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Evangelization 101: A Short Guide to Sharing the Gospel | Carl E. Olson
If asked to complete this sentence, "The entire mission of the Church,
then, is concentrated and manifested in ", how many Catholics
would finish it with the word "evangelization"?
That sentence is from Pope John Paul IIs Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles
Laici, "On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in
the Church and in the World." It was written by the late Holy Father
at the end of 1988 in response to the 1987 Synod of Bishops, which had focused
on the theme "Vocation and Mission in the Church and in the World Twenty
Years after the Second Vatican Council." Forty years have now passed
since the conclusion of the last Council and the topic of evangelization
remains as vital and urgent as ever.
It also remains something of a mystery or afterthought to some Catholics.
After all, isnt evangelization something that Evangelical Protestants
do? Doesnt it mean knocking on doors, preaching in public squares,
and rubbing friends and co-workers the wrong way? And yet John Paul II stated
in Christifideles Laici that "the lay faithful, precisely because they are members
of the Church, have the vocation and mission of proclaiming the Gospel:
they are prepared for this work by the sacraments of Christian initiation
and by the gifts of the Holy Spirit" (CL 33).
John Paul IIs call to evangelization was not, of course, a unique
innovation. Rather, it was a reiteration of the Councils repeated
call for the entire Church, and especially the laity, to be involved in
evangelizing the world. The word evangelization coming from the Greek
word for gospel, or the "good news" of Jesus Christ. Lumen
Gentium, Vatican IIs Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, stated
that the laity "have the exalted duty of working for the ever greater
spread of the divine plan of salvation to all men, of every epoch and all
over the earth. Therefore may the way be clear for them to share diligently
in the salvific work of the Church according to their ability and the needs
of the times" (LG 33). So what exactly does that involve?
What is Evangelization?
There are many elements to evangelization, but three are especially important:
proclamation, transmission, and introduction.
Simply put, to evangelize is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and
the good news of his Incarnation, life, Passion, death, and Resurrection.
In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975),
Pope Paul VI wrote: "Thus it has been possible to define evangelization
in terms of proclaiming Christ to those who do not know Him, of preaching,
of catechetics, of conferring Baptism and the other sacraments." (par.
17). So this proclamation is to both non-Catholics and Catholics; we are
all in need of evangelization.
This goes hand-in-hand with the second element: transmission of the Faith.
"The transmission of the Christian faith consists primarily in proclaiming
Jesus Christ in order to lead others to faith in him," states the Catechism
of the Catholic Church. "From the beginning, the first disciples
burned with the desire to proclaim Christ: 'We cannot but speak of what
we have seen and heard.' And they invite people of every era to enter into
the joy of their communion with Christ
[see 1 John 1:1-4]" (par.
425). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Christians should have the desire to
pass on the good news of the Savior of mankind.
Thus, the proclamation and transmission of the Gospel has a singular goal:
to introduce people to the Person of Jesus Christ. This is beautifully expressed
in Johns first epistle, where the Apostle states that "what we
have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship
with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son
Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:3). John Paul II summed it up by insisting that
"evangelizations only point of departure is Jesus Christ, the
Way, and the Truth and the Life (John 14:6), the answer to the question
that is every human life." (Springtime of Evangelization [Basilica/Ignatius
Press, 1999], 58).
Who Evangelizes? And Why?
The entire Church is called to evangelize, for the Church is "by her
nature missionary since, according to the plan of the Father, she has as
her origin the mission of the Son and the Holy Spirit" (LG 33). As
the Father sent the Son and the Son sent the Spirit, so the Triune God sends
the Church the Body of Christ guided by the Holy Spirit to
"make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in
their Spirit of Love" (CCC 850).
It may surprise some Catholics to hear that the laity are especially called
to evangelize. In fact, this was one of the central messages of Vatican
II. Ad Gentes, Vatican IIs Decree on the Churchs Missionary
Activity, explained that the laitys "main duty, whether they
are men or women, is the witness which they are bound to bear to Christ
by their life and works in the home, in their social group, and in their
own professional circle" (AG 21). This is a participation in the prophetic
mission that each Catholic receives at baptism. It takes place in the ordinary
activities and circumstances of life: at home, in the work place, at school,
and everywhere in between.
Far from being a dreaded burden, evangelization should come from a desire
for all to be saved, flowing from our love for Christ and the recognition
of the dignity and value of every man. "From this loving knowledge
of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him, to 'evangelize', and to lead
others to the 'yes' of faith in Jesus Christ," states the Catechism
(CCC 429). Elsewhere, the Catechism repeats Saint Pauls reminder
that it is the love of Christ that urges us on (2 Cor 5:14) and that God
"desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth"
(1 Tim. 2:4; see CCC 851). Just as Christ came to do the will of the Father,
all those baptized into Christ should seek to do the same.
How To Evangelize?
Early in his pontificate John Paul II began to consistently call for a "new
evangelization." By this he did not mean that the content and message
of the Gospel had changed since it cannot change but that
evangelization should be new in its methods and approaches. Even this idea
was not new; it was as old as Christianity itself, as a study of the work
of Saint Paul or the early Church Fathers reveals. It was also addressed
by Pope Paul VI, who wrote, "This question of how to evangelize
is permanently relevant, because the methods of evangelizing vary according
to the different circumstances of time, place and culture, and because they
thereby present a certain challenge to our capacity for discovery and adaptation"
(Evangelii Nuntiandi 40).
An essential form of evangelization is witness, in both words and deeds.
As John Paul II noted in Redemptoris Missio ("The Mission of
Redemption," 1990), "People today put more trust in witnesses
than in teachers, in experience than in teaching, and in life and actions
than in theories" (RM 42.1). The concrete, visible way that
a Catholic lives what he believes can sometimes say more or say it
with more poignancy and effectiveness than simply talking about what
That witness should include what Paul VI called "indispensable personal
contact." "In the long run," he asked, "is there any
other way of handing on the Gospel than by transmitting to another person
one's personal experience of faith?" (EN 46). This is where Catholics
can sometimes struggle, not always comfortable talking about their beliefs
or sharing parts of their spiritual journey. But reflecting on the purpose
of evangelization and praying that God will guide us when opportunities
to evangelize arise helps us be better witnesses of the Gospel.
In addition, other means of evangelization include preaching (both within
and outside of liturgical celebrations), which Paul VI says is "an
important and very adaptable instrument of evangelization" (EN
43), catechesis, and mass media. And John Paul often pointed out that we
evangelize one another within our families and homes, the "domestic
Church": "The immediate and in many ways most important arena
of the laitys Christian witness is marriage and the family" (Springtime,
Ultimately, there must be a recognition that evangelization is a great responsibility
that bears great rewards. "Woe to me," Saint Paul lamented, "if
I do not preach the Gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16). "Faith is strengthened,"
John Paul II exclaimed, "when it is given to others" (Redemptoris
Missio 2.3). We who have been given much by Jesus Christ are asked,
in turn, to give the good news to others. Evangelization, in other words,
is completely Catholic.
Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World) Paul VI (1975)
Missio (The Mission of Redemption) John Paul II (1990)
Gentium (Vatican IIs Dogmatic Constitution on the Church)
et Spes (Vatican IIs Pastoral Constitution on the Church in
the Modern World)
Gentes (Vatican IIs Decree on the Churchs Missionary
Springtime of Evangelization: The Texts of the 1998 ad
Limina Addresses to the Bishops of the United States John Paul
Christifideles Laici ("On the Vocation and the Mission of the Lay Faithful in
the Church and in the World") John Paul II (1988)
of the Catholic Church, 849-856, 898-900, 904-907.
[This article originally appeared in a slightly different form in the
June 26, 2005 issue of Our
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic
Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California. Visit his personal web site at www.carl-olson.com
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