The boom in adult baptisms is not necessarily the result of "active" evangelization

The paths to lead adults to join the Catholic Church are diverse and varied; sometimes even through an “unconscious” and an “unknowing” type of evangelisation, reflects Archbishop Vincent Jordy of the Archdiocese of Tours.

Apr 26, 2024

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More than 7,000 adult catechumens were baptised into the Catholic Church this past Easter in France. Nearly 5,000 middle and high school students in the country also were baptised as Catholics. This phenomenon affected urban areas and, even more surprisingly, rural dioceses. We can also add to this number the significant influx of “reverts,” baptised Catholics who had drifted from the faith, but who, at some point in their lives, desired to reclaim their place in the community that is the Church. In an archdiocese like Tours, the number of new baptisms were twice as many as the year before. Furthermore, since the beginning of January, the movement shows no signs of slowing down – instead, it seems to be continuing.

Faced with this peculiarity, observations and questions arise. Some hasten to point out that this unprecedented influx of catechumens remains relatively modest and does not compensate for the significant decline in infant baptisms over the past thirty years. Others already predict that the movement will not last and that these neophytes are not very persevering. Still others note that, ultimately, we are reaping where we have not sown. Nothing in the pastoral plans of our dioceses here in France predicted this arrival of future baptised individuals knocking at the door of our Church, as highlighted by the president of the French Bishops’ Conference.

Even though the data is scarce, some surprising analyses can be put forward regarding this sudden increase in baptisms. We can observe that these newly baptised individuals do not necessarily come through the paths that are most prominently highlighted in the media when observing the Catholic world today. Many newspaper articles echo one side of the “new evangelisation” with the various training courses and events offered, from “Alpha” courses to France’s Mission Congresses. Other articles more generally emphasise the search for the “sacred”, or for beauty, and the place of the more traditional dimension of liturgy. However, it seems that even though some of those who knock on the doors of our parishes come through these two paths, the vast majority of those who approach the Church often have other original and very personal paths.

Diverse pathways to joining the Catholic Church
So what leads a person today to knock on the door of our Church to request baptism, despite the tragedy of its sexual abuse scandals? From listening to the stories of the catechumens' mentors in our archdiocese, I observed that a certain number of catechumens initially made this choice in connection with their family history, and particularly highlight the role of grandmothers, their fidelity to prayer, and their lived testimony of an upright and good life.

A good portion of the catechumens’ stories also reflect their questioning of life, which is sometimes linked to a tragic event, such as the death of a loved one. Then come questions about the meaning of existence, the “why” of the drama of death, and more generally, the need for meaning. This type of testimony echoes the stories of many young confirmands, as well.

But how do others come knocking on the door of the Church? Their paths are diverse. Testimonies show that people seek answers on the Internet or in conversation with friends. Some simply testify to having entered a church one Sunday, felt good while at Mass, and continued coming back before deciding to express their desire for baptism.

Evangelising “unconsciously”
This perhaps is surprising – it does feel like we are reaping where we have not sown. But is it really so true? Evagrius Ponticus, a great spiritual figure of the fourth century, said this about prayer: “Truly prays the one who no longer knows he prays.” Truly prays not only the one who is fully turned towards the Lord, but also the one who, being fully present to his Lord, no longer sees himself praying, but is “absorbed” in God. Similarly, isn’t there a form of testimony, a way of evangelising, that the Church operates “unconsciously”?

In an address to catechists on December 12, 2000 concerning the “new evangelisation”, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) noted that the Church has always evangelised. It has always lived what he called “permanent evangelisation”, a simple and faithful testimony:

“Before speaking about the fundamental contents of new evangelisation, I would like to say a few words about its structure and on the correct method. The Church always evangelises and has never interrupted the path of evangelisation. She celebrates the eucharistic mystery every day, administers the sacraments, proclaims the word of life — the Word of God, and commits herself to the causes of justice and charity. And this evangelisation bears fruit: It gives light and joy, it gives the path of life to many people; many others live, often unknowingly, of the light and the warmth that radiate from this permanent evangelisation.”

This evangelisation, “unconsciously” and “unknowingly,” takes place in the modesty of everyday life, one of the guarantees of its authenticity. It may also help us discover what Pope Francis illuminates in his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate when he speaks of the “holiness found in our next-door neighbours”. This is a simple holiness, a holiness that escapes the eyes of the powerful and the cameras. A holiness that does not need to shine or dazzle. It’s the holiness of the one who is faithfully there in church each Sunday; the holiness of the visitor of the sick or the sacristan. The holiness that acts through goodness and touches hearts. A holiness that makes one taste the mystery of Jesus and illuminates the path of those who seek and await the light. Perhaps it is through this holiness that the permanent evangelisation quietly bears fruit among the catechumens who knock on the door of our Church. — LCI (https://international.

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