Recently a new expression has made its way into our theological and ecclesial vocabulary. There's a lot of talk today about the New Evangelization. Indeed the pope has called for a synod to meet this year for a month in Rome to try to articulate a vision and strategy for such an endeavour.
What is meant by New Evangelization? In simple terms: Millions of people, particularly in the Western world, who are Christian in name, come from Christian backgrounds, are familiar with Christianity, believe that they know and understand Christianity, but no longer practise that faith in a meaningful way. They've heard of Christ and the Gospel, even though they may be overrating themselves in their belief that they know and understand what these mean.
No matter. Whatever their shortcomings in understanding a faith they no longer practise, they believe that they've already been evangelized and that their non-practice is an examined decision. Their attitude toward Christianity, in essence, is: I know what it is. I've tried it. And it's not for me.
So it no longer makes sense to speak of trying to evangelize such persons in the same way as we intend that term when we speak of taking the Gospel to someone for the first time.
It's more accurate to speak of a new evangelization, of an attempt to take the Gospel to individuals and to a culture that have already largely been shaped by it, are in a sense over-familiar with it, but haven't really in fact examined it. The New Evangelization tries to take the Gospel to persons who are already Christian but are no longer practising as Christians.
How to do that? How do we make the Gospel fresh for those for whom it has become stale? How do we, as G.K. Chesterton put it, help people to look at the familiar until it looks unfamiliar again? How do we try to Christianize someone who is already Christian?
There are no simple answers. It's not as if we haven't already been trying to do that for more than a generation. Anxious parents have been trying to do this with their children. Anxious pastors have been trying to do that with their parishioners. Anxious bishops have been trying to do that with their dioceses.
Anxious spiritual writers, including this one, have been trying to do that with their readership. And an anxious Church as a whole has been trying to do that with the world. What more might we be doing?
My view is that we are in for a long, uphill struggle, one that demands faith in the power and truth of what we believe and a long, difficult patience. Christ, the faith and the Church will survive. They always do. The stone always eventually rolls away from the tomb and Christ always eventually re-emerges, but we too must do our parts. What are those parts?
The vision we need as we try to reach out to evangelize the already evangelized will, I believe, need to include these principles:
We need to work at winning over hearts, not hardening them.