On the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul last year, Pope Benedict XVI made a surprise announcement: the creation of a new Vatican office dedicated entirely to promoting the New Evangelization.
The focus of the new pontifical council is on those countries, located primarily in the West, where secularism has taken hold. In May, the new department began to take shape with the appointment of a team of consultors and a secretary and under secretary.
The Holy Father has asked Archbishop Rino Fisichella to run the council. He spoke with Rome correspondent Edward Pentin in May about the aims and mission of the new council — the first completely new department a pope has created since Blessed John Paul II instituted the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers in 1985.
Your Excellency, could you tell us more about how and why this pontifical council was created?
It came about because, for about 27 years, Blessed John Paul II spoke about the New Evangelization. The first time was in his country, in Poland, when the Holy Father spoke about the necessity of the New Evangelization. After that, Pope Benedict XVI said: “Well, we’ve spoken up to today so much about the New Evangelization, and now is the time to do it.”
For this reason, during the first vespers of Sts. Peter and Paul at [the basilica of] St. Paul Outside the Walls, he said it was his intention to create a new department — the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. And he did this [formally] on the feast of St. Matthew, apostle and evangelist. I think this is very indicative to us because the liturgical feast of St. Matthew gives us the possibility to understand our goal: the necessity of going back to the Gospel and to our mission — the mission of the Church to evangelize.
In view of secularism taking hold in Europe and the West, how do you more precisely see the department’s mission?
We should be aware of the consequences of secularism and secularization. This is a phenomenon that doesn’t just affect Europe and North America. In this era of globalization like ours, the problem of secularization also affects Latin America and the Philippines. The Holy Father says this is the moment we should be able to understand the challenges of secularism, especially for the churches in the ancient Christian tradition. So, for this reason, we don’t have oversight for Africa or Asia. First of all, our attention must be focused on the West.
How can the pontifical council address the problems of secularism and relativism in a practical sense?
First of all, we should understand what secularism is. When you have a disease, you should find the right medicine. If you don’t have a correct idea of it, you can take several medicines but they don’t give you health.
For this reason, the first task we have as a pontifical council is to understand the culture of today and the consequences of the culture and the relationship between culture and secularization. The second is that we have to understand the problem. And I can tell you, the most important problem is, of course, the truth, thinking about truth, because relativism is a consequence of the philosopher Nietzsche. He spoke and wrote about what he saw as the impossibility of each person reaching the truth and also that there is no possibility of one truth. This is a great big problem for us, a challenge, to show that the truth of which we speak is not a mathematical truth or a cosmological truth. It is the truth about the meaning of your life.
For this reason, by presenting the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the life of Jesus Christ and also the historical life of Jesus Christ, we present the truth of the search of meaning for people today. People today are afraid of suffering. They are not able to give a sense of suffering of love, and even less the enemy that we have — death. For this reason, our pastoral work is aimed at being able to challenge questions about the meaning of life and to present Jesus Christ as the concrete answer to the question.
Some argue that as Catholics we shouldn’t be looking so much at society, but rather ourselves — becoming more coherently Catholic and focusing on the importance of prayer, for instance. Will the council be initiating campaigns to, for example, pray the Rosary more regularly?
First of all comes the Catholic identity of our believers.
I think today there is no longer a strong identity as “Catholic.” We [in general] don’t know the main basic contents of our faith anymore. So a first effort should be to grow in our identity; but, of course, this identity needs people proclaiming the necessity of prayer and also the necessity of witness — a coherent witness.
Because this is our faith: to proclaim Jesus Christ, to pray; and third is to be a coherent witness. So we can’t just take one of these three main contents as an act of faith. Together with our identity there should also be the sense of belonging to the Church. I think that our believers today no longer feel in a strong way a sense of belonging to the community. You can’t have a strong identity if you don’t have a sense of belonging.
When you belong to the Church, you need the identity to grow. For this reason, there is prayer. Of course, there is the traditional way of prayer, and this must be known. There is also the prayer of the Church, and this is the liturgical action. And in liturgical action there is the summit with the holy Eucharist.
I think that the New Evangelization should be able to show the necessity of proclaiming the Gospel in a new way, with a new language, and also with new instruments.
But, also, there is the necessity of prayer, because liturgy is a field of the New Evangelization, and also the coherent witness of our style of life. If believers — the priests and [laity] — do not have a coherent style of life, probably there is lack of credibility and people cannot believe us.
How will the new council function? Will it be like the other departments, have plenary meetings and so forth?
You know, evangelization is the task of the Church. The Church was created by Jesus Christ in order to proclaim the Gospel around all the world, in each time and in each age.
For this reason, all the departments in the Curia are engaged in the New Evangelization. We should be able to collaborate first of all with all the departments in the Curia, but essentially also with the bishops’ conferences, because in many countries the bishops’ conferences know very well the situation of the Church and the situation of the culture in the territory.
The Holy Father wrote in his apostolic letter Ubicumque et Semper — the letter that founded the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization — that in the future each bishops’ conference should be dedicated to the New Evangelization.
The Holy Father announced a synod of Bishops to focus on the New Evangelization next year. What is being arranged for that synod, and what are your hopes and plans for it?
The synod is to be dedicated to the New Evangelization and transmission of the Christian faith. My expectation is first of all to show to all the bishops coming to the synod that there is already a richness within the New Evangelization.
Already several groups — communities, associations, parishes — are doing great work on the New Evangelization. The second is my expectation that at the synod we can be greatly helped in addressing the pastoral work of the dicastery, but also to the possibility for all the churches, especially in the Western tradition, to develop concrete pastoral plans for the New Evangelization.
Will it be essentially an opportunity to coordinate New Evangelization initiatives with the local churches?
We won’t just have a role of coordination, but we’d also like to have a role of promoting the New Evangelization. In promoting the New Evangelization, we should have one side responsible for coordination, to coordinate inside and outside Rome, but also to be able to give our minds and hearts to the possibility of offering new knowledge of the necessity of the Gospel.
What is your view of using the new media to promote the New Evangelization? Will you be assisting them in these initiatives?
Any initiatives that can be instruments for the New Evangelization are welcome. The new ones that make use of the Internet and television should be really appreciated.
But let me say also that we can use all new instruments. We can use television; we can use the Internet, iPhones, iPads — everything that we have. But in our history — in 2,000 years of history — the transmission of the faith was always done through interpersonal encounters.
There are always two persons who have a concrete meeting: one who proclaims and is able to do so with credibility because his own style of life is coherent with what he is proclaiming; and then there is the other person who accepts the witness.
Without this interpersonal encounter, I don’t think there is an efficient and coherent transmission of faith. It needs two people. You need to look at the eyes of the other and be able to understand that Jesus Christ is a person.
Our faith is not first of all about content, but rather the content is a concrete person: He is Jesus living within the Church.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.