It happens when a middle-aged woman hit hard by the economic crisis finds herself out of a job and then out of her home, with no family or other support network nearby. Despite hard work and careful planning, she is seemingly left with nothing. Then one day she turns up at a soup kitchen and daytime shelter run by a Catholic parish. The lay volunteers who run it are friendly and warm, give her food and a place to rest and spend some of their time in her company. Her loneliness gives way to serenity.
It happens when a father for whom church lost meaning in his college days watches his daughter’s baptism. Suddenly, as if he is hearing the words for the first time, he appreciates God’s grace in his life and senses how the Holy Spirit will enter his life in this new person.
It happens when tragedy strikes, whether through a heinous act of violence or a natural disaster, and people set aside their petty human dramas and come together as one to grieve and to pray. They feel a sense of unity as their pastor—or even their bishop—comforts them and tries to bring perspective to an otherwise senseless time.
Such moments exemplify how Catholics can live out the upcoming Year of Faith in everyday experiences. These examples depict events that could happen anytime in life. While the Year of Faith comes with specific recommendations from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on how to observe it, it is best summed up in two images: the first, as described by Pope Benedict XVI, is an open door through which a person has only to walk. The second is the “spark of faith” lit within the human heart.
The Year of Faith, which runs from Oct. 11 of this year to Nov. 24, 2013, the feast of Christ the King, is the latest in a recent string of yearlong observances sponsored by the Vatican. Others included the Jubilee Year 2000, the Year of the Eucharist (2004-5), the Year of St. Paul (2008-9) and the Year for Priests (2009-10). The centerpiece of the Year of Faith is the new evangelization, a call to Christians to embrace their faith anew and proclaim the Gospel with their lives.
The Role of the New Evangelization
The new evangelization seeks to bring the Gospel anew to parts of the world that are rooted in Christianity—like Europe and the United States—where believers and their practice of the faith have grown cool, cold or even jaded.
This evangelization does not involve window dressing or clever marketing strategies. It is about providing an authentic witness. Perhaps then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said it best during the Jubilee Year 2000: “New Evangelization cannot mean…immediately attracting the large masses that have distanced themselves from the church by using new and more refined methods.” It is not about settling for what the church has become, but rather daring to recapture the faith and humility of the parable of the mustard seed, to trust God as to when and how the seed will grow. Again, Cardinal Ratzinger: “We do not want to increase the power and the spreading of our institutions, but we wish to serve for the good of the people and humanity, giving room to Him who is life.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, in his address to the College of Cardinals in February, described how the Second Vatican Council has made evangelization the work of every Catholic by defining the whole church as “missionary”—called to preach the Gospel not only to the ends of the earth but to the hearts of every human being and “not only to unbelievers but believers.”
“Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization,” a statement issued by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis in April, provides practical ways for dioceses and parishes to welcome returning Catholics to church. In doing so, it calls all Catholics—whether active in the church or not—to come to a deeper practice of the faith. Only Catholics with a vibrant sense of their own faith can effectively evangelize those outside the church.
The start of the Year of Faith coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is no accident. Celebrating the anniversary of Vatican II does not mean gazing with curiosity or nostalgia at black-and-white photos of the council fathers discussing theology. Rather, it means appreciating the very real gifts of the council as they exist in the church today.
Vatican II saw the beginning of more active participation by the laity, both in worship and the life of the church in general. It saw the church rediscovering itself and proclaiming the Gospel with renewed energy. Vatican II and the Year of Faith are essentially part of the same overarching motion. Fifty years are like the blink of an eye for an institution whose unofficial motto is “We think in centuries,” so it is no surprise that the council’s documents embody a sense of the church’s relationship with the world today.
The Vatican has recommended that Catholics read (and bishops make abundantly available) the documents of Vatican II and the catechism during the Year of Faith. If faith is to flourish, it must be grounded. These resources are nourishment for the body of Christ on the journey, as we seek to reinvigorate the church’s mission and draw others to faith.
Models of Joy and Charity
In his talk on the new evangelization, Cardinal Dolan recalled what Cardinal John Wright told him and other seminarians studying at the North American College in Rome in the 1970s: “Do me and the church a big favor. When you walk the streets of Rome, smile!”—words that Cardinal Dolan has taken to heart ever since. We are all called to evangelize by simply walking into a room and radiating Christian joy, even in everyday human interactions.
This sort of evangelization can happen all the time. The woman going to the shelter, the father at his daughter’s baptism and a community coming together in grief—these examples show how Catholics witness to their faith in moments great and small and, whether they realize it or not, sow seeds of faith in others. As “Disciples Called to Witness” states: “The everyday moments of one’s life lived with Christian charity, faith, and hope provide witness to family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and others who have stopped actively participating in the life of the Church. This witness is essential for reaching others in today’s modern world.”
In effect, the goals of the Year of Faith are accomplished when everyone in the church simply strives to do what he or she is called to do: husbands and wives, love each other; priests and religious, serve your people; children, be kind and share. All people can evangelize with their lives. This includes believing in the powerful witness of regular participation in the sacraments, especially Sunday Mass and the sacrament of reconciliation.
The saints were masters of this. Pope Benedict has recommended that during the Year of Faith the church promote the lives of the saints as model evangelizers. The U.S. bishops are doing this, in part, by featuring the saints through Facebook and other social media. Finding great evangelizers among the saints comes easily: Mother Teresa, St. Vincent de Paul and St. Francis of Assisi, to name just a few. (St. Francis is also traditionally credited with saying, “Preach the Gospel always. If necessary, use words.”) U.S. Catholics can also find encouragement in the example of American saints like St. Katharine Drexel, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha. All of these saints provide a witness of evangelization. Each one made the encounter with Christ real, and each one identified strongly with the poor and found Christ among the “least of these.”
The church is calling all Catholics to perform charitable works throughout the Year of Faith. In this way, Catholics will be given a chance to encounter Christ in those they serve, while those who see and experience this service will encounter a reflection of Christ’s love.
When describing the effect his Los Angeles-based Homeboy Ministries has had on the lives of the former gang members it serves, Gregory Boyle, S.J., cites the lyric from “O Holy Night”: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining/ till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” This is a beautiful image. When Christ simply appears, the power of his love and his truth transforms lives. Through this love and truth, people are able to see that they are made for lives that reflect their dignity and worth. The same approach can be applied more broadly to the personal encounter with Christ. The love of Christ, proclaimed in both word and acts of charity, and the body of Christ, the church, help people experience their true worth.
This is a potent contribution to a world no longer dominated by debates between Catholics and Protestants, but now between believers and others who would say religion has nothing of value to offer society. The church offers a positive alternative to cynicism, secularism, individualism and relativism—the “sins and errors” of today’s world.
Like the world before Christ, our world is pining. There must be something better than cynicism, misery and empty feelings. Many people live life with a materialistic “whoever has the most toys wins” mentality, all the while coping with addictions to drugs, alcohol and sex. We see people depressed who wonder, “Is this all there is to life?”
To this despair, Pope Benedict offers the Year of Faith as a countermeasure. For Catholics, there is much more to life. The worth of the human person is that all are created to experience the love of God and to love God in return. Living a life of love for Christ and the church is at the heart of faith. The spark of that faith can be elusive and dim, but when it is fanned into flame and brightened, it can transform the world.