National Catholic Register


Why Evangelization Begins With Personal Conversion

BY Joyce Carr

Dec. 22-28, 1996 Issue | Posted 12/22/96 at 1:00 PM


Q & A

FATHER CARL Tenhundfeld is president of the National Council for Catholic Evangelization (NCCE), director of the Office of Evangelization for the Diocese of Galveston-Houston, Texas, and pastor of All Saints Church in Houston, a bilingual parish.

The NCCE was established by the U.S. bishops in 1982 in response to Pope Paul VI's apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World), which states that “evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” Father Tenhundfeld spoke with the Register recently.

Register: What does the Church understand by “evangelization?”

Father Tenhundfeld: Evangelization impacts every level of life. It can occur in the hospital when a baby is born; in a funeral home when someone has passed on to life eternal; and at every stage of life in between. Many people have been doing good works in their families, communities and parishes without realizing they are evangelizing. They think evangelizing means knocking on doors and preaching. In reality, to evangelize means that I accept that the Lord Jesus has invited me into his life and has called me through baptism to share the good news of what is happening in my life. I can do this at home, at work or wherever.

Vatican II gave a huge impetus to evangelization. Why did the Catholic Church not place more emphasis on it before the council?

Prior to Vatican II, the Church looked at evangelization in terms of missionary work in Africa, Asia, or places where the faith was not known. Then the Church began to think of the entire world as a venue for evangelization. Vatican II emphasized each Christian's baptismal role—our right and obligation to spread the faith.

Can you the assess progress made in Catholic evangelization in the United States?

The bishops welcomed Pope Paul VI's document, Evangelii Nuntiandi, but it took time to filter down. In the United States, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) gathered clergy and laity from throughout the country to explore ways of implementing Pope Paul VI's document. This led to the creation in 1983 of the National Council for Catholic Evangelization, which has been one of the primary forces in promoting evangelization in dioceses, parishes and organizations throughout the country.

How does Catholic evangelization differ from the efforts of other denominations?

Catholics are familiar with members of Baptist Churches who consider their call to accept the Lord Jesus as their Savior as a biblical, one-time call. To Catholics, this invitation is not extended once, but repeated many times—in baptism, the Eucharist, confirmation, matrimony and holy orders. The sacraments are repeated calls to reconversion. The Protestants' commitment to Jesus happens on a personal level. The Catholic relationship with God also calls them into the community of the Church and to participation in the Eucharist. The Word is very important, but the Eucharist is crucial as a sign that we are the body of Christ.

Pope Paul VI listed several methods of evangelization: witness of life, preaching, liturgy, catechetics, mass media, personal contact, sacraments. Which methods are most successful in the United States today?

All of these methods are effective; which ones are more successful depends on the parish. Pope Paul VI stated that evangelization means not only giving witness in life, but also proclaiming Jesus as Savior. This can take place in a personal conversation, in a parish, diocese, conference, outreach programs, or on a national level such as in 1992 when we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity in the Western Hemisphere.

Pope Paul VI credits base communities loyal to the Church as both “beneficiaries of evangelization and potential evangelizers.” Are small-faith communities growing in the United States?

They are growing. Some people are reluctant to come back to the Church in a large-group setting at Sunday Mass. Those who have been away for a long time feel more comfortable in joining friends or neighbors at someone's home, where they gather to discuss religion and have fellowship. But these groups are evangelizing communities only if they share the Good News of Jesus outside their group. Small-faith communities will be one of the refreshing experiences of evangelization as the Church enters the third millennium.

What are the greatest obstacles to evangelization in this country?

The greatest obstacle is the unwillingness of Catholics to focus their lives on the prism of evangelization by sharing the Good News of Jesus’ action in their lives. There's lethargy among the clergy, lack of funds, and the stubborn notion that evangelization is a Protestant practice.

Are more U.S. adults entering or leaving the Catholic Church? Why?

It's been noted that Jesus said: “Feed my sheep,” not “count my sheep.” In this country we are too concerned about numbers. On any Easter Vigil Mass between 300,000 and 400,000 people come into the Catholic Church. But a large number of Catholics have left the Church or have ceased practicing their faith. The largest group of U.S. Catholics is in the 20-35 year-old age bracket—however, the largest number of inactive Catholics is also found in this group.

In people's conversion experience, there are upward and downward trends. Some Catholics become active during various stages of their lives. They interact with the Church during marriage, the birth of a child, baptism, or first communion. The sacraments are opportunities for reconversion in their lives.

What draws Christians and non-Christians to the Catholic faith?

Christians are probably drawn because of the Catholic Church's sacramentality. Non-Catholic Christians have a strong love and understanding of the Scriptures and music in their churches. But, according to psychologist Carl Jung, people need symbols in their lives. All our rituals, sacramental signs and symbols are tremendous attractions. We use water, bread, wine and incense in our rituals.

What leads Catholics to stop practicing their faith or to join other denominations?

We live in a very mobile society. With frequent job changes and people moving from one city to another, there is a sense of rootlessness, a lack of a sense of community. If you haven't gone to church for a while, it's just as easy to put it off. Some feel they are not being fed. Others feel preaching in their parish isn't up to snuff; liturgies are mechanical. Another factor is marriage and divorce. Annulments take a long time, maybe a year, to process. We live in a now society, and many Catholics are unwilling to wait that long. When they are invited to join other denominations, they are not given a list of rules and regulations; they are welcomed and accepted as they are.

How can Catholics who consider their faith life private be encouraged to share more of themselves with others?

Some people get uptight when asked to talk about their faith, but at some time in their lives, they will express their faith in Jesus Christ—without realizing they are evangelizing. The Jesus story began when he interacted with Matthew, Mark, Mary Magdalene, the woman at the well, the leper, the beggar. That interaction was written down. Today Jesus is still interacting with you and me. Once he interacts with us, our story becomes a continuation of the Gospel stories.

—Joyce Carr