The Second Vatican Council’s central purpose was evangelization. All of its reforms, whether about liturgy, ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, or education, were all ordered toward one goal: to make the Gospel more accessible to the modern world. Vatican II issued a bold call to re-evangelize the modern world, a call that has been taken up faithfully by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. But have we taken it up?
The last 500 years have seen a steady decline in Catholic culture and the public influence of the Church. Vatican II responded to the reality that for the first time in human history we have a secular culture: a way of life that seeks to exclude God. The Council’s response was a new vision for a New Evangelization, one which looks to the lay faithful.
Vatican II noted that the Church has a twofold mission. Primarily, the Church transmits the salvation of God. It teaches God’s revealed truth and shares his saving grace. Its secondary mission is to transform the world in which we live.
When Christians receive grace and truth, it is not merely an individual event. We are social beings, and if we are saved by grace, this salvation must extend to every facet of our life, including our social life and culture.
While the laity assists the hierarchy in the Church’s primary mission of salvation, the laity’s own unique mission centers primarily on culture. In our secular world, Vatican II realizes that only the lay faithful have access to the public realm and that through their witness they can transform the world for Christ. Through their access to the public realm of culture, they can bring Christ where he is being excluded.
The Council makes an important clarification about this kind of evangelization in the modern setting. It is meant to occur within the context of dialogue. In order to understand what people need today and how we can serve them, we need to listen to them and to engage in conversation. When we show that we truly understand and love others, they are then willing to listen to us and to learn from our message and witness. Those serving in the New Evangelization must both know Christ and also modern man in order to draw them together.
The goal of Vatican II’s mission of evangelization is nothing short of a world renewed and transformed by Christ. We could think of it as a Catholic culture, which means a way of life ordered toward the glory of God and genuine human flourishing. It consists of a world that can be what God intends it to be: liberated from sin and permeated by love.
How do we begin this transformation of the world? We have to begin with ourselves. First, we have to let our daily lives be consumed by Christ: our prayer, family life, work, recreation, friendships, parish life and political action. All areas of our life must be ordered to Christ. When this happens, we have taken the first steps toward renewal. We will have allowed our lives to be conformed to Christ and used by him as instruments to re-evangelize the world.
The New Evangelization seeks to restore to the faith those who have fallen away from Christ. These lost souls are living in a secular world that shapes the way they think and live. If we are to draw them back to Christ and the Church, we must show them how to live faithfully in the context of the modern world. This is why establishing a Catholic culture is so crucial for evangelization. It is a visible model of the Christian life to those in the world and also serves as a crucial support to those seeking to live out their faith. Without being lived out in a culture, faith remains a seed that cannot blossom to its full potential in one’s life.
In order to answer the call of the New Evangelization, we need to return to the documents of the Second Vatican Council and be nourished by its renewed vision of evangelization, especially in its call to the laity. If we are faithful in doing so, we will have the vision to boldly lead the way to the renewal of Catholic culture and, through it, Western civilization.
I will conclude with a few quotations from Pope John Paul II, which confirm the role of culture and dialogue in the New Evangelization:
“The spiritual void that threatens society is above all a cultural void, and it is the moral conscience renewed by the Gospel of Christ which can truly fill it” (Address to the Pontifical Council for Culture [PCC], Jan. 10, 1992).
“A faith that does not become culture is not fully accepted, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived” (Address to the PCC, March 18, 1994).
“Your vocation, in this turn of the century and of the millennium, is that of creating a new culture of love and hope, inspired by the truth that frees us in Christ Jesus. This is the goal of inculturation; this is the priority of the New Evangelization” (ibid.).
“It is in the name of the Christian faith that the Second Vatican Council committed the whole Church to listen to modern man in order to understand him and to invent a new kind of dialogue which would permit the originality of the Gospel message to be carried to the heart of contemporary mentalities. We must then rediscover the apostolic creativity and the prophetic power of the first disciples in order to face new cultures. Christ’s word must appear in all of its freshness to the young generations whose attitudes are sometimes so difficult to understand for the traditionally minded, but who are far from being closed to spiritual values. Many times I have affirmed that the dialogue between the Church and the cultures of the world has assumed a vital importance for the future of the Church and of the world. … This dialogue is absolutely indispensable for the Church, because, otherwise, evangelization will remain a dead letter” (Address to the PCC, Jan. 18, 1983).
R. Jared Staudt is a professor of theology and
catechesis at the Augustine Institute in Denver.