Report from Rome: Cardinal Wuerl Explains the New Evangelization

In the November 5 issue of America we report on the synod on the new evangelization. Here Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington and the synod's "relator," offers some answers to basic questions about this effort: 

What is the Synod for the New Evangelization?

As the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) drew to a close, Pope Paul VI established the synod as a mechanism to continue the collaborative experience of the council. The Pope convokes such a meeting and conferences of bishops around the world elect those bishops who will attend. An additional number of bishops, heads of religious orders, experts and observers (lay, religious and clerics) are also appointed by the Pope. In short, a synod is a worldwide consultative body that provides a forum for discussion and reflection on issues of importance in the life of the church.

The current synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith began with the Mass on Sunday October 7, 2012 in St. Peter’s Square. In the homily, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the new evangelization in terms of the renewed impulse that the Second Vatican Council gave to evangelization precisely in terms of the universal call to holiness and how that involves each member of the church in the task of spreading the faith.

The continuation of the mission of Christ, which began with the Great Commissioning following his death and Resurrection, is what we are engaged in today.  As the Acts of the Apostles tell us, as Jesus prepared to return to his Father in glory he charged his disciples “You will be my witnesses.” That same challenge should echo in our ears and hearts today – we are the witnesses to Jesus Christ, his message, his way of life, his triumph over death and his pledge of new life to all who would walk with him. 

The New Evangelization recognizes that the Great Commission is equally valid for us today, but in no small part we are speaking the Gospel to those who feel they have already heard it and think that it has no particular meaning for them. 

What should the New Evangelization mean to average Catholics?

The New Evangelization is the recognition that in countries where the Gospel has already been preached there is an “eclipse of the sense of God” (Evangelium vitae, 21). What brings a new urgency to our mission is the recognition of just how widespread and profound is the new secularism.

The context of the New Evangelization helps explain its focus. It is now generally recognized that we deal with several generations of faithful who have been poorly catechized, who are even miscatechized. During his visit to the United States in 2008, our Holy Father pointed out that there are also a number of barriers to the proclamation to the Gospel. These include the secularism, materialism and radical individualism that are so much a part of our culture. 

But just as he diagnoses the problems, so too does our Holy Father present a practical solution and a challenge. The Pope uses the word “re-propose” to describe how we should preach the New Evangelization. Somehow in what we do and how we express our faith, we have to be able to re-propose our belief in Christ and his Gospel for a hearing among those who are convinced that they already know the faith and it holds no interest for them. We have to invite them to hear it all over again. For some who initially heard the proclamation of the Gospel, the message has lost its savor. The vision has faded. The promises seem empty or unconnected to their lives. This realization brings us to our next question.

What impact will the synod have on the church in the United States?

My hope is that the message of the synod will be widely disseminated so that Catholics across the country will hear its encouraging call to personal spiritual renewal that engages each of us in the desire to share our faith, to help others see, once again, its beauty and therefore return to its practice with the embrace of new enthusiasm.

The New Evangelization begins with each of us taking it upon ourselves to renew once again our understanding of the faith and our appropriation of it in a way that embraces the Gospel message and its application today.

Following on our efforts to renew our own appreciation of the faith should be a new confidence in the truth of our message. In the Gospel we read how Jesus taught with authority (Mark 1:21-22). He taught out of his own self-identity. “I am the way, the truth and the life,” he proclaimed (John 14:6). This divine pedagogy remains the model for us today. The truth—the very revelation of who Jesus is—he shares with us through the church. Jesus did not leave us orphans. As he returned to his Father, he called those he had chosen and anointed in the Holy Spirit to continue to teach everything that he had made known to them and to proclaim it even to the ends of the earth.

We must have the confidence of our own convictions. We can stand in the truth because that truth is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We do not arrive at one of many understandings all of which are equally valid. Rather we stand in the truth given to us by Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

One of the most attractive features of the New Evangelization, one that evokes response from young people today is the coherence of the church’s teaching, the soundness of the way it offers and the joy it holds out to those looking for true meaning in life, their own value and worth and the goal of life. 

In my pastoral letter on the New Evangelization, Disciples of the Lord, I wrote, “Planting the seed may mean that we learn new styles of communication, open our hearts to a more culturally diverse community, study more deeply the mysteries of the faith, reach out with confidence and invite a neighbor to attend Mass, forgive a long-held grudge, or focus on a new and more influential approach with a son or daughter, father or mother, or spouse who is away from the practice of the faith. Every moment becomes a new opportunity to connect another person with the abundant Springtime that God promises. In this, we are protagonists of hope.”

Cardinal Donald Wuerl is archbishop of Washington.

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