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March 14, 2011

It is now nearly 30 years since Pope John Paul II first uttered the words "new evangelization" in a speech to the Latin American bishops in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. If the new evangelization has not yet hit your local parish in a big way — it probably hasn't — don't expect that the idea will go away. Major change in the Church takes time.

In fact, no idea has riveted the Church's centres of authority more than the new evangelization. The Vatican last year set up an agency to promote it and next year it will host a synod of bishops on the theme. In the Edmonton Archdiocese, the five-year Nothing More Beautiful process is explicitly oriented toward the new evangelization.

The leading institutions of Western secular society have the ingrained belief that Christianity has lost its vitality and will never again be a force for strengthening the culture. Popes John Paul and Benedict XVI, however, have argued forcibly that Western culture is in decline precisely because it has turned its back on Christianity.

What is needed is a new springtime of faith.

The new evangelization is distinguished from traditional missionary activity, which brings the Gospel to those who have never heard it. It is also distinct from normal faith education. The new evangelization aims to reignite the fire of faith in baptized peoples in whom the fire has gone cold.

The discussion document for next year's synod says, in the West, "many of the baptized lead totally un-Christian lives and more and more persons maintain some links to the faith but have little or a poor knowledge of it." Often, the faith is presented as a caricature and treated with indifference or open hostility.

What is the way forward? About that there is much less clarity. Pope John Paul characterized the new evangelization as "new in ardor, methods and expression." That's a suitably vague description for a pope, but a somewhat unhelpful one for those who will carry out the program. The responsibility for that lies more at the local level.

It must be emphasized, however, that the new evangelization is underway and has already had profound effects. The Second Vatican Council was convoked so that, in the words of Pope John XXIII, "the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously" in the light of "a crisis underway within society." The new evangelization is, in reality, the full implementation of Vatican II.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of Church Social Doctrine are more recent tools for the new evangelization.

It may seem that the new evangelization has been painfully slow to move out of the station. But it is gathering momentum and it will someday become a force that changes not only lives, but whole societies.