April 20, 2010
The Difference God Makes
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

Last week I initiated some reflections on evangelization based on Francis Cardinal George's new book The Difference God Makes.

As I noted, the seminal point of the entire book is that all human persons - and in a particularly transcendent way, the baptized - are beings in relation. We simply cannot hope to invite others to the communion - communio - that is the Church if they are unable to grasp how, from the moment of their own conception, they exist in a radical relatedness to a world which is at the same time creation and gift, and to the human family on multiple levels of relation. It is this understanding of our being-in-relation which can overcome modern radical individualism and open hearts to a profound understanding of their place in a God-given, person-centered cosmos, in which God himself has become incarnate to invite all human persons into intimate communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Cardinal believes that renewed meditation on this profound truth can also have a significant impact on our ability to evangelize American culture. On that point, allow me to summarize some of the Cardinal's more salient points. First, he makes an observation early on in the book which deserves the attention of any American Catholic who consciously assumes the responsibility of evangelization. His Eminence observes:

A faith that demands that culture change is sometimes called "countercultural." The adjective is unfortunate if it leads believers to see themselves on one side, and their culture on another. Our culture is as much in us as we are in it... The evangelizer begins by taking responsibility for the culture to be evangelized.

In other words, while 'in the world, but not of the world', the evangelizing, committed American Catholic embraces his culture, understands its roots, and works with and from within that culture to imbue it with the message of Jesus Christ.

In The Difference God Makes, Cardinal George actually proposes an outline of a plan for

1. Love deeply and prayerfully. "A program for evangelizing American culture... begins, continues and ends with love for the people and their culture." The people we evangelize must be in our prayers; and he notes that prayer itself evangelizes "by introducing a rhythm that opens daily life to the transcendent."

2. Be present in the public square. The evangelizer of culture will look for the places where significant conversations take place: in other words, the multiple forums and formats of the public square.

3. Return to reason. American Catholics need to enlarge their culture's appreciation of human reason. "A shriveled intellect," affirms the Cardinal, "fails to recognize its natural ability to seek a transcendent God." This has also been a constant theme in the thought of Pope Benedict who refers to this phenomenon as the "self-limitation of reason." The Holy Father has cogently observed that, left to itself, the further our understanding of reason becomes impoverished, the more we conceptually distance ourselves from the Creator, and the greater the danger that we will end by destroying ourselves.  

4. Imbue essential relationships with Christian message. "Because the dominant culture in the United States privileges voluntary relationships to the detriment of others, the evangelizer works to strengthen relations that are given rather than chosen: family, race, linguistic group, the land, and nation itself."  

5. Purify our sense of mission. Beyond service-oriented expressions of Christian mission, we must challenge our culture on an intellectual plane to honestly confront the possibility of a transcendent truth - religious truth. We must seek to foster a culture in which the proposition of such truths is truly welcomed in the public square.

Finally, the Cardinal observes, with obvious realism, that "evangelizers need a broad vision and strength for the long haul." Evangelizing culture is, in the end, a contemplative activity. "The dialogue between Catholic faith and American culture takes place in the media, in the schools and the marketplace, and in the public square," observes the Cardinal, "but it begins in the heart of every American Catholic who loves both faith and country."

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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