Master of the New Evangelization

By Sr. Margaret Obrovac, FSP*
October 26, 2011

Partway through my flight from Rome last week, “Sara” asked if she might occupy the empty seat next to me. A few seats up, her friend had a visitor who was sitting in Sara’s place for a couple of hours, and she was hoping to take a snooze. What made her think she’d be able to sleep, with me next to her?

Divine Master window, FSP general
motherhouse, Rome

Actually, she started it. Somewhat hesitantly at first, she told me her story. She had been working in Europe for the past six months, and on her way back, decided to spend four days in Rome. It changed her life. More precisely, St. Peter’s changed her life. She spent two days there crying her heart out, as she realized how much she had missed while “away” from her faith. When her boyfriend called her, he realized how profoundly she had been touched by grace, though he didn’t call it that. A little mystified at how she had sleepwalked through the past several years, she admitted to me that she hadn’t had a quarrel with the Church; it just hadn’t mattered to her. Not like this. She had just stopped giving God, faith, the Church, a meaningful place in her life.

I’m halfway through the lineamenta (workbook) in preparation for next year’s synod, or convocation, of bishops in Rome, entitled, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith. Back in 1979 John Paul II had called for this “new evangelization” so that all of us in the Church would reach out to people like Sara and invite them to share in the relationship of faith that has put some sense into our lives, our world, our future, and our eternity.

Why “new”? Wasn’t it done right in the first place? Is it just a matter of repeating the past?

A quick glance at our tradition, with our Catholic penchant for reinventing ourselves and adopting new paradigms for proclaiming the Gospel, offers some insight. In the early Church Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist were primarily adult sacraments, and the process toward the Easter celebration of these mysteries was a journey for converts. The whole Christian community accompanied them. As Christianity took root in various cultures of Asia, Africa and Europe, people were, so to speak, born into communities that were already Christian and both those sacraments and the catechesis leading up to them had to be inculturated accordingly. Lent took on a new configuration.

The same with “reading” the Gospel. The newness of the message, that is, salvation as faith in God through relationship with Jesus, took on a moral emphasis for the benefit of people who had left behind the initial teaching of Christ and were moving on to maturity (cf. Heb. 6:1): “Yes, yes, we know Jesus, but what does that mean for us today in our milieu?” These approaches were carried also to the lands newly explored by Europeans and were more or less successfully inculturated there.

Today, we have been cast back to the pre-Christian challenge. We live in a post-modern and, some would say, post-Christian era. That key message of the Gospel has once again taken center stage: Who is Jesus? Why is he important?

If we couch the Gospel solely or even primarily in moralistic or ascetical terms, we have no answer for those who counter: “I’m a good person. Why should I become a Christian?” It’s useless to tell them that they won’t be able to maintain that goodness without the moral prescriptions of the Gospel. Their circle of relatives, friends, and acquaintances belies that. It has to be framed in terms of relationship with Jesus, who fulfills the Torah as the path or Way of salvation, of becoming holy like God. Only Jesus Christ is the source of this “sanctifying” grace. Certainly this relationship has profound moral, and therefore, social, implications. But their reference point is Jesus Christ, not the acquisition of virtue, or even the right ordering of society. Jesus Christ.

In the late-90’s I was assigned to our community in Toronto, where we hosted a flourishing young adult prayer group that met every Saturday evening. A continuous reading and discussion of a Church document or of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was, believe it or not, a lively part of the evening. One Saturday, we talked about how we are called to be truly human. Finally the question came up: “How do we know what it is to be human?” The answer: Jesus Christ. It hit the group like a thunderbolt. Suddenly the Gospel made personal sense. One young Muslim, a friend of one of the regulars, commented afterward, “Now I understand what Christianity is about.”

This is what profound people grasp when they sift through the Gospel data. This is what either makes or breaks their acceptance of Christianity: relationship with Jesus, who says, if you want to be perfect, follow me. This is the crux of the new evangelization. In the lineamenta that I’m reading, this relationship, personal encounter, or communion with the Lord is mentioned 31 times. Faith is not primarily something to believe, but Someone to believe in, to entrust one’s life to.

This is why Pauline theology and spirituality is of fundamental importance today. It actually articulates the essence of the Gospel, being “clothed with Christ,” being incorporated into Christ, so that all together we become one body with him. This is why James Alberione is, as John Paul II stated at our founder’s beatification, “the first apostle of the new evangelization.” Not only because he used modern media to proclaim the Gospel, but because, like Paul, he emphasized configuration with Christ the Master. Naturally, because he spoke to members who were raised in an Italian, a Christian, culture, he placed emphasis on moral and spiritual terms. But his reference was always the Gospel and he insisted that everyone read it in order to know how to live it—a novelty at the turn of the last century. His lodestar was the primacy of Christ.

In the first volume of his book, Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict comments that in no way was the Person of Christ ever overshadowed, much less replaced, by a moral code. In fact, he himself became the locus of salvation, its “efficient cause,” as theologians love to say (cf. p. 105). That is, the power to live in virtue is the consequence of our union with Christ. In his encyclical, God Is Love, (also available in book form here at the Pope writes, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction….Since God has first loved us (cf. 1Jn. 4:10), love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (n. 1).

Religious life, too, is not a means of sanctification by the “practice of virtue,” as if practicing a sport, clambering up the ladder, and envious of each other, as von Balthasar says in Heart of the World (p. 177), but because it empowers us through vowed life, to deeply live our Christian life, a path to becoming configured with Christ, which is the goal of every life.

Through technology people today seem geographically closer to each other, but are often paradoxically isolated from each other—sometimes through the same technology. Yet, like every human being in generations past, we all long for intimacy, a relationship with someone who knows to our depths and loves us in spite of ourselves. Christianity offered as this kind of relationship constitutes the key to the “new evangelization,” not only with Jesus Christ, but with his body, the Church. Not that this hasn’t been done in the past. But with each succeeding generation humanity renews itself on the face of the earth. It faces new situations that present challenges to faith and faith-life that were unknown in the past. It cannot be assumed anywhere by anyone that any culturally Christian population will remain that way without a new assessment of its situation and new creativity in forging the bonds of faith. For this reason the lineamenta urges us to a commitment “not of re-evangelization, but rather of a new evangelization; new in ardour, methods and expression” (n. 5).? ??

The first PBM app:
Rosary Miracle Praye

?Whether it takes the form of the new Pauline Books & Media “Discover hope” tagline, or the upcoming Christmas concerts with the Daughters of St. Paul Choir, or the eleven-and-counting Pauline Books & Media apps in the iTunes catalogue, we’re committed to this new evangelization. For people like my friend Sara, faith has to be tangible. In fact, that’s what spoke to her at St. Peter’s. She touched faith made visible. In fact, one of her questions, which will have profound implications for her in the months ahead, was: Is such a testament to faith a thing of the past, or will it take shape again? My own conviction is that we will again see the incarnational character of Catholicism that shaped the past because it exists even now—in the sacraments, in our service to each other, and in the seeming banality of the media culture we’re immersed in: treasure in the field. When I described cinema divina as a faith-based way of movie viewing (see the blog post of 6/1/2011), she exclaimed, “I want that! How can I get it?” Facebook, I said; just type in cinema divina. Only a lived faith can feed the world.

This coming Sunday the Pauline Family celebrates the solemnity of Jesus, the Divine Master, Way, Truth, and Life. The whole person in relationship with the whole Christ, head and body of the Church, is the center of our life and Pauline mission, as it was for Paul the Apostle. We will share that day with our friends, Pauline Cooperators, and donors. As we do, we will pray that the Good News we believe, live, and honor in the person of Christ the Teacher may fill our world—your world—with light, peace, and its gentle, yet persistent, power.

Reposted with permission from Sr. Margaret Obrovac, FSP, Pauline Faithways Blog;

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