The other day I was on the train in the city of Rome, and I was approached by Mormon missionaries.
These young men were well dressed, extremely friendly, and trained in the Italian language. They were from the United States, so we spoke for a few minutes. They asked me if I had a relationship with Jesus Christ and had accepted him into my life. As we were speaking, I unzipped my jacket, and they saw my Roman collar, which pretty much ended the conversation (though I admit, I was enjoying it).
I was only on the train for about twenty minutes, but it was interesting to watch these two missionaries. The Mormons have been extraordinarily successful in winning converts (mostly from the Catholic Church) in South America, and now it seems that they have come to the heart of the Catholic world to continue their efforts at conversion.
As I was watching them, my thoughts turned to our new Catholic buzzword, the “New Evangelization.” Frankly, I’m not exactly sure what “New Evangelization” is supposed to mean. There are two lines of thought, it seems.
The first is that of the Academics. There have been numerous conferences about the New Evangelization here in Rome, and and they are concerned with the relationship of faith and reason and modern culture’s encounter with the Gospel. This thread purports to be the intellectual basis for actually going out and introducing people to Jesus Christ, a figure poorly known in our times.
The second thread of thought concerning the “New Evangelization” is a lot closer to the “Mormon approach.” It is a pastoral approach. Many bishops have followed the lead of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. and have instituted citywide confession programs, emphasizing the importance of the frequent reception of the sacraments. This is a laudable and hope-inspiring movement that I would love to see spread across the entire country.
What we do not see a lot of, however, is an active approach to positively spreading the message of Jesus Christ in the sense of missionary activity. We don’t really have our own versions of the Mormon missionaries. There are some programs here and there, but for the most part, the Catholic Church in the West has ceased to be a missionary Church.
I think that’s why Mormons are converting Catholics in droves in Italy. You’d think it would be impossible here! Rome is the center of the Catholic world. There are thousands of priests and seminarians here when school is in session. There are over 500 churches in the city! It seems like you can’t ever be more than a 5-minute walk from one! And yet, in general, Roman parish life is non-existent. And this is not an isolated phenomenon: all over Europe, parish life is dead.
I once had a pastor in a summer assignment tell me that a parish without a mission is a dead parish. Something about actively spreading the faith, whether the mission is in the local area or whether it is in another country, sparks a fire in a parish. We are instructed by Jesus to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15). Without that missionary focus—spreading the joy and the hope we have received from Christ—it seems unlikely that a faith could truly remain strong and vibrant.
But there’s a problem with evangelization. There’s something that makes it fairly unattractive: it’s difficult. And it tends to create martyrs. In a society where simply walking around in clerics can earn insults and spitting (as has happened to me in both my hometown of Atlanta, GA, and also in Ireland, historically an uber-Catholic country), in a society where the legal environment is approaching, little by little, the point where the simple charitable defense of the truth of who the human person is and what our true destiny is could lead to arrest for hate speech or civil disturbance, in a society that shuns anyone who exits from the rat race of materialism and technological one-upmanship, in a society that has forgotten what it means to love someone so much that one discovers objective truth in the midst of that love—in such a society, evangelization is going to be painful.
But to not evangelize is even more painful, because the destructive anti-Gospel movement has never stopped. Whether it takes the form of relativistic indifference, of the perversion of the concept of civil rights, of the doctrine of fairness unfairly applied, or even of outright hostility to the truth one finds in religion, there are forces in our world that are working against the Gospel, using the indifference of the multitudes to their favor. Indifference is more destructive than hate. Remember, it is neither the hot nor the cold that the Lord spews from his mouth, but the lukewarm (Rev 3:16).
And so we must engage in the work of evangelization. It must begin with a Catholic renewal in our own lives. We have to kindle the fire first, perhaps by making a retreat, or engaging in more frequent adoration (or any at all), or greater pondering of the Scriptures. Through these means, or whatever means you might think best, let the Lord renew your own spirit. Make confession a more regular part of your life, and perhaps strive to attend Mass more frequently, even daily if possible. This personal renewal is the precursor to any evangelical activity we might attempt.
From there, what will be required is boldness, like the boldness of the apostles, who did not know exactly how to go about spreading the message of hope and joy which they had received, but their zeal and love gave them the strength to take the necessary risks, to be foolish for Christ. We need to be courageous in the face of the degeneration of our society, recognizing that Christians are the light of the world and the leaven used to give life to society. If we cannot center our lives on Christ, we will never be able to evangelize the culture, and sadly, we will be failing in the mission the Lord has given to us.
But we can do it, one person at a time, with the help of the Holy Spirit and the grace of Christ. It might not look pretty, but we know it ends well.