National Catholic Register


Courting Gentiles

BY The Editors

March 14-27, 2010 Issue | Posted 3/8/10 at 10:00 AM


Every once in a while, someone of genius coins an entirely new phrase that opens our eyes to see the world in a whole new light. Pope Benedict almost casually let fall a phrase in December that may have been a stroke of genius. Will it revolutionize the way the Church engages culture?

“I think that today, too, the Church should open a sort of ‘Court of the Gentiles’ in which people might in some way latch on to God, without knowing him and before gaining access to his mystery, at whose service the inner life of the Church stands.”

He was talking to the Roman Curia, reminiscing about his September trip to the Czech Republic. It’s one of the most atheistic countries on earth, so the Pope voiced surprise at the “great cordiality and friendliness” with which everyone — even academia and the government — received him. This isn’t the atheism we’re used to.

The ground has shifted imperceptibly over the decades since Paul VI’s landmark 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi and since John Paul II coined the phrase “New Evangelization” in 1983. The radically secular God rejection of the 20th century has given way to a radically disoriented post-secular 21st century.

As recently as 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith defined “New Evangelization” as “pastoral outreach to those who no longer practice the Christian faith” in a doctrinal note. But that’s becoming an increasingly out-of-date diagnosis of the problem facing the West.

Today, Benedict muses, people “know God, so to speak, only from afar.” They’ve never been religious, and yet the “gods, rites and myths” they’ve been taught to believe in have left them dissatisfied and yearning for “the pure and the great” God.

It was like that in Jesus’ time, too. Many of the pagan Gentiles saw something special about Judaism. But salvation and worship weren’t yet universal. They couldn’t enter the holy ground of the Temple of God and stand before his presence. God reserved a space for them — the Court of the Gentiles. It was by far the largest area of Herod’s Temple and completely surrounded the parts accessible only to Jews. Jesus even went out of his way to cleanse it of money changers and merchants, that it truly be “a house of prayer for all the nations.” There they could pray “to the unknown God.”

Is there a Court of the Gentiles for today’s Gentiles?

The New Evangelization has been our watchword. But Benedict wants to avoid this terminology, since it takes aback the very people it’s supposed to reach: “They do not want to see themselves as an object of mission or to give up their freedom of thought and will.”

God really is an open question nowadays for so many of our relatives, friends and neighbors. We have to acknowledge that and meet them where they’re at. Not in a no man’s land somewhere between belief and unbelief, nor in a limbo of compromise in which Christianity surrenders any pretense to truth. They need a place in the Temple: a sacred place, a place where God already dwells, a place where he can gently heal their blindness in the Pool of Bethesda.

The Pope isn’t envisioning something “neutral,” but neither is it the sort of overtly Christian milieu that is so easy to reject.

It should be a place where we talk about humanity and religion, man’s expectations and problems, the problem of God and the wonder of love. It should be a place where they discover that religion isn’t exactly what they’ve been told it is. It should be a place where questions are answered and where seekers find answers.

This is where the Church can open itself up to “seeking man” and where man can find a possible solution to his deepest existential questions, to his deepest longings. It’s fundamentally about discovering meaning. In other words — and this is key — “courting Gentiles” is not really anything we’re used to.

“Today, in addition to interreligious dialogue, there should be a dialogue with those to whom religion is something foreign, to whom God is unknown and who nevertheless do not want to be left merely godless, but rather to draw near to him, albeit as the Unknown.”

It’s been a very long time since the Church has engaged in making the Unknown known on so vast a scale: perhaps the last time was during the Roman Empire.

Pope Benedict hinted in his World Communications Day Message in January that something very like the “Court of the Gentiles” is already coming to exist on the Internet, what he calls the “digital continent.” It’s where Catholics are already engaging others in discussion as they journey toward God.

So the Register asked around. We asked prominent priests and social media experts what can be done. And we were surprised at what we heard.

Deacon John Burns told us that priests need to get involved in the Internet conversations that go on in website comment boxes. Ana Roca Castro mentioned that if Facebook were a country it would be the fourth-largest country in the world, and she gave priests and parishes tips for online apostolate. Father Leo Patalinghug and Father Robert Barron talked to us too. You can find all this on our website.

And now the Register’s own Matt Warner is blogging full-time on about how the Church can use new media for evangelization.

Is that “New Evangelization”? Sort of. But it’s really more like a second phase of the New Evangelization. John Paul II, engaging culture using the playbook of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, gave the Church new confidence and assertiveness in spreading the Christian message. That was a monumental contribution.

But now those he taught to evangelize need to broaden their focus to look to the ever-larger global society. There’s a great big virtual parish that isn’t assigned to anybody, and yet it’s there that the future of humanity is being forged.

Out there. That’s where the questions are being asked. That’s where the Church needs to be.