Ethics & Public Policy Center

Parsing the "New Evangelization"

Published in The Catholic Difference on April 30, 1998


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


The “new evangelization” is one of the signature themes of the pontificate of John Paul II. Addressing the bishops of the southeastern United States on March 17, the Holy Father spelled out the meaning of this phrase as he reflected on the American reception of Ad Gentes, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Church’s Missionary Activity.

The Church is by her very nature missionary, the Pope began, because she is “the continuation in time of the eternal mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Evangelization is “the Church’s effort to proclaim to everyone that God loves them, that he has given himself for them in Christ Jesus, and that he invites them to a life of eternal happiness.” This good news “demands to be shared,” and thus every baptized Christian is called to be an evangelist. As evangelists, we are “the servants of a supernatural gift,” participants in “the great mystery of God’s self-revelation to the world.” And since “love can only be understood by someone who actually loves,” we will only be effective evangelists if we “allow [ourselves] to be genuinely possessed by God’s love.”

The center of the “new evangelization” in America is the parish, and for the twenty-first century to be a “springtime of the Gospel,” parish life must be “renewed in all its dimensions.” Reflecting on his own experience of parish visitations as archbishop of Cracow, John Paul said that he had always made it a point to stress that “the parish is not an accidental collection of Christians who happen to live in the same neighborhood.” Rather, because the parish makes present the Mystical Body of Christ, the threefold office of Christ as priest, prophet, and king should animate the life of every parishioner.

All the baptized share in the priestly office of Christ by worshiping the Father. That is why, amidst the myriad activities of the modern parish, “nothing is as vital or as community-forming as the Sunday celebration of the Lord’s Day and his Eucharist.” Thus the bishops should make a special effort to “ensure the correct and worthy celebration of the Eucharist and the other sacraments,” because it is through those sacraments that the parish is configured to Christ and becomes “the visible sign of salvation for the world.” Many things have changed since Vatican II; the centrality of Sunday Mass in the parish is not one of them.

Catholics live Christ’s prophetic office by transmitting the faith to others, and particularly to the next generation. Here the Holy Father talked about the family as a locus of evangelization and urged the bishops to strengthen the Church’s ministry to marriages and to family life. He also praised “the essential and impressive system of Catholic schools” in the United States: an encouragement to Washington’s James Cardinal Hickey, one of the bishops present, who has courageously gotten his archdiocese back into the school-building business.

In “a culture that tends to treat religious convictions as merely a personal ‘option’,” the Pope said, Catholics should live out the regal-servant office of Christ “by witnessing to the faith through lives of holiness, kindness to all, charity to those in need, and solidarity with all the oppressed.” Through that witness, Catholics in America can help our fellow-citizens understand that “we know, love, worship, and serve God, not as a response to some psychological ‘need,’ but as a duty whose fulfillment is an expression of man’s highest dignity and the source of man’s most profound happiness.”

Catholics in America are also good servants through the evangelization of culture. Here, the Holy Father returned to a familiar theme: the essential contribution that moral truth makes to democracy. “If freedom is not linked to truth and ordered to goodness,” if freedom is just “choice,” then there is no way to decide whether my choice or yours will prevail except the arbitrary imposition of power. Thus when the Church witnesses to “the truths about the human person, human community, and human destiny that [it] knows from revelation and reason,” Christians are making “an indispensable contribution to sustaining a free society.”

John Paul II read Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic, Democracy in America, in preparation for last year’s Synod for America. It shows.

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