After telling people what he does at the Vatican, Father Geno Sylva has come to expect the inevitable question: “What is the New Evangelization?”
Fortunately, the New Jersey priest has devoted the last few years not only to answering that question, but living out the New Evangelization himself and teaching others to do so, as well.
A priest of the Diocese of Paterson, Father Sylva began an assignment in July at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. The council, which was formed in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI, is overseeing the implementation of the Year of Faith that begins Oct. 11, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Year of Faith concludes on the feast of Christ the King, Nov. 24, 2013.
As Father Sylva describes it, his work involves the promotion of the New Evangelization, including the Synod of Bishops on that theme currently under way, as well as the organization of the various events involving the Holy Father that will take place in Rome during the Year of Faith. His many duties are carried out under the direction of Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.
But Father Sylva knows that whatever else he does, he always needs to have a concise answer to the question that inevitably arises.
“There are two levels to the New Evangelization,” he explained. “First is the formation and education of those who practice the faith, so they can be better witnesses and evangelizers in their own lives to those in their family, their neighborhood and their workplace. The other level is to reach out to the secular culture, to people who are away from the Church or who are seeking something better, and to put together arenas where they can feel comfortable coming to find something they are looking for.”
Basically, the New Evangelization is a response to the fact that “mission country” is no longer found only in distant lands, he added. As the secular cultures of the West have eroded the faith, there is also a need to re-evangelize places that were once thought Christian, starting with the faithful’s neighbors or family members.
For two years before his appointment to the Vatican, Father Sylva served as episcopal vicar for evangelization in his diocese, where he was based at a former Catholic high school, renamed St. Paul Inside the Walls and re-created into a diocesan center for evangelization. Due to his outreach, about 1,500 young adults and parish groups came to the site for classes on the faith, some to renew and deepen their faith, others to learn about the Church for the first time. This experience of education, invitation and inspiration made him a natural choice for his present Vatican position.
“My work with the New Evangelization includes the Year of Faith,” Father Sylva added. “The purpose of the Year of Faith is to offer a structure into which Catholics can be re-energized for the mission of the New Evangelization. The two are thus intimately connected.”
Quoting from Pope Benedict XVI’s document Porta Fidei, by which the Holy Father proclaimed the Year of Faith, Father Sylva continued, “The Holy Father hopes that the Year of Faith will inspire in all believers ‘the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope. … At the same time, we make it our prayer that believers’ witness of life may grow in credibility. To rediscover the content of faith that is professed, celebrated, lived and prayed.’”
It’s a tall order, especially in European countries, where Mass attendance is extremely low and the Catholic faith is often seen as a relic that no longer applies to modern society. Yet Father Sylva’s experience at St. Paul Inside the Walls taught him that even thoroughly secular people have a longing for transcendence and truth.
“We had doctors, lawyers, professional people coming to find something that was missing in their lives, and they discovered that there is a place for God, even in modern America,” he explained.
Among those brought into the Church was Ashley Parchment, 28, who grew up with no formal religious training. Through her friendship with Father Sylva and classes at St. Paul Inside the Walls, she was baptized two years ago.
“Basically, he meets you where you’re at,” she said of Father Sylva’s method of evangelizing. “It’s a lot of dialogue, not a lot of finger-pointing. There’s a lot of exploring what you believe and why, and then you’re the one who decides where to go from there.”
Allan Wright, who worked with Father Sylva in New Jersey, said that he is well prepared to promote the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith worldwide.
“He is a priest fully committed to the mission, and he knows how to reach the modern mind with the Good News of the Gospel,” said Wright, who is academic dean for evangelization for the Diocese of Paterson. “At St. Paul Inside the Walls, we had 72 different programs for people of all walks of life. Father Geno was willing to try new ideas to draw people in, and if he saw that one thing didn’t work, he’d try something else that would.”
Continued Wright, “He has an amazing ability to listen to others, even those who have no background or understanding of the faith, and find a way of connecting and communicating that will draw those people closer to Christ. That is how he would judge all our efforts: how much closer are we bringing people to Christ.”
Stephen Vincent writes from Wallingford, Connecticut.