Taking a page from Protestant evangelicals, Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., is creating Catholic America’s first program to train lay undergraduates for missionary work.
The Catholic Church has been complacent in the past, says Benedictine theology professor Matthew Ramage, and it needs to be more pro-active if it’s to be serious about the New Evangelization.
“For us, it was a case of If we build a church, they will come; and if they didn’t come, they were damned,” said Ramage of an attitude prevalent in the past. “I think the Protestants have been much better at making the human connection.”
The director and main push behind the Institute for Missionary Activity is David Trotter, who is a Protestant convert and full-time missionary in his seventh year with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus). That group was launched at Benedictine in the late 1990s. It now has more than 250 missionaries working on 58 campuses around the country.
“The New Evangelization is primarily about the re-proclamation of the Gospel among those with Christian roots in Europe and America,” said Trotter. Several organizations have sprung up alongside Focus, including NET Ministries and Life Teen, which send teams into high schools and parishes, just as Focus does with colleges. They need trained missionaries.
Young Catholics who want to be missionaries, whether for life or for a few years’ commitment, have until now had few choices as far as training. “Take theology or go to seminary,” said Trotter. “Those were the choices.”
The institute will register its first students in the fall, with incoming freshmen declaring a three-year track of participation and registering for a semester-long service-learning seminar. But it held a Symposium on Advancing the New Evangelization March 23-24. The symposium featured award-winning screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, who founded Act One in 1999 as a training program for Christians pursuing careers in the mainstream entertainment industry. Her vision is to change the culture of Hollywood as well as the content of its products. Also speaking was Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., who sits on the U.S. bishops’ conference’s Pro-Life Committee and Marriage and Family Life Committee.
“The goal of the institute is to send out the most dynamic Catholic missionaries our country has to offer,” said Trotter. “Benedictine College has founded the Institute for Missionary Activity to train students to be disciples of Jesus Christ in the modern world and advance the mission of the Church.”
Apart from one graduate program, there hasn’t been any place in the U.S. for lay instruction in missionary work.
The institute will combine academics, personal formation and field experience to fully equip graduates for missionary work. It will operate in parallel with Benedictine’s academic offerings, providing practical instruction in theology, Catholic social teachings and fundraising, as well as spiritual formation.
Trotter said many young people enter the missions with a degree in theology but little practical experience in things like human resources, managing budgets, marketing, pedagogy and other things that would make them more effective.
“At the undergraduate level, no other Catholic or secular college or university is formally combining Catholic social teaching and the New Evangelization in a way that trains and places graduates successfully,” he said. Apart from their contributions and prayers, the supporters are “outstanding families whom I’ve learned so much from.”
Trotter himself has organized a circle of 100 families and individuals to financially support his work with Focus. Apart from their contributions and prayers, the supporters are “outstanding families whom I’ve learned so much from.”
This is a method of self-support that future missionaries will be taught at Benedictine.
Post-Vatican II Lull
Trotter and Ramage both think that much of the vitality went out of the Catholic missions after the Second Vatican Council, as Catholic outreach became focused on the “caritas” side of the Gospel to the detriment of the “veritas” side. “But even if you are operating a food bank,” Trotter said, “and you have a deep interior life and a full sacramental life, you will be a powerful spiritual witness.”
As well, when theologians after the Second Vatican Council taught that Christ could save people in other faiths without their formal entry into Christianity, many Catholics began to lose their enthusiasm for the missions, said Jared Staudt, who teaches a master’s-level course on the history of evangelization at the Augustine Institute in Denver.
Staudt said that after Vatican II, there was a "real de-emphasis on the missions." The evangelical Protestants and other sects came to the fore, he said, while Catholic missionary orders faltered. Staudt said the theology of Karl Rahner, which argued that people could be saved by Jesus in (and even through) religions other than Christianity, a teaching called "Anonymous Christianity," “was devastating to the missions.” Under its influence, “you see many missionaries, as in India, pioneering a theology of religious pluralism, for example.”
A New Enthusiasm
But enthusiasm for the missions is back with a new generation of young Catholics. “Professionals in the ministry field are asking for additional training and preparation beyond what knowledge of theology can provide,” said Trotter.
He reports that Focus missionaries are working with lapsed and lukewarm Catholics but only a few completely untouched by Christianity. Many college students they encounter “are grasping anything they can find to put some meaning and some sense of belonging in their lives — the leading ways being sex, drinking, personal gratification. We challenge them with chastity, sobriety and excellence.”
Campus missionaries need to make a personal connection first with those they meet, introduce them to the elements of a Catholic spiritual life, and then to the person of Jesus Christ.
This reflects the culture-oriented thinking of Pope John Paul II, said Staudt. “He said that faith that is not lived out in the culture will be incomplete. The New Evangelization had to be rooted in two things: knowing Christ and knowing modern man.”
Staudt cited a two-pronged TV advertising campaign he had seen to accompany a diocesan Catholics Come Home campaign: one part stressed the Church and its traditions; the other addressed the “brokenness” of ordinary people. For several decades, he added, the American Church at the parish level has been preoccupied with “maintenance” — with serving its own practicing members — and not with evangelization. “But the new thinking is that the vitality of a parish is connected to the level of its commitment to evangelization.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.