In response to Blessed John Paul II's call to evangelize formerly Christian societies, the Church must build a “culture of witness,” said representatives of the U.S. bishops in a new document.
It is “primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world,” explained the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis.
The committee, headed by Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., released a new online resource on April 16 to assist dioceses, eparchies and parishes in reaching out to engage the faithful and encourage them to witness to their faith through their lives.
The document, entitled “Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization,” explains that with only an estimated 23% of U.S. Catholics attending Mass each week, the Church must reach out to those who “have simply drifted away” from their faith.
“The New Evangelization places a special emphasis on welcoming back to the Lord’s table all those who are absent, because they are greatly missed and needed to build up the body of Christ,” said the bishops.
They explained that while evangelization has always been “at the very core of the Church’s mission,” Blessed Pope John Paul II called for “a New Evangelization, new in its ardor, methods and expression.”
This New Evangelization was a call to re-propose the unchanging content of the Church’s message in a new way, engaging the modern culture and keeping in mind the contemporary realities of secularism, globalization and the economy, as well as the influence of science, technology and politics.
Continuing the work of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI has worked to create a Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization and suggested that the theme be central to the upcoming bishops’ synod.
Key to the New Evangelization is the witness of individual Catholics, who reach out to those in their lives who have fallen away from the Church, said the bishops.
They explained that when Catholics live out their faith, they open “the hearts and minds” of those around them, allowing for a turn towards Christ that can open the door to the “gradual and lifelong process of conversion” to which Christians are called.
“Before one can evangelize, one must be evangelized,” the bishops noted, stressing that as disciples of Christ we are continually called to renew our own faith in order to share it with others.
Therefore, they said, there is a need to cultivate a “culture of witness,” which is done largely through the commitment of the faithful to live out Christian discipleship and service.
Also helpful, they said, are a vibrant parish life and human experiences such as retreats and prayer groups, through which one “enters into a dialogue with modern culture.” Furthermore, those who have left their faith may still feel a connection to certain prayers, popular devotions and liturgies of the Church.
The bishops also noted the importance of strong marriages and families, as well as the witness of catechists and teachers to offer instruction and examples of sanctity.
In addition, they offered ideas to help address the fears and anxieties of those who are considering returning to their faith.
Programs to welcome Catholics back to the Lord’s table must foster a spirit of trust and hospitality, emphasizing the Holy Spirit and conversion, they said. Such programs require active leadership and should include faith formation, prayer and popular devotions.
Also important is effective preaching at Sunday Mass, as well as adequate resources and ongoing support for those who are considering returning to an active life of faith, they added.
By actively participating in the New Evangelization, members of the Church can reach out to those who have drifted away from their faith, the bishops said.
In doing so, they can carry out the Church’s work as “an agent of healing and reconciliation,” offering hope through “a personal encounter with the person of Jesus.”