Press Play on the New Evangelization

Image from Alpha Catholic Context Intro

Press Play on the New Evangelization


The following is a talk I gave this past weekend at a training day for Catholics using Alpha.  

Press “Play” on the New Evangelization

1. An argument: What is evangelization?

I’d like start to sharing a personal experience. A few months back my wife and I were eagerly watching a new TV show about the Catholic Church in the modern world. It was very attractive in many ways: it was stylistically appealing and fast-paced. It highlighted good events, Church groups, charitable work, and other interesting things. There was just one thing about it that drove me crazy, and it lead to an impassioned conversation between my wife Lisa and I.

"Why do they keep calling it 'the show dedicated to the New Evangelization'??” I asked.

“Why not?” She answered. “Isn’t that what it is?”

“No, It’s really not.”

“What do you mean it’s not? What is it then?”

“Well, it’s a show about good things that are happening in the Church. It’s talking about soup kitchens and the Knights of Columbus. Great! These are very important things. But they aren’t the New Evangelization, right?”

“What are you talking about!?! Of course they are! These people are evangelizing!”…

“No they aren’t.”

“What are you talking about?? Yes they are!"

And so forth. We basically fought about this for about 2 hours, and what became abundantly clear was that we were operating with different definitions of what evangelization is.  

My wife wanted me to share this story with you because it was such an eye-opener for both of us. Her definition for evangelization was what you could rightly call witness. It was the good things you do on the outside that might indirectly show your faith. Things like being a person of integrity, being honest, maybe doing charitable work, going to Church, etc. In her words, “living a good life, being a good person, you know, being Christian.

"But not too pushy.” 

I could relate to where she was coming from. When I was applying for my first position in campus ministry at York University, one of the questions asked in my job interview was “What does evangelization mean to you?” I gave an answer that was almost identical to my wife’s definition. It was basically the famous "quote" attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the Gospel always, when necessary use words.”

By which I meant, and she meant, you probably don’t need words. People will just… figure it out.

Maybe this is the definition of evangelization you are operating with. Well, I can tell you that my wife Lisa and I have both abandoned this definition of evangelization, and here is why:

Evangelization requires words.

2. Definition of evangelization

Evangelization means to share the Gospel of Jesus with somebody. The meaning of the word comes from the Greek euagelion, which combines two words, eu (“well”, or “good”) and aggello (“I bear [bring] a message”). In other words it is the bringing of the good message, i.e. the Good News, or, Gospel.

This is a simple definition, right? Why do we misunderstand it so much?

3. Explanation of difference between witness and proclamation

There is a very important place for what my wife was talking about: witness. But it is missing a very crucial part of the equation. That part is properly called proclamation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the relationship of these components of evangelization:

Lay people also fulfill their prophetic mission by evangelization, "that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life." For lay people, "this evangelization . . . acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world."
This witness of life, however, is not the sole element in the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers . . . or to the faithful.1

“the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word."

Announcing Christ by word is proclamation. And if there is no proclamation, really there is incomplete evangelization.

Here is a quote that is just beautiful in its clarity:

"There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed.”2 

In this wonderful quote Pope Paul VI states the basic content for proclamation. We need to be saying the name of Jesus for any true evangelization to take place. He is Who we proclaim.

A good question for us to ask ourselves, if we are concerned with evangelization, is: ““How and when have I spoken of Jesus to people? What am I saying about him?”

We may prefer witness of life to proclamation. Who wouldn’t? Witness is a little safer, no? Why do you think that St. Francis “quote” is so popular (I put quote in quotations because there is actually no record of him saying or writing this). Because everyone wants to be an upstanding person, someone of integrity, someone who is loving, etc. This is admirable to anyone. But saying the name of Jesus? Talking about him? This is scary, right?  

Even setting aside these great quotes I argue that witness as a policy is not enough. Even if you are an amazing person, how do you expect people to know why you are such a great person? Why would people today assume that Jesus is the source of this? Aren’t there people out there that are just really nice? Aren’t there even atheists who help out in the community and appear to be very loving?

Ron Huntley our speaker is a really nice guy. I know from spending time with him that he is a really relatable guy, a loving husband, a very involved dad, etc.. But I would never know it is more than just his personality or temperament but for the fact that he’s talked about his faith with me. He’s shared some of his personal testimony with me, and I’ve spent time talking with him and seen him at work. Because of that I can tell you that Jesus is front and centre in Ron’s life. 

Otherwise I really couldn’t say for sure.

Here’s an analogy that came to me when I was preparing this talk. I think that our witness of life is the envelope that the message (the Gospel) goes in. An envelope helps to deliver a message somewhere. But if you don’t open up an envelope, how can you expect someone to understand the message inside it? How much good is a sealed envelope, no matter how pretty it is?  

I think the New Evangelization is about Catholics ceasing to be sealed envelopes. We need to be open ourselves up and be willing to share the message inside.

4. Definition of New Evangelization

I’ve spoken about evangelization in general; so what’s the New Evangelization?

The first known use of the term occurred when St. John Paul II was speaking in Haiti to a group of Latin American bishops in 1983. He said:

“Look to the future with commitment to a New Evangelization, one that is new in its ardor, new in its methods, and new in its expression.”

The context of this was a recognition that in parts of the world that were “Christian” (like Latin America, like North America), there was nevertheless a crisis where the full meaning of the Christian faith was being lost on many people.

For this reason, the Pope believed that the Gospel needed to be re-prorposed to people who already identified themselves as Christians. For there were many people who could be accurately described as "baptized and sacramentalized, but not yet evangelized."

Another aspect of the New Evangelization that was emphasized was the involvement of the laity. St. John Paul again said in 1990:

“I sense that the moment has come to commit all the Church’s energies to a new evangelization… No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples."3 

And for a more recent urging, from Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium:

"The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries”, but rather that we are always “missionary disciples”.4

5. “We’re all like on pause”

Having spoken about the call for a New Evangelization, we should probably ask the question: where exactly are we in the New Evangelization? How are we doing in terms of progress? Are we halfway there at least?

Cardinal Gerald Cyprien Lacroix of Quebec was asked recently, upon his elevation to the college of cardinals, what his main priorities were. He said:

“I’m very involved in the New Evangelization. That’s what makes my heart tick: to share the Gospel of the Lord and to bring people to encounter Jesus Christ. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and bringing people to him is my life.”

“to share the Gospel of the Lord and to bring people to encounter Jesus Christ.” Another great way of describing evangelization, no?

He went on to speak of the need to invite people back to Jesus and to discover the Gospel. 

But then he says this:

“But we’re waiting. We’re all like on pause, waiting for somebody to change the world.”

We’re all like on pause.   

This statement, I think, should give each of us pause. What does he mean? It’s 31 years since we stated taking about the New Evangelization. How could we be “on pause”?

And if we are on pause, how do we get off pause?

6. Rename or change

I personally think that the new evangelization places us at a fork in the road, and we have to decide on one of two options.

One is this: we rename many of the things we’ve always been doing and categorize them as our new evangelization programs. Cardinal Schonborn lamented that this was happening even at the Synod on the New Evangelization. Basically you just put a new ribbon that says “new evangelization” on whatever you were already doing. So now you have “First Communion Evangelization”; “RCIA- Evangelization”; etc.

This approach, let’s be honest, is not really an expression of the New Evangelization at all. This is a bookkeeping trick. 

The other option requires living in reality and facing some hard facts.

I’ve been quoting this stat endlessly since I read it a few weeks back: a 2012 Pew Research poll forum was asking about how different Christian groups saw God. Some of the options given were “someone I can have a relationship with” and “an impersonal force.”

Anyone want to take a stab at how many Catholics said they see God primarily as an "impersonal force"?

About 30%.

And shockingly, only 48% of respondents said they were "absolutely certain" that God was someone with whom we could have a personal relationship with. Less than half of our people are grasping the absolute basics of what means to be a Christian. 

This is the advanced stage of the disease St. John Paul was diagnosing in 1983. It has not gotten better; it’s getting worse.

If we want to be true responders to the call for the new evangelization, we can’t be afraid of the ugly truth. St. John Paul wasn’t, so neither should we. This crisis is what should inspire our new methods, ardor and expression.

7. Sinful complicity

I was at a conference recently and I attended a workshop about leadership in the parish context. In it, the speaker brought up some things that really hit a nerve with me.

I had been reflecting and wondering why we are so much on pause in the new Evangelization. Where is the breakdown happening?

The speaker, drawing from Pope Francis, highlighted the many different things that can steer a parish instead of its mission; things like events, programs, the building, and conflicts. She also talked about what Pope Francis calls the “sinful complicity”, which is a confusion of roles whereby lay people believe their call to Christian leadership is essentially fulfilled by taking on “clericalized” roles: lector; altar server; Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. He says that many lay people: “ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than a protagonist on the lay path.”

What affected me most was when she spoke of a situation where an attitude of passivity on the part of the laity meets clerical disengagement. It’s a sense that it’s up to the pastor to do everything in terms of spiritual leadership and mission. We laity can complain about the job he’s doing and not do anything about it. Pastors, meanwhile, having many other things to do, can table evangelization programs for next year, or the year after, or never.

This unholy agreement that we silently accept allows for a mediocrity to set in. We become in practice a closed community. We self congratulate ourselves on how “welcoming" a community we are, meanwhile nobody is knocking on the door.

I have to tell you that hearing about this concept left me with a sick feeling in my gut. It was a deep, deep sense of mourning. It was anger mixed in with guilt. The fact I had to face is, there are two people shaking hands in this agreement, and one of them was me.

When have I bemoaned inwardly the parish’s lack of missionary outreach, and then did nothing about it? When have I said “Oh the pastor should be doing this and that” and never spoken to him about it? When have I let fear or some other thing prevented me from stepping out of my comfort zone, and reach out to someone who I know needs Jesus in their life?

I’ll tell you the truth; the answer is, often.

I have been complicit. I have sinned. I realized that at this conference and I repented, because that is a true sin of omission. 

8. Will we long with Jesus?

Cardinal Lacroix said that the New Evangelization made his heart tick, and I think that this is really the place we have to look at when we gauge our response to the call.

Cardinal Schonborn recently said:

“You know, the real move for evangelization is that you must feel Jesus longing for us. He wants to be with us. He has a desire to meet us, and if this desire of Jesus is within us then… inevitably grows the desire in us to evangelize."

For each of us, in a personal way, the New Evangelization has to go from being an idea or a slogan, to a deep, aching, yearning in the heart. We must feel Jesus longing for us, and with him, long for others.

Are we willing to go there? Will we feel the gap of life knowing Jesus and not knowing him, and help people walk across that gap? Will we put ourselves out there, well beyond the limits of our comfort zones, if it means helping someone come to know Christ?

9. A plan of action

I've had the opportunity in my work as a campus minister to host 4 retreats and/or workshops on evangelization. In the follow up to these activites, I noticed that many people who had come to understand evangelization and wanted to see it happen still ended up a bit frustrated in their efforts. Maybe they weren't exactly sure where to focus them. Whereas those I directly entrusted into intentional evangelizing roles (like leading a small-group faith study) seemed to really grasp the missionary mindset and thrive in bringing others to Christ.

The head and the heart need to move the hands. This is why I get so excited about tools like Alpha. Alpha offers people defined roles in the work of evangelization. If you are co-leading an Alpha experience, you will have no doubt that you are bringing people to a place where proclamation is happening. You will be inviting them into an experiene of a loving Christian community. You will be entering into their journey with them, and they yours. In friendship you will encounter the message of the Gospel together and talk about it. They may even ask that you pray that the Holy Spirit will come into their lives and give them faith.  

You may play a role in completely transforming somebody's life. And you will marvel at what God did through you. 

Sure, sometimes life-changing conversations arise on their own. But weren't the early Christians willing to go out and invite people into them (see Acts of the Apostles)? And shouldn't we also be willing to do this, if in fact we can? 

10. Effects of pressing play

Coming back to the story of my conversation with Lisa, the results of our discussion were felt almost immediately. The very next day she was in a situation in her office where her coworkers were discussing a matter of religious belief. In Lisa’s willingness to engage in the discussion, it circled around to her personal beliefs. Amazingly, one of her coworkers at one point said “I don’t really understand Christianity.” At which point my wife was able to have a discussion about who Jesus is and why we profess he is God. Right in the workplace.

Isn’t that amazing?

Beyond that she is way more intentional about sharing aspects of her faith in conversation, and is hungry for ways to share Jesus with others even more.

One of these ways is Alpha, and I’m going to end my talk by sharing a short promo on what Alpha is in a Catholic context. I’m going to press play now, and I invite you to as well.

If you would like to know more about running Alpha, send me an email at


1Catechism of the Catholic Church, 905

2Evangelii Nuntiandi, 22

3Redemptoris Missio, 3

4Evangelii Gaudium, 120

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