A conversation about the ‘new evangelization’

| April 24, 2013 | 0 Comments

George Weigel, Catholic best-selling author and Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., spoke about his newest book, “Evangelical Catholicism” April 15 during an event in Bloomington sponsored by St. Paul’s Outreach. After his presentation, The Catholic Spirit interviewed Weigel and Gordy DeMarais (Audio Here), founder and executive director of St. Paul’s Outreach, a Catholic ministry on college campuses across the U.S. that began in response to the Church’s call for a “new evangelization.” The following is an edited version of the interview.

Q: What do we mean by “new evangelization” and “evangelical Catholicism”?
Weigel: The term “new evangelization” was first used by Pope John Paul II in 1992. In that, he tried to capture in a single phrase the notion that the Church does not have a mission, as if mission were one of a dozen things the Church does.



The Church is a mission. Everything and everyone in the Church must be ordered to mission and measured by mission effectiveness. That’s a new concept in Catholicism, or at least an old concept being renewed for the third millennium.

DeMarais: One of the things Pope John Paul II had in mind when he used this phrase was that there is a new kind of mission field that exists now in the Church.

Evangelization was understood as going to those places where the Gospel has never been heard or proclaimed and proclaiming it. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a context, particularly in the Western world, where places the Christian faith once thrived have been now diminished because of the corrosive pressures of the culture. Now our mission field is in our backyards, it’s in our neighborhoods, our parishes, our schools. Every place we encounter in the secular and Church arenas these days is a place for mission and evangelization.

Q: Mr. Weigel, you talk about moving from a “recreational Catholicism” to a more “full-time Catholicism.” Talk a little bit about what that means in today’s context.
Weigel: It means that the Catholicism of the future cannot simply be a lifestyle choice about how to spend an hour and 15 minutes on the weekend. It has to be a life-forming commitment that animates every other aspect of our lives, in our families, in our work, in our lives as citizens.

There’s too often in Catholicism today a notion that faith is “over here” and everything else is “over there.” But there’s only one life that each of us is living, and at the center of that life there has to be, as Benedict XVI always insisted, friendship with Jesus Christ, which is a relationship that should animate and shape every other facet of our lives.

So we’re not Catholics on Sunday and something else Monday to Saturday. This is particularly urgent today in public life where I found in 2012 there were people profoundly confused about the importance of their Catholic conviction in their lives as citizens. You cannot separate these two things. It’s just not possible. So full-time Catholicism does not mean that everyone is working for the Church in a formal sense all the time. It does mean that everyone is a witness to Christ in every aspect of his or her lives.

Q: In order to build a relationship with Jesus Christ, you have to spend time on it, right?
Weigel: This does require time — 10 to 15 minutes a day with the Bible, regular reception of the sacraments.

Let me toss out one more idea here and that is that we can all begin to think of Lent, the weeks of preparation for Easter, as a period in every year when we’re invited to re-enter the catechumenate, to re-enter preparation for, not baptism in the case of those already baptized, but for the blessing with baptismal water at Easter.

We can re-encounter the mysteries of the faith and the person of Christ. In a very special way during Lent every year, we could put on the imagination that Lent is a kind of mini-catechumenate for everyone. Not that we’re baptized again, but we renew the promises of our baptism again. If we’re going to do that with meaning and with integrity, then we need to be prepared for that.

Q: In your talk this morning you spoke about the culture and how the culture previously was one that was more supportive of the faith, whereas today, it can often be hostile to the faith. What are some ways of re-proposing the Catholic faith to people today who are living in this culture that can be hostile not only to faith in general, but to Catholicism in particular?
We have a very challenging circumstance in that we live in a culture that is increasingly unreal, that doesn’t recognize the claims of either nature or reason, that imagines that everything is sheer willfulness and that we can change just about anything that we want. That’s a very difficult circumstance in which to proclaimthe Gospel.

But I think if we look at the profound human unhappiness that comes out of self-absorption, a life lived willfully rather than a life lived as gift — as gift to others — we can find openings in the tears and fissures of the human condition that have been caused by this radical culture of “me, myself and I,” and demonstrate to people a more humane and noble and satisfying way of life.

I do think in these circumstances, the witness of lives lived well is the most powerful invitation to hear the message of the Gospel. It’s very hard to argue people into right reason in a culture that has abandoned the idea that there is anything properly describable as “the Truth.” There’s your truth and my truth, but there’s nothing called “the Truth.”

That’s not a circumstance in which argument is going to get you very far. It’s rather witness, it’s example, it’s the Mother Teresas, it’s the crisis pregnancy center, it’s the work on campuses that invite young people to go beyond the hook-up culture to some much more humane form of friendship and relationships. That’s the example that opens up the possibility of then offering the message of the Gospel.

DeMarais: I think it means a willingness on the part of people to engage others as persons themselves, and to be willing to actually extend oneself in relationship with others and in the context of relationship or friendship. That becomes the foundation. You can actually speak to this ultimate longing in every person’s heart, the way that God has made us for this relationship with him. But, oftentimes, we approach people more from the perspective of trying to get them to join something or to do something, and really what they need is a friend. They need someone to love them, to pay attention to them. And then they need the witness also of a community of believers who are living this transformed life with one another that they can then be invited into.

Q: What about the idea of invitation? When we talk about the new evangelization, we hear often the need to invite. And certainly with this Rediscover: initiative locally there’s been an emphasis on extending an invitation. What are some effective ways to do that today?
Weigel: I think it needs to be suggested to people. I have yet to hear the sermon on Sunday in which the concluding admonition, or injunction, or invitation is to everyone here to consider inviting someone who hasn’t been here for a while to come with you next week. I’m still waiting to hear that. It’s as simple as that, sometimes.

There are a number of initiatives around the United States. Many dioceses during Advent and Lent have these programs called “The Light is on for You” — one evening a week during Advent and Lent where confession is heard for five to six hours. [So] “the light is on.” That seems to be effective. It makes people think, when you see that sign on the Washington Metro system, “the light is on for you” every Wednesday night at your nearest Catholic Church. That’s a form of invitation.

DeMarais: On our campuses, this is what we train our student missionaries to do. For example, at the University of Minnesota last September during the first 10 days of that semester, our missionary core engaged 500 students — and this wasn’t in the Church, this was at the college fairs.

These students gave their contact information and were willing to receive a follow-up call. And then we call them and we invite them to our houses for dinner, or we invite them to play a game of touch football.

I think inviting people back to Church is one thing, but inviting them into our life [is another]. Even if you’re going to invite them on a Sunday for brunch and Mass, invite them into relationship with you and to see you as the embodiment of what’s going on when they come back to Mass or confession.

Q: Gordy, you’re dealing with young adults a lot. Is the approach, the invitation for young adults — many of whom are not very involved in the Church or who profess any faith at all — a little different than it is for older people?
I haven’t necessarily thought about it as being different. Young people, particularly in the context that we work in, are leaving home — they’re going off to college campuses. So they’re separating from their family, if they’re coming from an intact family, and they’re looking for some place to connect.

I think every person longs for that personal connection with others. Mother Teresa said that the greatest evil of our day is actually loneliness. I think this can become a tremendous opportunity for the witness of the Gospel. This radical individualism, which characterizes people’s lives, is not the way we’re made. I think into the future, the witness of a community of love is going to be a powerful witness to people who are experiencing this deep angst and loneliness and separation from others, [who are] being related to primarily in a utilitarian way — what can I get from you, what can you do for me?

Q: Mr. Weigel, regarding the model of Church envisioned by the new evangelization that you write about, can you think of one particular success story or story that really exemplifies that transformation?
Weigel:  When you talk about parishes I would point people to St. Mary’s parish in Greenville, S.C., which in one sense is the inspiration for the book “Evangelical Catholicism.” That parish embodies this approach to the faith in an extraordinary way that has led to a remarkable flourishing of adult conversions, receptions into full communion with the Church, booming schools, religious vocations, wonderful liturgy and so forth.

In campus ministries, the gold standard in the United States is Texas A&M University. The Catholic campus ministry there is a booming enterprise — 5,000 people at Mass on the weekend, more religious vocations generated over the past 20 years from Texas A&M than from Notre Dame. This is because in both these instances the Gospel is preached without compromise, word and sacrament are at the center of the proclamation and the experience, and the stress is on friendship with Jesus Christ in order to be equipped for mission in the world.

There are things that people can learn how to do to make this work. This is not a question of aping Protestant mega-church growth strategies. This is a question of living the vision of the Church that’s laid out in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II. The blueprint is there; we don’t have to invent this stuff. What we have to do is take it seriously and understand that taking it seriously is a very demanding business.

DeMarais: This story is repeated over and over again: A young person is reached out to, invited into our community of faith, brought to this rediscovery, this reawakening of baptismal faith, and then inserted into a community environment where they’re formed.

And formation isn’t just intellectual. That’s a part of it, but it’s overcoming this gap that exists between faith and daily life. That’s experienced in the context of learning to live and love. It’s how do I study? What do I do in my social time? How do I relate to media? How do I think about my sexuality? How do I discern my vocation? And then coming full circle to then being sent.

If you look at Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter, which is still profound today, it says that evangelization is only complete when the one being evangelized is him or herself sent out on mission.

The impact of [SPO’s] work over 25 years is one of the things that is helping to transform this archdiocese. I say that in all humility. . . .

The numbers of vocations, the people teaching in the seminaries, the rector of the minor seminary, the director of the diaconate formation program, the people involved in leadership in pro-life work, the Office of Marriage, Family and Life, and on and on  — you have people that have experienced this life-changing conversion, this joyful discipleship and this courageous evangelism expressed through the whole of one’s life.

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Category: This Catholic Life