A modern, decades-old document on evangelization

In October, when the Synod of Bishops meets in Rome to discuss the issues facing the modern family, Pope Francis will beatify one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI.

Jun 27, 2014

By Effie Caldarola
In October, when the Synod of Bishops meets in Rome to discuss the issues facing the modern family, Pope Francis will beatify one of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI.

Paul is sometimes thought of as an interim figure, serving between Pope John XXIII who called the historic Second Vatican Council, and the long-serving and dynamic Pope John Paul II. But it fell to Paul to finish the council, to begin implementation of the documents of the council, and to begin to look at how the church might become immersed in “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age,” as stated in the beautiful opening lines of the council document Gaudium et Spes.

Paul, who became pope in 1963, was especially concerned with how the Church might continue to proclaim Jesus Christ to the modern world. In 1975, ten years after the closing of Vatican II, and one year after a Synod of Bishops studied evangelization, Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical, Evangelii Nuntiandi, or Evangelization in the Modern World.

Catholics sometimes recoil from that word, “evangelization.” It sounds too much like proselytizing, like the doorbell ringers who bother us on Saturday morning, or the acquaintance determined to “convert” us.

But real evangelization is not bothersome or obnoxious or overbearing. However, in reading Evangelization in the Modern World we understand that from the earliest days of Christianity, sharing the message of salvation offered through Jesus Christ is a touchstone in the life of anyone who truly believes.

As Pope Paul VI writes, “it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn”.

What does it mean to evangelize? And how do we do it? The Pope writes: “Above all, the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness.”

This goes far beyond simply being a good, moral person. This means faith is exemplified in our lives and in our families. We prioritize Mass attendance over school activities or other events. We become involved with local charities and become present to the poor. We aren’t ashamed of that smudge on our forehead on Ash Wednesday, but explain its meaning to anyone who asks.

We might pull out our rosary on a long airline flight, or say grace in a public restaurant. We become conscious of, not just local issues, but global concerns and how our actions and consumerism affect people worldwide. We are knowledgeable enough about our faith that when people ask about our beliefs, we can cogently explain them.

The Pope writes: “Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way?”

In the words of that well-worn Sunday hymn, They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love, if we live the kind of counter-cultural lifestyle, embracing simplicity and charity and justice, prioritizing faith, expressing joy in the Resurrection, in the face of adversity, people will ask that question: Why are they like this?

In his encyclical, Pope Paul VI also challenges the Church.

“The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself.” We don’t rest on our laurels, but know that we must continually be challenging ourselves to “retain freshness, vigour and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel.”

To do this, we might consider furthering our Catholic education. If we haven’t dusted off our knowledge of the faith since high school religious education, it’s time for a refresher course. Most parishes offer opportunities for diving deeper into catechesis, Scripture or prayer.

This is especially important because the pope urges us to evangelize through our families, where we first proclaim the faith and create an environment where children experience Jesus. To do this, we need to be well-educated, spirit-filled Catholics.

Pope Paul VI couldn’t have dreamed of the revolution we’ve experienced in social media in the past few years. Yet even when he wrote in 1974, mass communication was making a huge impact on society, and he saw how it could be used to transmit the message of Christ.

But he also saw a challenge, and offered a beautiful caveat: While social communication can reach vast numbers of people, the goal of the evangelist is “piercing the conscience of each individual, of implanting itself in his heart as though he were the only person being addressed.”

He also reminds us that we must take our faith into the marketplace, what he calls “the vast and complicated world of politics, society and economics, but also the world of culture, of the sciences and the arts, of international life, of the mass media.”

So, we modern evangelists can put our running shoes back in the closet. We won’t be ringing doorbells. Instead, we will make a commitment to let our whole lives be informed by the Spirit, and be led to proclaim Jesus by the witness of our lives and our families.

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