When the Synod of Bishops convenes Oct. 7, the principal purpose is to study how the New Evangelization affects the mission of the Church. The Holy Father has asked the synod to study about "The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith." As the theme indicates, the focus is on the "transmission" of the faith. Both Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have identified the New Evangelization as the response to how the Church transmits the Christian faith, considering the challenges confronting believers in today’s world.
Why Does the Holy Father
Need to Call a Synod?
The bishops of the Church, in unity with Peter’s successor, and as successors to the apostles, were given a promise by Jesus Christ — I will be with you until the end of time (John 14:16, 26). This promise is given in relationship to the mission entrusted to their care: to teach and baptize all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). When the bishops are assembled by mandate of the pope, amazing things happen. We see this in the Acts of the Apostles, when pastoral questions were raised and answers needed to be given (Acts 15). The apostolic ministry the bishops exercise in the name of Jesus Christ shoulders them with the burdens and joys of shepherding with authority over the flock, with the same love that the Good Shepherd has for the flock — and with the mission to teach and baptize all nations.
We profess our faith in an apostolic Church for a reason. The successors to the apostles, discerning with the ordained and non-ordained the needs of the Church and how to respond to those needs, are the ones who are called to definitively and authentically teach and baptize all nations.
The Synod of Bishops represents a way for the Holy Father to bring bishops together to address matters of the Church in light of the Tradition of the Church and what the word of God has revealed. We should then not look at a synod as a bureaucratic process or a waste of time, but a very important moment in the life of the Church, because the Holy Spirit will bring the bishops the direction, insight and even resolution we need to advance the mission of the Catholic Church.
Do Catholics Understand Evangelization?
Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI convened a synod to define what we Catholics mean by "evangelization." The term, although as ancient as the Church, was ambiguous for many, and even today it does not always speak to a Catholic’s sense of mission. What does evangelization mean? Pope Paul VI’s post-synodal exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World) gave the Church sound theological principles that surely guide our understanding of what we mean by evangelization. I would encourage parishes and lay apostolate movements to read through the document as our bishops meet in Rome. This document provides the framework for understanding the principles of evangelization. Now we need to discern "how" evangelization occurs.
The Crisis of Evangelization
The 2012 synod is concerned about "transmitting" the Christian faith. In the so-called developed countries of the West, particularly Europe and the United States, we have technology, social communications, the ability to publish so many materials and to make the Christian faith accessible with all of these technologies. Yet it is here where the Church finds the most difficulty in truly evangelizing people. Why is this?
There is a crisis of evangelization because there is a crisis in the fundamental understanding of what it means to be a person, what true freedom means, the role of family and marriage in the promotion of culture, and the role of faith in culture. How can the Church evangelize when there appears to be a rejection of the natural law? The success of evangelization is when the preaching of the Gospel finds points of reference within culture in which there is a receptivity for the Gospel. There is a cultural crisis in so many parts of the world.
The crisis of evangelization can also be found within the Church. The misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council has resulted in confusion for so many believers. Consequently, there are many Catholics who do not understand the true nature of the Eucharist, the priesthood of Christ, the institution of marriage, the significance of mortal sin, and so on.
How can Catholics transmit their faith when they do not understand or maybe not even believe in it?
The synod will surely address how Catholics are being formed in their faith in order for them to transmit faith.
We Need a New Evangelization
Pope John Paul II is credited with coining the phrase "New Evangelization" as he considered pastoral situations involving communism in Eastern Europe, Marxism in Latin America, secularism sweeping Europe and the United States, evangelical movements in Africa and the effects of the nuclear age in the political realm. The New Evangelization is about the new situations that man finds himself in and how the Church makes pathways in those situations for man to know Christ, the Gospel and the communio of a believing community called the Church. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Redemptor Missio (1990) that these pathways are a springtime for the Church and therefore not situations that we should turn our backs to or walk away from, since the Church is called to be in dialogue with all cultures of the world.
A key moment for the New Evangelization is the evangelization of culture, for it is here that believers live faith, discover their vocation and build up the Kingdom of God. Culture is not extraneous to the Gospel. Culture is formed and shaped by whatever forces are present. Culture by its very definition is organic and the very venue by which faith is experienced and lived. Many American Catholics live a dual life — keeping their faith as a private affair, while at the same time attempting to be good citizens by accepting whatever law is passed, whatever voice yells the loudest and whatever standard is purported to be socially acceptable. As a result, culture is poisoned, and the Gospel becomes less accessible.
The Church in America
During this past year, Pope Benedict XVI met with all the bishops of the United States who were participating in their ad limina visits, which take place every five years or so. The Holy Father recognized in his addresses to the bishops the challenges we see in our culture regarding religious freedom and the relationship between faith and culture. We Catholics have nothing to be ashamed of in what the Gospel of Christ announces. In the history of our faith, when we Catholics are persecuted and when we choose to be faithful to the Gospel, the Church prevails.
The New Evangelization for American Catholics demonstrates that one can be a faithful Catholic and a patriotic American. Many voices in the political and social orders of American society have convinced Americans that intolerance is a sin against patriotism. Many Christians, therefore, have re-created the Gospel to mean one that tolerates abortion, same-sex "marriage," homosexuality, euthanasia, etc.
The direct threat to evangelization is secular humanism. Secular humanism replaces God and positions man as the goal of culture. American Catholics and believers of God remained silent overall. The social sins we see today in American society are the result of silence.
Today, however, we see young Catholics, young families, seminarians, young women in consecrated life, college students and many more who are no longer bashful about their faith. But we must be careful to not misplace our energies.
In my third assignment as a rector, I am in awe and assured with much hope in the seminarians and the great priests they will be in the future. One caution I bring to their attention is to not misplace their orthodoxy, their love for the doctrines of our Church, and their natural desire to defend the Church with a militant preaching or condemning attitude. This was not how Jesus revealed the mysteries of the Kingdom.
There is a renewal occurring in our young people today, in the intellectual life of American Catholics, in those converting to the Catholic faith. There is a springtime occurring for us that we need to take advantage of. The bishops of the American Church appear to be getting back to the basics with their governing styles. A focus on priestly vocations, encouraging faithful marriages, cutting away diocesan bureaucracies, encouraging their pastors, and becoming more hands-on in the exercise of their apostolic ministry are signs of how the bishops can continue bringing unity to the Catholic faithful in American society.
Let us pray for the Holy Father and the Synod of Bishops. The Church is ready to embrace the New Evangelization.
Father James Wehner is rector of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.
He previously was rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio
and Saint Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh.