Facing an “eclipse in the sense of God” in Western society today, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl contends, the Church must revitalize the faith “in countries where the Gospel has already been preached.”
This “new evangelization” will counteract a culture that increasingly seeks to deny its Christian origins or attempts to preclude faith from a place in the public square, Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, told an audience at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, N.Y. on Oct. 30. The cardinal gave the seminary’s ninth annual Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua Lecture in Pastoral Theology.
“What brings a new urgency to our mission is the recognition of just how widespread and profound is the new secularism,” said Cardinal Wuerl, who was named by Pope Benedict XVI as recording secretary for next year’s Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization.
In the words of Pope Benedict, the new evangelization is a “re-proposing of the Gospel” to people who have drifted from practice and even belief.
Unlike evangelization efforts that began with the apostles and continued for centuries with missionaries going out to foreign lands where the Gospel had never been heard of, Cardinal Wuerl noted, the new evangelization begins right in believers’ own backyards, preaching to “those who are convinced they already know the faith and it holds no interest for them.”
Bishop William Murphy, citing their long acquaintance, introduced Cardinal Wuerl. The bishop also thanked Cardinal Wuerl at the end. “You have certainly given us reason to pray” for the insight and strength “so that we may evangelize.”
Evangelization, or proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was described at the Second Vatican Council as being at the very heart of the Church, a “solemn mandate of Christ to proclaim the saving truth” to the very ends of the earth, Cardinal Wuerl said.
Pope Paul VI wrote on the need for a new period of evangelization in his 1975 apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Nuntiandi.” Pope John Paul II first used the expression, “new evangelization,” and Pope Benedict has established a pontifical council for new evangelization.
New evangelization seeks to reach “those who have been baptized but never really evangelized,” or brought into a full, mature relationship with Christ, Cardinal Wuerl said. These are the people who were raised in the faith, often received their sacraments, but for whom “the Gospel doesn’t mean anything in particular.”
Cardinal Wuerl cited “decades of poor catechesis” and a period of theological confusion following the Second Vatican Council. The result, he said, is the “rocky ground and overgrown fields where we now try to sow the seeds of new life in Christ.”
The cardinal recalled sitting on a plane next to a man going to his nephew’s first Communion. The man seemed antagonistic about going, and was only bowing to family pressure.
Though raised Catholic, “he didn’t have the foggiest notion of what the Eucharist is.” After Cardinal Wuerl explained the Church’s understanding to him, the man concluded that the Eucharist is “pretty cool,” even “great.”
The new evangelization tries to “re-propose the Gospel” to people like that.
“It is not a program,” one more thing that busy clergy and laity are required to do, Cardinal Wuerl said. Rather, it is a lens to see new opportunities to proclaim the Gospel and to see where the Holy Spirit is working in the Church.
Such evangelization requires “solid catechesis,” or “knowing what we’re talking about,” as well as a level of confidence in what the Church believes and its value for others.
“We cannot simply believe,” Cardinal Wuerl said, but we must have the willingness to share the Gospel by speaking about it and by engaging the larger culture to transform it in Christ.
Such efforts face the obstacles of materialism, individualism and secularism, which can seem overwhelming, Cardinal Wuerl said.
Secularism in the U.S., though less virulent than in Europe, tends to tell Catholics, “you have some good ideas and it’s OK to believe what you believe,” but rails against any attempt by Catholics to argue the truth of their beliefs or to make a case in the public square.
“I’m glad that the U.S. bishops have formed the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty,” to counter a secularist mindset that seeks to “erode the very concept of religious liberty,” attempting to limit religious belief to inside the walls of a church, Cardinal Wuerl said.
“Tolerance is a wonderful thing,” protecting the religious diversity of the people of the U.S., Cardinal Wuerl said, but respecting others’ beliefs “does not mean I lose the right to say who I am.”
Cardinal Wuerl recalled a group of teens at which a girl asked: “What exactly does the Church offer me?” a question that revealed honest searching.
His reply was that the Church offers “an encounter with Christ,” the risen Lord.
“We have a wonderful message.” The Sermon on the Mount offers a new way of life for those who are merciful, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who mourn, who are peacemakers, and who are poor in spirit.
Later in the Gospel of Matthew, Cardinal Wuerl continued, “we hear the extraordinary dictum that we should see in one another the very presence of Christ,” and the challenge to envision a world where the hungry are fed, the stranger is welcomed, and the naked are clothed — along with the promise of eternal life.
The Church offers the living word of God, through which God speaks to the world today, not only in the pages of Scripture but also in the living body of the Church, Cardinal Wuerl said.
Through the help of the Holy Spirit, Cardinal Wuerl said, the new evangelization challenges the Church in “helping this generation hear the God who speaks.”
Printed with permission from the Long Island Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y.