The annual celebration of Easter keeps before us the reality that Christian faith is, first and foremost, a personal relationship with the Risen Christ. Unless this relationship is growing, our faith is weakening. This is true, regardless of how strong our intellectual conviction about Christian beliefs and teachings may be.
The basic cause of decline in religious practice
Over the past half century, the Church has been pondering why the Church is growing rapidly in some parts of the world, and declining in others. Between 1981 and 2001, for example, the overall growth in the Church was a staggering 38%, despite religious practice within the western affluent world plummeting.
One ancient truth has become more apparent than ever. This is that the ultimate cause of a person’s declining religious practice is a declining personal relationship with their Risen Lord. The Church’s pastoral response to the needs of those who have given up the practise of the faith is the Gospel proclaiming strategy Pope John Paul II has named “New Evangelisation.” 1 It returns to the ways Jesus himself, and the Apostles, taught the Gospel.
Theologians and others speak a lot about the theology of New Evangelisation. It has almost become a “buzz phrase”. What is forgotten all too often is that New Evangelisation is first and foremost a strategy, an “action plan”. Its basic goal is to spark and to support a new openness to the Holy Spirit in two particular groups of baptised Christians, remembering that the Holy Spirit has been dwelling within them since Baptism.
Broadly speaking, the first group consists of those who have given up, lost interest in or rejected the faith. The second is those whose faith is endangered in the modern world because it is disproportionately devotional, or their faith formation and interest have developed little since they were young (even though they might be highly educated in other areas).2 A foundation for New Evangelisation is that it is the Spirit who will lead these people to a renewed or deepened faith, provided they are responsive.
New Evangelisation should be acted upon, therefore, not just talked about. Easter reminds us of the first task of a New Evangelisation “action plan”, which is to proclaim the Easter message and to invite an initial conversion to the Risen Lord, through precise teaching steps. This task seeks to address the foundational problem identified above in baptised people who no longer practice the religion Jesus gave us, or whose faith is endangered in the world of today.
Let us all heed again the call of Pope John Paul II to become ‘new evangelisers’. Let us begin taking these steps, if we are not already doing so, with loved ones, friends and others we know who have given up the practice of the faith. Incidentally, they are also the first evangelisation tasks for children, teenagers and young adults.
The Basic Easter Message
The message of Easter is that Jesus Christ is Risen from the dead, and that he offers to share the power of his Resurrection from the dead with all who are willing to accept this power into their lives. The first task of New Evangelisation involves two simple, yet profound steps. Together, these are called the “Primary (Missionary or First) Proclamation”.
My concern in this Easter Message is to encourage the application of these steps within family and friendship settings, for these settings are vital to a New Evangelisation strategy. Hopefully the examples will be helpful also to priests, catechists and teachers as they think about their ministries from a New Evangelisation perspective.
First step: Stir their interest in the Gospel
The Resurrection is the greatest demonstration of the divine power Jesus proclaimed as ‘the Kingdom of God’. Personal experiences of the power of the Kingdom are personal experiences of the Salvation Christ proclaimed, “the central point of his Good News.” 3 The Easter Vigil liturgy reminds us that this new and definitive divine intervention into human history is greater even than the creation of the universe.4
The first step of the first New Evangelisation task is to stir interest in the Gospel. This is done by relating to those needing New Evangelisation what the power of the Kingdom of God, or Christian Salvation, offers them for the significant questions and issues of their lives. They may reveal these questions and issues as they share their lives, hopes, questions and concerns with us in discussions and personal conversations.
They may be a confused teenager who has no idea what to do with their future life, or a relative whose marriage is in crisis. They may be the grieving parent of a child who died of cot death, or a farmer worrying about losing the farm. They can be someone facing serious illness, worrying about questions of identity, the after life or the purpose of life, or anguishing over finances, employment or the many other problems daily life can bring.
They may be major life crises, or worries about ordinary daily life situations and challenges. There may be deep hurts caused by childhood abuse or relationship breakdown; deep guilt over an abortion; a frustrated desire for genuine inner peace, freedom or happiness revealed perhaps in drug addiction; or struggles with chastity. The possibilities are numberless, and vary with age, vocation, social and economic situation and many other factors. No one is ever completely free of some worry or yearning.
The Scriptures and Tradition teach countless ways that the power of the Kingdom of God helps those who accept it. It promises peace to troubled hearts, strengthens personal goodness against temptations, forgives sins, frees from feelings of guilt and heals life’s hurts. It offers consolation in times of suffering and illness, and heart-felt solace in times of grief.
The power of the Resurrection empowers believers to live the Commandments as Jesus taught them (as distinct from Old Testament understandings). No offence by another is beyond forgiveness; no prejudice, jealousy or resentment is beyond the Christ-like love the Kingdom makes possible.
This power promises to strengthen, to purify and to renew married love, and the capacity to remain faithful to commitments and vows. It strengthens parents trying to bring up their children in the light of the Gospel, and guides towards solutions to personal and other problems.
Because Christ shares the very power through which he overcame death, the greatest of all human limitations, no human failing, weakness or bad habit is too great for it to conquer. No human situation, no matter how seemingly dark or tragic, is beyond redemption, for God brings good out of every evil experience for those with faith.
The first step of New Evangelisation, therefore, is concerned with helping others gently, but never in “preachy” ways, to realise what the Kingdom Christ preached offers their daily lives. As all that this power promises dawns on them, hope is sparked, along with an initial interest in the Gospel. The reason why Christian Salvation is called “good news’ dawns.
To work out how this first step could apply to loved ones and friends who need New Evangelisation, we need to ask three questions:” What heartfelt concerns, hopes, deeper questions, or anxieties do they reveal in their conversations?” “What might the promise of the power of the Resurrection offer them?” “How might I try to lead them to see this?”
The step looks simple, but really it is quite profound. It requires listening and patience. It proposes, never imposes. It is unachievable unless it is related always to people’s actual life experiences. Its promise cannot spark a faith response within another person’s heart unless it is related first to one or more of their heart-felt questions, concerns or yearnings.
Second step: Then invite personal conversion to the Risen Christ
The second New Evangelisation step is to point out, as people’s interest grows, that these experiences are offered personally to every human being by Jesus Christ, who is Risen and present always to all. To accept these experiences requires personal conversion to him.
Initially, this means acknowledging his presence, and placing before him one’s personal needs (as did so many in Gospel stories). It means becoming interested in, learning more about and following his ways.
In the Church’s experience, people’s interest in Christ grows with their interest in what his power can offer their daily lives. This and the previous step can sometimes take years of gentle encouragement. It all depends upon the person’s openness to the Holy Spirit, dwelling within them through Baptism.
This second step is essential far a journey in Christian faith. It would be very misleading to give any the impression that what the Kingdom can promise is possible without initial conversion to Christ himself. Nor should anyone be misled into assuming that the change in their lives will be instant. Though it can be, usually the power of the Kingdom Christ proclaimed grows gradually and gently within a person’s life.
Both steps provide the orientation for later New Evangelisation steps, all of which are related to deepening this initial conversion. The common task of later steps is to share with those of initial conversion the distinctive experiences of God that the Risen Christ makes possible. These experiences, and the Christian teachings needed to enter into them, are embedded in the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments as Jesus taught them, and Christian prayer.
The Risen Lord is with new evangelisers
Though just the initial two of the several steps in the New Evangelisation “action plan”, raising interest in the Gospel and inviting an initial personal conversion to the Risen Christ are indispensable for helping others to develop the foundation of a renewed faith. As with all steps, they require new evangelisers of earnest prayer. One needs only think of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, who prayed for thirty years before her son grew in the faith needed to receive Baptism.
It should not be imagined that, once people have made the choice of initial conversion, the first New Evangelisation steps are no longer necessary. In the Church’s pastoral experience, all steps for teaching the Gospel need repeating in different ways all the time.
A New Evangelisation strategy introduces these steps in a sequence as a person’s faith develops. It is not a matter of stopping earlier steps to move on to later ones.
May we all renew our faith in the Risen Lord this Easter, and all that his power offers us each day of our lives. As we do so, we will grow more effective as new evangelisers, for we will be sharing with loved ones and others, for whom practising the faith seems to have become largely irrelevant, what we know from personal experience.
1. General Directory for Catecheses 25, 26, 58(c).
2. General Directory for Catecheses 90
3. General Directory for Catechesis 101
4. General Directory for Catechesis 101