There’s a natural human tendency to attach magic powers to slogans, which then replace serious thought and effort. A good example from my generation’s youth was the dopey “war is over if you want it,” peddled by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Yes, we still want it. But oddly enough, we’re still waiting. The phrase “new evangelization” comes from St. John Paul II, a far more substantial source. Karol Wojtyła’s life—we celebrate the centenary of his birth this May—had a transformative effect on millions. But this phrase too is overused and underthought. No vast resurgence of missionary fervor has swept the so-called “developed” world; just the opposite. Unless we reconfigure our lives to understand and act on it, the “new evangelization” will remain just another pious slogan.
Evangelization begins with two questions: Why do it? And how do it? The “why” has two answers: First, Jesus commands it. We can’t call ourselves Christians and not be missionaries—that is, active witnesses of our faith. Second, the stakes are real. Lent is a time to remember that the blood and brutal suffering of the cross were the cost necessary for our redemption. We needed to be saved from something terrible; we needed to be ransomed from someone bent on our destruction.
Evil is real and murderous; not merely the sum of our own destructive flaws and appetites, but also a malignant, personal intelligence outside ourselves that feeds on and magnifies our malice and weaknesses. As Scripture says, the devil is an enemy, not a metaphor or legend. Thus we’re involved in a struggle for the soul of the world, whether we choose to see it or not. Science has diminished man’s ability to believe in things unseen by exalting the material world and implying that its processes explain reality—without actually disproving anything about God or the supernatural. But people still die; and because they die, they hunger ultimately for a higher, comprehensive meaning to their lives. Which means they still can be, and still need to be, reached by the Word of God.
The “how” of a new evangelization, or any evangelization, needs to begin with our own repentance and conversion. This sounds annoyingly simple, but in practice it’s annoyingly hard, which is why so few of us do it. And that cripples discipleship, because we can’t give what we don’t have. As individuals, we control little in life; but we do control what we do with our hearts. We can at least try to make ourselves available to God as his agents. Personal conversion is the essential first step. It immediately affects the people around us.
The “how” also requires us to understand the pastoral terrain we’re called to convert. American society breeds a laser-like self-focus, consumer materialism, and practical atheism—not by refuting faith in God, but by rendering it irrelevant to people’s “now.” As Christopher Lasch noted in The Culture of Narcissism, it also tends to create weak personalities dependent on group behavior and approval, and therefore more vulnerable to advertising and product consumption. The social sciences effectively replace the clergy as a source of guidance and meaning. Social media and mass entertainment abolish solitude and personal reflection.
As a result, in an age of radical self-absorption, authentic individuality—real self-knowledge and mastery—withers, because the autonomous communities that root an individual in distinctive moral codes, beliefs, and histories (i.e., churches, families, etc.) are unable to compete with the noise and flash of consumer society.
A “new” evangelization must therefore start by admitting that much of the once-Christian world, and even a great many self-described Christians, are in fact pagan—or rather, worse than pagan. As early as 1954, in his Cambridge lecture De Descriptione Temporum, C. S. Lewis underlined the fact that “Christians and pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.” To put it more bluntly: The post-Christian world is a sub-pagan world. It doesn’t rise to the pagan level.
Faith is not merely a habit or an exercise in nostalgia; it’s a restlessness, a fire in the heart to share God, or it’s nothing at all. Mastering the new social and demographic data that describe today’s world, and the new communications tools necessary to reach it, is vital. But nothing can be accomplished if we lack faith and zeal ourselves. We are the means God uses to change the world. Material tools are secondary to the people who use them. Even a monster like Mao knew that (see his On Protracted War).
The only thing that matters is to be a saint. The value of even a single saint to a new evangelization is threefold: first, his life reminds us that one man or woman can move history, and therefore each of our lives matters; second, he reminds us that real freedom comes from self-denial and obedience, not self-assertion and illusory personal “independence”; third, he reminds us of the power of radical focus and simplicity in the pursuit of God, the fertility of a life unencumbered by things and the acquisitiveness they engender.
The great saints—those we know and the many we don’t—removed themselves from the bondage of the world and its material hungers without rejecting the good in it, and especially without rejecting the good in the people who inhabited it. They then re-engaged the world, for the sake of the world’s salvation, while reserving their souls from it and committing their lives to God. That was their importance then. And that’s their importance now. As Georges Bernanos wrote toward the end of his life, “One may believe that this isn’t the era of the saints, that the era of saints has passed. But . . . it is always the era of the saints.”
Which means that if we really want a new evangelization, they’ve given us the only example that works.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.