How do we evangelize the Americas?

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As society becomes increasingly global, the question of how to spread the Gospel, particularly in the U.S., depends more and more on how effectively we engage with the varying cultures around us  – just as the many missionaries to America did before, say Catholic leaders.

"The whole point is, as the world globalizes, the Church becomes Christ himself, and the community of the Church become a center around which the world can find a certain kind of unity. And we need unity," Dr. Jonathan Reyes told CNA.

"I think of evangelization as (Pope) Paul VI emphasized – it's the evangelization of culture. And so you have to have sensitivity to cultures, as well as a shared sense of a common identity regionally, and in this case, in the Americas," he said.

Reyes, Executive Director of the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, was a presenter at the symposium, "Witnesses of Mercy in the Americas," held in Rome Sept. 24.

The event was put on jointly by the Archdiocese of Denver and the Pontifical Council for Latin America with the purpose of highlighting the lives of four missionaries to the Americas and increasing devotion to them as examples for how to spread the faith today.

According to Reyes, many of the challenges faced by America today, such as the movement of people, economic changes, and the rise of theological secularism, are "failures of solidarity." As we globalize, we also become less unified, he said. The Church alone holds the key to perfect human solidarity.

"I think in the United States it's particularly important, because we have our own challenge with globalization and our own borders," Reyes said. "But we've got to find our way to solidarity, and a way to a continental vision of evangelization as well."

St. John Paul II's vision for solidarity in America, which he wrote about in his Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in America, is that it be brought about through integral evangelization.

This vision of evangelization starts with caring for both the material and spiritual needs of individuals, leading to conversion, followed by the forming of community, or communion, and eventually resulting in a new culture.

Reyes calls the culture we aspire to a culture with "diversifying unity."

By the term 'diversifying unity' he's trying to draw the line between two things, he said. "One is a certain kind of unity that's uniformity, where everyone has to be the exact same, and the other is a kind of diversity that has nothing in common."

"The Church brings those two things together," he said. "We're unified, but we're not uniform, we're not the exact same thing. And that's precisely the kind of sort of ebullient, joyful unity that Christ brings to the whole human race."

One example of unity found in Christ is from the missionary Fr. Eusebio Kino, known as the "priest on horseback." He was an Italian Jesuit who lived from 1645-1711, who during the last 24 years of his life worked with indigenous people in parts of Mexico and Arizona, establishing over 24 missions.

Fr. Kino is an example, Reyes said, for how he treated the people he encountered, who were all from completely different cultures than himself.

"He didn't just come preaching, he came and he actually brought a flourishing of everything human: social, political, the economic, all these things grow," Reyes pointed out. "The mission of Christ is a mission of the renewal of everything human, it's setting the world right."

"And so, Kino, and many of his comrades, and many of the other first missionaries of the continent, they're models of bringing the whole of reality under the Lordship of Christ, into human flourishing."

Though America is a very different place from what it was in Fr. Kino's time, there are many good lessons we can learn from him and from other missionaries, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of the Archdiocese of Denver told CNA.

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"I think what you really need to look at are the virtues that they had, such as perseverance, their deep faith, their willingness to come out of themselves, and to really serve whoever they were called to serve at that time," he said.

"But at the heart of all of them is humility" and dependence on God.

"That is something that each one of them did, in their own time in history, was have that very deep knowledge and awareness of God's love for them," Archbishop Aquila said, "of being created in his image and likeness and that it was pure gift and then living that out."

Another witness to mercy in the U.S. is Julia Greeley, a woman born into slavery in the mid-1800s.

While enslaved, she received brutal treatment, including the destruction of her right eye when the tip of a slave master's whip hit her while he was beating Greeley's mother.

Freed through Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, she was brought from Missouri to Denver, CO by the wealthy family she worked for, eventually converting to Catholicism.

Throughout her life, though very poor herself, Greeley would always collect food and clothing for poor families around her, including many white families. Sensitive to their embarrassment, she would often deliver the items at night, using a red wagon.

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A proper understanding of mercy, said Archbishop Aquila, is probably the greatest challenge to evangelization in the U.S.

There is either a permissiveness that says someone doesn't have anything to repent of or change in his or her life, which condones sin and evil. "Or the other one is to be too harsh," he said, "which is to say that you're beyond mercy."

"And so it causes confusion – it's not the mercy of the Father, it's not the mercy of Jesus."

For Archbishop Aquila, the way to achieve unity as Christians in America is found in Christ. "That no matter where I go, I'm at home, because I know Christ is with me and I know that I'm serving Christ."

No matter where we go, when we share the faith with someone, "whether they're poor, whether they're rich, whether they're homeless, whether they're sick, whether they're suffering," we should see the face of Christ in them, he said.

"And because of that, we see that we truly are brothers and sisters. And yes, our history is different, our cultures can be different, and very rich and beautiful, in many ways, in terms of the difference in the cultures, but also, there's that unity there."

"So," Reyes said, "we're bringing the idea that culture matters, cultural difference matters, cultural transformation matters, but evangelization, the centering on Christ, and the bringing together of peoples and regions with a common mission also matter."

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