The New Testament uses a whole series of expressions to describe Jesus’ activity of revelation. Apart from “proclaiming” or “teaching,” a word which recurs frequently to indicate his work is “evangelizing.” According to its normal meaning, already to be found in the Old Testament, this expresses the idea of announcing a message of joy, for example upon the birth of a child or after victory in battle. The meaning of the term, however, began to assume a significance that was more typically religious in the Book of Isaiah. There we find these words written: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of one who brings good news, who heralds peace, brings happiness, proclaims salvation and tells Zion: ‘Your God reigns’”’ (Is 52:7). The reference in this verse is to the herald who goes ahead of the people returning from slavery in Babylon. The inhabitants of Jerusalem, who are to be found on the walls and on the turrets of the city, are waiting for the remnant and from the top of the mountain they spot the messenger who, shouting at the top of his voice, proclaims its liberation and their return to their homeland. In the prophet’s mind, however, the herald is announcing the real victory. This is not so much the return from exile so much as the fact that God is returning to dwell in Zion, giving birth to a new stage in history. The same concept is taken up again by the prophet in another passage, where he says: “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the poor” (Is 61:1).
The similarity between these expressions and those we find in the New Testament is very close. In his preaching Jesus identifies himself with the messenger of expectant joy. In his person and in the signs he accomplishes, he allows us to see brought to fulfillment the promise of God to give life to a new era in history, that of his kingdom. After him, the apostles, Paul and the disciples are identified as messengers who bear a proclamation of salvation and of joy. In a famous passage of the letter to the Romans, Paul quotes, literally, the passage from Isaiah and applies it to all Christians who proclaim the Gospel: “But, they will not ask his help unless they believe in him and they will not believe in him unless they have heard of him and they will not hear of him unless they get a preacher and they will not have a preacher unless one is sent, but, as Scripture says: ‘The footsteps of those who bring good news is a welcome sound’” (Rom 10:14–15). It is interesting to note that in this quotation Paul does not mention the mountains. The underlying significance of this helps us to understand the task of the new evangelizers; they have a mission that is destined for the whole world. In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, in fact, the Gospel is directly identified with the person of Jesus, the messiah long awaited and now come into our midst: “They preached every day in the temple and in private houses and their proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ was never interrupted” (Acts 5:42).
As we can see from these initial reflections, evangelizing is simply to be equated with bearing the Gospel. However, there is an awareness, deeply rooted in the sacred texts, according to which the good news that Jesus announces is not a new doctrine, but rather is Jesus himself in his own person. As the content of his proclamation of joy, it is he who reveals the mystery of the Father’s love. In his own person the fulfillment of everything and the beginning of a new phase in the life of men and women and of history are given. The time has now come; in his person God says everything that is fundamental and essential for us to come to know him. What is asked for now is faith, as the response of love towards him. Once the Gospel is proclaimed, in fact, it needs to be heard; from this perspective the teaching of the apostle, Paul, is very incisive: “... as long as you persevere and stand firm on the solid base of the faith, never letting yourselves drift away from the hope promised by the Good News which you have heard” (Col 1:23). However, the Gospel does not bear witness only to historical facts, such as the preaching the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, insofar as this is the event of salvation for all those who believe in him. Being the living Word of God, he is also an event that challenges people, penetrates into their lives, calling them to conversion and creating a community of faith, hope and love. Indeed, it is not just a simple word, but it is a creative force that brings about what it expresses. Saint Paul recalls this: the good news “came to you not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction” (1 Thess 1:5). All those who receive the Gospel become missionaries so that the joy that has been communicated to them and that has transformed their lives may allow others, too, to encounter the same source of love and of salvation.The Roots of the Word
If the verb “to evangelize” and the term “Gospel” are to be found frequently in the sacred texts and, as a result, are commonly found in our language, “to evangelize” is, nevertheless, a term that arose only at a later stage. In all probability, it was Erasmus who first inserted into our language to designate what he considered to be a form of Lutheran fanaticism. As we know, Luther identified as the foundation stone of his teaching the Gospel alone, insofar as it was the proclamation of pardon and of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Council of Trent, for its part, was constrained to intervene to maintain the broader understanding of the Catholic faith. Thus it was that misunderstanding gained the upper hand and, from the time of the Council of Trent, the Catholic world maintained a certain reluctance to use the verb “to evangelize” because it held it to be too Protestant. It preferred to speak of “mission.” Only in the eighteenth century did some Protestants begin to understand the need for missionary activity, neglected at the beginning of the Reformation, and it was actually on that occasion that they began to make reference to the term “evangelization,” a circumstance which, obviously, became a further pretext for Catholics not to use the term.
Under the impact of the catechetical renewal of the 1950s, we began to speak of “evangelization,” to distinguish it from catechesis and from other forms of pastoral activity. Therefore, we speak about evangelization as the activity of the church that was identified with the first proclamation of the Gospel and of catechesis to define the systematic formation of believers who had already been evangelized. Since language at times follows the need for precision on the part of specialists, other expressions were introduced, for example “pre-evangelization” to indicate the preparation of non-Christians for the explicit proclamation of the Gospel. If, on the one hand, this recourse to linguistic subtleties is useful for specifying a particular reality, unfortunately, it is not always useful for providing a clear vision of the whole.
One last glance at the evolution of the use of terminology reveals an interesting fact. In the documents of the First Vatican Council (1869–1879), the term “the Gospel” occurs only once, it is impossible to find the verb “to evangelize” and, obviously, the term “evangelization.” In the documents of the Second Vatican Council, on the other hand, “Gospel” is used 157 times, “to evangelize” 18 times and “evangelization” 31 times. As we know, the term came to assert itself more and more to the point of becoming part of our common language. The use of language, though, also points to an underlying culture and this leads us to identify the church’s activity of proclamation in the contemporary world as a priority.Getting to 'New'