WASHINGTON — A hushed silence pervades the Catholic Information Center’s chapel at 6pm Monday evening on Nov. 5. The guests, if they speak at all, speak in whispers.
They’re waiting for Cardinal Donald Wuerl, lately returned from the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in Rome, where he served as its general relator, guiding the discussions of the participating bishops.
Cardinal Wuerl is a commanding presence, despite his slight frame and quiet voice — or perhaps in part because of them. It was evident that not one in the audience wanted to miss a single word. For over an hour they sat, listening with rapt attention to the cardinal’s account of the synod.
Cardinal Wuerl distilled the synod into three groups of three points: his impressions, the elements of the New Evangelization and the barriers to spreading it. Regarding the synod itself, the cardinal emphasized its positivity, unity and pastoral focus.
“It was a very positive experience,” he reported. “You might find that a bit odd, because the question we were dealing with” — that of re-evangelization — “was certainly not a happy one.”
Confessing a need to evangelize, after all, signifies that past efforts in evangelization have not succeeded especially well. Nonetheless, the cardinal found that the atmosphere of the synod was permeated by “a sense of a new purpose in the Church, a sense that we’re going in the right direction.”
Strengthening that reinvigorated purpose was an overwhelming sense of unity among the bishops at the synod — a healthy sign, according to Cardinal Wuerl, since “you can’t fix something unless you all realize that it’s broken and where it’s broken.”
Aside from its practical advantages, the unity in Rome was an inspiration and a sign of theological continuity. “You only had to be in that synod for a day, two days at most, to realize that all the bishops there shared the exact same faith.”
The pastoral emphasis of the synod was equally marked.
“It was very, very practical in its orientation,” the cardinal said, in contrast to the more theoretical 2008 Synod of Bishops on the Bible. The goal was to return to “the kerygma (the Greek work that refers to the preaching of the Gospel) — the clear, basic story of our faith — that God so loved us that he sent us his Word.”
Confident, Shared Renewal
Cardinal Wuerl focused the second part of his talk on three elements that Pope Benedict XVI identified as constituting the New Evangelization, beginning with personal renewal.
“You can’t participate in sharing something if it isn’t alive in your own heart,” he said. “[That is] the old axiom, ‘Nemo dat quod non habet’ (You can’t give what you don’t have). … Personal renewal is at the heart of whatever is going to happen in the New Evangelization.”
The cardinal next explained that the Pope stressed the importance of confidence in the faith, recalling the “catechetical confusion” of the 1970s that “created a distance from the Church” for many ordinary Catholics. Reflecting on his own encounters with uncatechized Catholics, Cardinal Wuerl concluded that many of the laity “simply don’t know” what the Church teaches, even on such central doctrines as the Eucharist.
The third aspect of the New Evangelization outlined by the Holy Father was willingness to share the faith. Catholics, according to the cardinal, “tend to be very reluctant evangelists; we tend to be very quiet.”
He told a story of an airport encounter with a young clerk who, after processing his ticket, followed him to his seat asking whether he’d been born again. “Would any of us have the courage to start a conversation about our faith with a complete stranger?” he asked. “Sometimes we take it for granted that people don’t want to hear important things.”
At the same time, Cardinal Wuerl noted that the newest generation of Catholics is more willing to touch such subjects: “This is one of the things I find very encouraging about young people today — they’re willing to talk about important things, including the role of the Lord in their lives.”
According to the cardinal, the importance of such conversations is growing, especially in the face of the modern Western decline of religious values. He compared the “secularism that’s washed across the face of the Western World” to “a tsunami that with such force swept away all those things we take for granted as part of the fabric of our society — marriage, natural law, the common good. … We’ve lost the sense that there’s a right and wrong … that there’s a moral order that grows out of who we are.”
Cardinal’s Wuerl’s final section consisted of three barriers that Pope Benedict has identified for the New Evangelization to overcome.
The first barrier is the absence of transcendence as a societal concept in the West. In an anecdote illustrating the problem, the cardinal related a news story about a young woman whose mother had recently died in a tragic car accident. The daughter, reflecting on her mother’s sudden death, admitted, “It made [her] think how quickly your life can be taken from you.”
But the daughter’s newly awakened concept of the fragility of human life did not lead to any spiritual self-examination; rather, she “decided that — all those things I’ve wanted to get? I’m going to get now.” Such materialism is pervasive in our society, the cardinal said.
The second barrier to the New Evangelization is the problem of who will spread the word. The primary answer, Cardinal Wuerl suggested, is always the family; it is there that we find “the start of passing on the Good News.”
Additionally, the parish has an evangelical role through sacraments and preaching.
“It’s the renewal of parish life that’s going to be the renewal of the Church,” he said. “Young people have a particular role in this, and I say that because young people have a particular openness to the fact that Christ has the answers … [that] ‘There has to be more than this!’”
Finally, Cardinal Wuerl suggested that there is a third barrier to — but really, also, a great opportunity for — the New Evangelization lying within each of us. It must “begin with our personal conversion to the Word of God and the content of that word.”
This “personal conversion,” he insisted, was not simply a matter of having feelings for the Catholic faith, but a genuine encounter with a divine Person.
“Revelation is not just an emotive moment; it has content; it is the Word made flesh.”
In conclusion — and after offering another anecdote on airport evangelization — Cardinal Wuerl again pointed to the strong sense that the synod gave of continuity in Church life and teachings.
“In 2,000 years, the Church has faced all kinds of situations. ... [But] it’s our turn right now, to do the very best we can, to share in this new Pentecost and to get others to share in this message," he said.
Recalling the parallels between the early Church and ourselves, the cardinal’s gaunt face cracked a slightly deeper smile than usual.
“We are not that different,” Cardinal Wuerl said, from “the early Christians.” It is still true, for us as for them, and as Catholics affirm in every Mass, that “‘Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.’”
Sophia Mason is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College
and a graduate student at The Catholic University of America.
She blogs at The Girl Who Was Saturday.