their homes to praise God.
Jesus Himself taught His disciples to pray. When they saw Jesus praying they asked Him to teach them to pray. He responded by teaching them the Our Father (Lk 11:1-4). He also instructed them with the parable of the unjust judge and the importunate widow. He taught them “about the need to pray continually and never lose heart” (Lk 18:1). By the time of the Didache, a catechism from the first century, Christians were praying the Our Father three times a day in place of the Shemoneh Ezreh, the Eighteen Benedictions of Jewish prayer said morning, afternoon, and evening.13
From the very beginning, the Church has been a Church at prayer. The first act of the Church after the Ascension is common prayer. “With one heart all of those [apostles] joined constantly in prayer, together with some women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers” (Acts 1:14).14
The disciples wait for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. They do not rush into the work of evangelization. Only after the Holy Spirit is given to them on Pentecost do they inaugurate the mission of the Church. Since evangelization depends on the Holy Spirit, the first disciples begin all their work by opening themselves to the Spirit’s guidance, inspiration, and power.
As the Church grows, tension mounts between the Aramaic-speaking disciples and the Greek-speaking disciples. The apostles pray to the Holy Spirit. After praying, they ordain the first deacons of the Church (Acts 6:1-7). When the apostles hear that the Samaritans had received the Gospel, Peter and John go to Samaria. They pray and the Holy Spirit is given to the new converts (Acts 8: 14-17).
The opening of the Church to the Gentiles is also the work of the Holy Spirit and prayer. When Peter is at prayer at noon in the ancient port city of Jaffa, he is given a revelation that leads to the baptism of the Roman centurion Cornelius. It is the Spirit who leads Peter to the dramatic decision to receive Cornelius and other Gentiles into the Church (Acts 10). Neither Peter nor Paul nor the eloquent preacher Apollos effected the growth of the Church; God did (1 Cor 3:5-9). This is why prayer must precede and accompany every work of the Gospel. All evangelization depends upon prayer.15
As St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) teaches, “there is nothing more worthwhile than to pray to God and to converse with Him and His companions.” 16 Constant prayer allows God to have His way with us. Prayer makes us His instruments in bringing to others Christ in His Church. Prayer opens our hearts to the Holy Spirit who is the soul of all evangelization.
At the end of the letter to the Ephesians, Paul urges us, “Pray all the time…pray in the Spirit on every possible occasion. Never get tired of staying awake to pray…” (Eph 6: 18-19). Intercessory prayer advances growth of the kingdom of God on earth. At the end of the letter to the Colossians, Paul offers Epaphras as an example for all of us. He tells us that “this servant of Christ Jesus never stops battling for you, praying…always” (Col 4:12).
Our efforts to evangelize today are our willing response to the Lord’s mandate: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). Christ’s command does not permit cold indifference to the work of evangelization.
God wishes all to be saved. He desires all to come to the knowledge of the truth revealed in Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:3-4). To the world, He has given the Church as a sign and sacrament of salvation. He has flung open Her doors for all people to enter. By virtue of the gift of faith and the divine life given in the sacraments, all Catholics are called to invite others to that fellowship, or communio, of the Church where “through his Son Jesus Christ, we have access to the Father in the Holy Spirit” (Eph 2:18).
“No believer, no institution of the Church can avoid the supreme duty to proclaim Christ to all peoples.” 17 His Gospel is the word that saves. His Gospel is the truth that sets us free. Evangelization is the grace and vocation of the whole Church.
As stated earlier, we do no one any service when we diminish or eliminate elements of Church teaching that are hard for today’s world. Watering down Church teaching so that it comes across as less “harsh” to those we encounter is actually doing a tremendous disservice to those we encounter.
One argument which has been made in regard to evangelization is in regard to the importance of meeting people where they are. This is essential if one is to help bring someone to the truth. Meeting someone who he or she is in their faith journey requires empathy and, in some cases, sympathy on the part of the catechist. In this regard we should follow the example of St. Paul who tells us, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that, I might win the more. To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all, that I might by all means win some.
I do it all for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:19-23).
Meeting people where they are does not mean that we leave them there. We must make every effort to bring them to the truth, knowing full well that not everyone who hears the messages that we proclaim will be willing or able to accept it at that moment. However, it is only by accepting where someone is that we can bring them to the next level and thereby assist them in coming to a full realization and acceptance of the truth of our faith.
In the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, we read how Jesus spoke to the crowd and stated that unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood they shall not have life within them. Immediately, many of those present began to walk away from Jesus because they found what he said to be “difficult”. At no time did Jesus reword what he said, but instead approached His disciples and asked, “Will you also go away?” Peter says to Jesus, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (Jn 6:69).
The fact that the message you bring might not be accepted by all should never be a motivation to diminish it in any way. It is only through the power of God that one comes to accept His teachings. Not everyone who encountered Jesus Himself on a daily basis came to believe His message and there will be many who will not accept the Good News from us either; however, this should never serve as an impediment for us to carry out the Church’s mission of evangelization.
The Church has been brought into being by the love of the Triune God. Just as God is love and is actively involved in drawing us to Himself, so too the Church is always reaching out to invite others into the mystery of salvation. Ever since the first Pentecost when three thousand were converted and entered the Church, evangelization remains an essential dimension of our life as Church. We are called to move from a model of maintenance to mission. We are called to grow. A church that is not growing is dying.18
1) Saratelli, Arthur J. Evangelization: Grace and Vocation (Episcopal Teaching Series) Paterson, NJ: Office of the Bishop, p. 17
2) Saratelli, p. 17
3) Saratelli, Arthur J. Reconciliation: Gift and Sacrament (Episcopal Teaching Series) Paterson, NJ: Office of the Bishop, p. 7
4) Flannery, Austin (ed.) Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents (NY: Costello Publishing Co., 1998), Presbyterum Ordinis #4 p. 868
5) Flannery Lumen Gentium #35, p. 357
6) Flannery Apostolicum Actuositatem #2, p. 767
7) Dulles, Avery “Models of Evangelization” Origins 31 (5/17/07), p. 9
8) Saratelli, Evangelization, p. 19
9) Saratelli, p. 20
10) McPartlan, Paul “The Eucharist, the Church and Evangelization: The Influence of Henri de Lubac”, Communio 23 (Winter 1996), p. 780
11) Saratelli, p. 21
12) Putney, Michael “Evangelization in Australia” The Australian Catholic Record (January 2007), vol. 84, no. 1, p. 81
13) Didache, Chapter 8, section 3 http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html (Published 2001, Accessed 7/3/09)
14) Saratelli, p. 23
15) Saratelli, p. 24
16) St. John Chrysostom, Homily 6 on Prayer
17) Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptoris Missio #3 (Promulgated 12/7/90)
18) Saratelli, p. 15