Waiting on the New Evangelization

If precedent is any guide, many good Catholic lay people are waiting to hear what their diocesan bishops and/or local pastors have to say about the new evangelization before they decide whether it’s something for them to get involved in. That’s the typical reaction of the clericalist mindset to something new in the Church: “What does Father want us to do?”

It was good enough to keep the Church running for a long time, but it doesn’t work so well anymore. If it persists, its internal inadequacies are likely to alienate more and more people in the years ahead. And there will be no new evangelization.

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There is, of course, nothing wrong with lay-clergy cooperation — in relation to evangelization or anything else. On the contrary: Cooperation between lay people and their bishops and priests is very, very good.

But excessive dependence of the laity on the clergy — always waiting for them to do the thinking, give the orders, and take the lead — is something else again. It is, to repeat, an expression of clericalism, and it just isn’t helpful.

By now, surely, the problem that the new evangelization is supposed to address should be perfectly obvious to everyone, lay and cleric alike. It’s the serious shrinkage of faith in places where it used to be strong.

That is notably the case in much of Europe, in countries like France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain, and even parts of Ireland, where, to one degree or another, Christianity appears to have its back to the wall. Pope Benedict XVI says many of the inhabitants of such places have become “a people of unbelief and distance from God.”

That isn’t an issue only in Europe. The same problem, or set of problems, also exists in North America — that is to say, in the United States and Canada.

Quebec, once a bastion of Catholicism, has been experiencing radical secularization for years, and participation in the Church is way down. In both countries, mainstream Protestantism is weak and growing weaker. And in the United States, too, the Church has serious problems of retention, dramatized in the fact that one in three Americans who were raised as Catholics have quit the Church, with half joining mostly conservative Protestant bodies and the others becoming religiously unaffiliated.


Pope Benedict has spoken often about such matters, but he’s done more than talk. A while back he announced that the world Synod of Bishops in October next year would focus on new evangelization, and earlier this year he established as part of the Curia a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization to organize the Holy See’s response to the issue.

While it hardly needs saying that meetings and structures have only limited value in and of themselves, they’re essential to developing and applying the new thinking that the new evangelization clearly demands.

That was the central point of Benedict’s important address to the new pontifical council last May, in which he declared “the need for a renewed method of proclamation” to counter the effects of secularization. A renewed approach is required, he insisted, because this crisis itself is new, finding expression as it does in things like “the exclusion of God from people’s lives” and “generalized indifference toward the Christian faith, to the point of attempting to marginalize it from public life.”

When the pope talks about “a renewed method,” many people probably assume that he means new projects and new technologies, especially the use of digital media. Undoubtedly he does — seeing Benedict using Twitter on TV strongly suggests as much. But he likely also means something else — something that’s a great deal more important.

Specifically, I believe Benedict was speaking of the need for a new mentality suited to the new evangelization. Above all, a mentality in which the clericalism of the past is no longer dominant in Catholic life.

So let me ask: Do Catholic lay people really have to wait for marching orders from the clerical hierarchy of the Church before getting involved in the new evangelization? The answer, of course, is no.

For skeptics, here’s a simple program for new evangelization that any lay Catholic can and should undertake right here and now, on his or her own, without waiting to receive instructions from the pope or the bishop or the pastor.

First, be exemplary in the practice of your religion. That doesn’t mean being a pious pain in the neck; it means living out the faith with conviction and commitment, and doing so not just at church on Sunday but in weekday secular life in the world — in the home, school, neighborhood, and workplace. People of faith who do that will attract attention, and although the attention won’t always be favorable, sometimes it will be. That’s evangelization.

Second, study the faith so that you can explain it intelligently and, when necessary, defend it. Slowly and carefully read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (or, if that’s too much, the Compendium of the Catechism) along with the American bishops’ adult catechism. Read other solid, orthodox religious literature (a man named Joseph Ratzinger has published a lot). Bone up on the history of the Church. “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for your hope” (1 Pet 3:15). That also is evangelization. If you’re not up to doing it now, the remedy rests with you.

Two other steps are worth mentioning, though they may not be available to everyone. One is to join a faithful apostolic group that provides formation for evangelization (if you can find one, that is). The other, for those with some special skill or aptitude — writing or music, for example — is to think of creative ways to put it to use in this great cause.

Whatever else you do, stop excusing inaction by saying you can’t do anything until Father tells you what to do. That’s clericalism, and it’s wrong. Here’s hoping you and Father have many opportunities to work together in the future on behalf of the new evangelization. But pending that, you’ve got lots to do right now.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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