A Pontifical Council for US - part III Print
Written by Michael Fones   
Friday, 02 July 2010 15:01

In Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's 2000 address to Catechists and Religion teachers, he spoke of "expropriation" as the method of evangelization.  In other words, as I understand him, the individual Christian is the primary evangelizer, and this happens through "dying to one's self" for the good of the other.  I share my faith, which has been given to my by the Father and nurtured in the arms of Mother Church, with those who have not yet heard of Jesus, or who have not fully encountered him through prayer and grace.  It is a passing on of what I have received, with the focus being on God, rather than me or even the institutional Church.

In that same address, he spoke of the content of evangelization, and I suspect it looks quite a bit different from what is often shared in RCIA programs.  Often, there the focus is on helping people become Catholic, with an emphasis on Church teaching on morality, Church history and structure, the Sacraments and the saints.  All good, important topics, but too often presented without significant reference to the Kingdom incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth.

So what did the Holy Father say was the content of the New Evangelization five years before he became Pope?

He mentioned four areas of content, which I will summarize below with copious quotes.


I. Conversion

This shouldn't be a surprise, since the Gospel of Mark begins with Jesus calling his listeners to repentance and belief in the Gospel (which, they would discover, is He Himself).

The Greek word for converting means: to rethink—to question one's own and common way of living; to allow God to enter into the criteria of one's life; to not merely judge according to the current opinions. Thereby, to convert means: not to live as all the others live, not do what all do, not feel justified in dubious, ambiguous, evil actions just because others do the same; begin to see one's life through the eyes of God; thereby looking for the good, even if uncomfortable; not aiming at the judgment of the majority, of men, but on the justice of God—in other words: to look for a new style of life, a new life.

This newness of life is consistent with the experience and preaching of St. Paul, who said, "whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come." 2 Cor 5:17  The life of the converted man or woman is meant to be markedly different - not a life "in the flesh," in conformity with the ways of the world, but a radically new life "in the Spirit," by which St. Paul could judge all that he had formerly held in esteem as "rubbish."  I have witnessed this kind of change in people who have had powerful encounters with the risen Lord.  One former drug addict told me that Christ had revealed to him during his conversion the emptiness of the promises of this world, and the futility of his old way of life. Others have told me of how others - even church-going Catholics - look on them as people who have changed in profound ways.

But one of the hallmarks of genuine conversion is an unwillingness to judge others.  Instead of comparing their behavior to other people's, they begin to take Christ as the standard of their behavior, which leads to an ever-deepening humility and reliance upon him.  They seek communion with him.  The cardinal wrote about this in a beautiful passage:

All of this does not imply moralism; reducing Christianity to morality loses sight of the essence of Christ's message: the gift of a new friendship, the gift of communion with Jesus and thereby with God. Whoever converts to Christ does not mean to create his own moral autarchy for himself, does not intend to build his own goodness through his own strengths. "Conversion" (metanoia) means exactly the opposite: to come out of self-sufficiency to discover and accept our indigence—the indigence of others and of the Other, his forgiveness, his friendship. Unconverted life is self-justification (I am not worse than the others); conversion is humility in entrusting oneself to the love of the Other, a love that becomes the measure and the criteria of my own life.

Conversion of this sort is intensely personal, unique to each individual, but it should not lead to a "me and Jesus" spirituality, or the sentiment so often heard today, "I'm spiritual, but not religious."

Conversion is above all a very personal act, it is personalization. I separate myself from the formula "to live as all others" (I do not feel justified anymore by the fact that everyone does what I do) and I find my own person in front of God, my own personal responsibility.

But true personalization is always also a new and more profound socialization. The "I" opens itself once again to the "you," in all its depths, and thus a new "We" is born. If the lifestyle spread throughout the world implies the danger of de-personalization, of not living one's own life but the life of all the others, in conversion a new "We," of the common path of God, must be achieved.

In proclaiming conversion we must also offer a community of life, a common space for the new style of life. We cannot evangelize with words alone; the Gospel creates life, creates communities of progress; a merely individual conversion has no consistency.

That is to say, people who undergo the radical transformation that Jesus invites need community.  They realize that following Jesus and being "in the world but not of it" is a difficult task.  Without other disciples to provide encouragement, support and models to imitate, the path of God will soon be abandoned - the the precious seed eaten by birds, trod underfoot, or choked by weeds.


II. The Kingdom of God

The disciples in last weekend's Gospel were commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and that Kingdom is an essential part of evangelization.  If you were to ask most Catholics what is meant by "the Kingdom of God," you would probably get a variety of answers, but many would probably refer to change within society and its institutions; like the end of injustice and war, perhaps, or material prosperity for all.  Some might point to the Church as the inbreaking of the Kingdom. Cardinal Ratzinger said, "the Kingdom of God is not a thing, a social or political structure, a utopia. The Kingdom of God is God. Kingdom of God means: God exists. God is alive. God is present and acts in the world, in our—in my life."

I found this description exciting.  Again, he points us to the intimacy with which God wishes to deal with us.  God is not far away - not some stern Judge that I need to placate with good behavior.  Nor is He the God of the Deists who, by and large, framed our Constitution - a watchmaker God who is on an extended vacation and leaves us to fend for ourselves.  Sometimes we live as Deists, rather than Christians.  Even in the rarefied air of religious academia, theologians can end up talking about God with such detachment and abstraction that one wonders about the quality of their faith.  So, Cardinal Ratzinger, perhaps one of the greatest theological minds of our times, says, "Theology must go back to being truly theo-logy, speaking about and with God" And then he gives us all a sharp critique, "we Christians also often live as if God did not exist (si Deus non daretur). We live according to the slogan: God does not exist, and if he exists, he does not belong."

Certainly American Catholics often live as though God does not belong anywhere except in the safe confines of the tabernacle.  We will reverence the tabernacle, but not the "living stones" of the Church with whom we rub shoulders.  Our parishes, like society, can be the scene of backbiting, bigotry, gossip, and grasping for power - just one more political scene.

Therefore, evangelization must, first of all, speak about God, proclaim the only true God: the Creator—the Sanctifier—the Judge...God cannot be made known with words alone. One does not really know a person if one knows about this person secondhandedly. To proclaim God is to introduce to the relation with God: to teach how to pray. Prayer is faith in action. And only by experiencing life with God does the evidence of his existence appear.

It is in prayer that I can seek and encounter the God who astounded the world by taking on human flesh, and who chooses to make us temples of His own Spirit.  The New Evangelization must then be marked by an ability to speak of a life with God - a life in which I invite God to participate with me in my work, in my relationships, even in my frustrations and failings.  This is a life in which I can expect God to guide and to act - a life in which there no longer are coincidences.

This life of prayer moves beyond personal prayer to the communal prayer of popular religiosity; praying for and with others, whether its the extemporaneous prayer with my neighbor who is sick, the common rosary before the abortion clinic, or the liturgy of the hours with the men's group.  There is a complementarity between these types of prayer and with the formal liturgical prayer life of the Church and all of them are intimately connected to and find their summit in the sacraments.

Speaking about God and speaking with God must always go together. The proclamation of God is the guide to communion with God in fraternal communion, founded and vivified by Christ. This is why the liturgy (the sacraments) are not a secondary theme next to the preaching of the living God, but the realization of our relationship with God.

There, God reaches out to us in ways that are profound, yet intimate; using humble elements like bread, wine, oil, water, human touch, human flesh, meaning-laden words.


III. Jesus Christ

The Kingdom of God becomes even more sharply focused when God unites with humanity in Jesus of Nazareth. "Only in Christ and through Christ does the theme [of] God become truly concrete: Christ is Emmanuel, the God-with-us—the concretization of the "I am," the response to Deism. Today, the temptation is great to diminish Jesus Christ, the Son of God, into a merely historical Jesus, into a pure man. One does not necessarily deny the divinity of Jesus, but by using certain methods one distills from the Bible a Jesus to our size, a Jesus possible and comprehensible within the parameters of our historiography."

It was this diminishment of the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the downplaying or "demythologizing" of his miracles (perhaps by Biblical scholars who hadn't done enough talking with God!) that led to the publication of the Holy Father's book, Jesus of Nazareth.

In the proclamation of Christ, Ratzinger mentioned two aspects.  One, in the translation I have, he calls the "Sequela" of Christ.  I suspect the "Following" of Christ might be a better translation, but it has a special meaning for him.

Christ offers himself as the path of my life. [The] Sequela of Christ does not mean: imitating the man Jesus. This type of attempt would necessarily fail—it would be an anachronism. The Sequela of Christ has a much higher goal: to be assimilated into Christ, that is to attain union with God. Such a word might sound strange to the ears of modern man. But, in truth, we all thirst for the infinite: for an infinite freedom, for happiness without limits.

That assimilation is the effect of the sacraments, that combination of divine action and our response.  This can be most clearly seen in the sacraments of initiation in which I truly become part of the living Body of Christ today, and am empowered by the Holy Spirit to "do the works" that Jesus did - and greater still (John 14:12).  But I can be assimilated into Christ through the participation in his suffering, too.

The Paschal Mystery is the other aspect that necessarily must be proclaimed in evangelization.  It's what I'd call a kind of "truth in advertising."  Becoming a disciple of Jesus in no way includes a promise of only good times ahead.  Rather, his disciples are told they must take up their cross daily and follow.  "The Sequela of Christ is participation in the cross, uniting oneself to his love, to the transformation of our life, which becomes the birth of the new man, created according to God (see Ephesians 4:24). Whoever omits the cross, omits the essence of Christianity (see 1 Corinthians 2:2)."  This is precisely why in the Making Disciples workshop we walk participants through the whole kerygma - the basic message of the Gospels - so they can understand how the cross is a necessary part of our redemption - and a necessary part of the Christian life.


IV. Eternal Life

The former Cardinal's understanding of this aspect of the New Evangelization is interesting, and again touches upon God's intimacy in our life, as well as God as our only source of genuine hope. "The proclamation of the Kingdom of God is the proclamation of the God present, the God that knows us, listen to us; the God that enters into history to do justice. Therefore, this preaching is also the proclamation of justice, the proclamation of our responsibility."

This aspect of the New Evangelization will necessarily bring in aspects of the Church's social teaching, but it primarily focuses upon our personal need to act justly.  That is to say, the New Evangelization must not only call me to a personal conversion, but also a conversion that has social ramifications.  I will be judged - and not only for the things I have done as an individual, but also for my associating with institutions that either promote or destroy human freedom and dignity.

The article of faith in justice, its force in the formation of consciences, is a central theme of the Gospel and is truly good news. It is for all those suffering the injustices of the world and who are looking for justice.  This is also how we can understand the connection between the Kingdom of God and the "poor," the suffering and all those spoken about in the Beatitudes in the Speech on the Mountain. They are protected by the certainty of judgment, by the certitude, that there is a justice. This is the true content of the article on justice, about God as judge: Justice exists. The injustices of the world are not the final word of history. Justice exists.

I have to finish this reflection with the end of Ratzinger's speech, because it is truly eloquent and moving.  If you've made it this far - thank you!

If we seriously consider the judgment and the seriousness of the responsibility for us that emerges from this, we will be able to understand full well the other aspect of this proclamation, that is redemption, the fact that Jesus, in the cross, takes on our sins; God himself, in the passion of the Son, becomes the advocate for us sinners, and thus making penance possible, the hope for the repentant sinner, hope expressed in a marvelous way by the words of St. John: Before God, we will reassure our heart, whatever he reproves us for.

"For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (1 John 3:19ff). God's goodness is infinite, but we should not diminish this to goodness to mawkish affectation without truth. Only by believing in the just judgment of God, only by hungering and thirsting for justice (see Matthew 5:6) will we open up our hearts, our life to divine mercy.

This can be seen: It isn't true that faith in eternal life makes earthly life insignificant. To the contrary: only if the measure of our life is eternity, then also this life of ours on earth is great and its value immense. God is not the competitor in our life, but the guarantor of our greatness. This way we return to the starting point: God.

If we take the Christian message into well-thought-out consideration, we are not speaking about a whole lot of things. In reality, the Christian message is very simple: We speak about God and man, and this way we say everything.