Let me begin this post by offering an apology to priestly readers for using a rather provocative headline. It is not my intention to question whether you are doing your job in general. Nobody likes that kind of question, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot in that way.
I do, however, need a strong headline of some sort to call attention to a particular task that many priests, at least in recent years, have not been very good at.
The priestly readers of the Register are almost certainly above average on this point, but we all—priests and laity alike—are called to continual conversion, to an ongoing improvement of how well we are serving Christ, and periodic self-assessments are needed.
If you conclude that you are doing an outstanding job in the aspect of your ministry that I’m about to name then great! You’re part of the solution!
But the problem is real.
So real, in fact, that Pope Benedict just created a whole new department at the Vatican to deal with it.
The problem is this: The Catholic Church has an appalling lack of evangelistic activity, especially in the developed world.
That’s why Pope Benedict created the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.
This council is more aimed at Europe than America, but we’ve got the same sickness here, if in a less advanced stage.
Recently I wrote about an encounter I had with an Evangelical gentleman who—though I was a total stranger—came up to me with the express purpose of evangelizing me.
I admired him for it. It wasn’t an easy thing for him to do. He was nervous. He was an ordinary church member, not an expert or anything. And yet he did it.
If you want to know why Catholic Churches in America lose so many members of Evangelical churches, this is the primary reason: Evangelicals evangelize.
At least not in the developed world, at least nowhere near as frequently, by comparison.
It didn’t used to be that way. Catholics used to be great evangelizers. But in the developed world a kind of evangelistic scleroticism has set in.
Why is that?
Various reasons can be proposed, but there is one fundamental reason, one key difference between Catholic parishes and Evangelical churches, that is the biggest single factor.
I know, because before I was a Catholic, I was an Evangelical, and I experienced the difference firsthand.
Evangelicals are not made of sterner stuff than Catholics. They are share the same broad, American culture. They are subject to the same general societal factors we are. And yet they engage in way more personal evangelization than we do.
By far the biggest reason is this: Their clergy tell them to.
Someone famous once said, “You have not because you ask not.” The context was one of prayer, but the principle applies all over the place. Lots of people wouldn’t have become priests if someone hadn’t asked them to consider the possibility. Lots of people wouldn’t have gotten married if someone hadn’t asked them. Historically, lots of people wouldn’t have embraced the gospel and become Christians if someone hadn’t asked them. And lots of people—in the Evangelical world—wouldn’t have become evangelizers if someone (their ministers) hadn’t asked them to.
Lots of people in the Catholic world haven’t become evangelizers, precisely because their clergy haven’t asked them to.
(BTW, the famous person who supplied the above quote was not Our Lord. If you don’t recognize the quote, a little New Testament reading might be in order. You might want to start with the book of James.)
I cannot remember the last time I heard a homily in which I heard a priest tell those of us in the pews that need to evangelize. In fact, I can’t be sure that I’ve ever heard a homily like that. If I have, it’s been so infrequent that it has failed to make a memorable impression.
Oh, sure, I’ve heard the “be nice to everybody” homilies. And, yes, I know the saying commonly (though uncertainly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always. Use words when necessary.”
Let me assure you, words are necessary.
And too often the alleged St. Francis quotation is used as an excuse for not evangelizing. Properly used, the quotation means that the whole of our lives should be suffused with the Gospel, but it’s not an excuse to avoid the difficult task of evangelization.
People don’t become Christians without someone telling them the content of the Christian faith.
As someone famous once said, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?”
(This quote also wasn’t from Our Lord. If it’s not familiar, some Bible reading would be great. Try starting with the book of Romans.)
So words are necessary—and specifically words like “Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and you should become a Christian.” Not those words in all cases, but a paraphrase of them, adjusted to circumstance.
If they’re too much for a particular occasion then something like, “I’m going to church this Sunday. Want to come with me?”
Yet it’s not easy to say such words, and so people need to be encouraged to say them.
That’s where priests come in. Priests can’t do the work of evangelization alone. They need to get the laity actively engaged in doing it. And for that they need to encourage the laity to actively do it.
So I suggest the following as a Lenten evangelistic examination of conscience for priests:
• Do I regularly tell people—particularly my own parishioners—that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he is the Savior of all men, and that all human beings need to embrace him for the forgiveness of their sins? (The possibility of salvation for those in innocent ignorance notwithstanding.) How often do I say this in homilies?
• Do I regularly tell my parishioners that they need to evangelize others by communicating the above message to them, inviting them to Church, inviting them to become Christians, and (more specifically) inviting them to become Catholics? How often do I say this in homilies?
• Do I regularly give my parishioners advice on how to evangelize and how to deal with the kind of situations they may encounter? How often do I do this in homilies?
• Do I regularly tell my parishioners that evangelization is important work and that they need to be courageous and do it in spite of their fears? How often do I do this in homilies?
• Do I encourage evangelization programs in my parish? If others aren’t taking the lead in setting them up or running them, have I done so? Have I at least asked for volunteers to set up and run such programs? Have I done this in homilies?
Some priests may read down this list and have the satisfaction of knowing that they place regular emphasis on all of these points in their ministry.
Others may conclude that there is more that they could do along these lines.
If so, why not start this Sunday?
What do you think?