Holy Spirit Detail of Chair of St. Peter

Holy Spirit Detail of Chair of St. Peter

From my position of working in the Church, I’d say the question of the year has been “What exactly is the New Evangelization?” Everyone is asking it. Conferences are popping up like spring flowers spotting the landscape, with the customary “expert” itinerant speaker. Most people, I think, are finding their way to the right answer.

We have begun to recognize the fruitlessness of years of trying to create a new, watered-down Gospel with particular emphasis on certain issues. But the New Evangelization does not equal a new gospel. “Neither does it involve removing from the Gospel whatever seems difficult for the modern mentality to accept… The New Evangelization has as its point of departure the certitude that in Christ there are ‘inexhaustible riches’ [Eph. 3:8] which no culture nor era can exhaust… These riches are, first of all, Christ himself, his person, because he himself is our salvation” (Pope St. John Paul II, 1982 Address).

So, we’re not talking about a new Gospel, but a new context in which the Gospel must be proclaimed. Dr. Ralph Martin, in The Urgency of the New Evangelization, sums up St. John Paul II’s thought as follows:

He distinguished “primary evangelization” directed toward those who have never heard the gospel before, “pastoral care” directed toward those who were living as believers but also perhaps needing a deeper conversion, and “new evangelization or re-evangelization” directed toward those from traditionally Christian cultures or backgrounds “where entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel” (see Redemptoris Missio 33). To state it in a simple way, what’s primarily new about the “new evangelization” is whom it is directed toward, the baptized who are not living in an active relationship of discipleship with Jesus. It is also “new” in the passion and enthusiasm that Pope John Paul II has stated as essential for its success.

New Pentecost

Indeed, St. John Paul II called for the New Evangelization to be characterized by “new ardor, methods, and expression” capable of reaching modern man and the current culture.

I believe this is precisely where the trouble lies.

We know from experience that human ardor wanes, and that forms of communicating and various expressions are rather mutable. The tendency in the Church seems to be one that fails to see the full reality of our situation; and that we do not merely face a challenge posed to us by the flesh and blood of modernity. We fail to see past materialism, success, strategic planning, programs, and quantifiable results. Yet the full reality reveals that we are up against the “principalities and powers,” the spirit of the age dominated by the Enemy. Merely human means will never prove to be sufficient in carrying out a new evangelization complete with new ardor, methods, and expressions. We need something more. Pope Benedict XVI, during a meditation at the Synod on the New Evangelization, made a similar observation:

The Church does not begin with our “making”, but with the “making” and “speaking” of God. In the same way, the Apostles did not say, after a few meetings: now we want to make a Church, and that by means of a constituent assembly they were going to draft a constitution. No, they prayed and in prayer they waited, because they knew that only God himself can create his Church, that God is the first agent: if God does not act, our things are only ours and are insufficient; only God can testify that it is he who speaks and has spoken. Pentecost is the condition of the birth of the Church: only because God acted first, are the Apostles able to act with him and make what he does present.

Precisely for this reason, the Popes, dating back to St. John XXIII have been asking for a New Pentecost. All of the talk about evangelization and New Evangelization has as its condition a New Pentecost. Indeed, the Holy Spirit must be the source of spiritual ardor. The Holy Spirit must indicate the method and provide the force necessary for the expression of the faith. A New Pentecost means the end of will power Christianity and “business as usual.” It means the end of data collection and human strategies spawned in response. As Venerable Pope Paul VI noted, “It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: it is He who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is He who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood” (Evangelii Nuntiandi 75).

Further on he also says:

Techniques of evangelization are good, but even the most advanced ones could not replace the gentle action of the Spirit. The most perfect preparation of the evangelizer has no effect without the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit the most convincing dialectic has no power over the heart of man. Without Him the most highly developed schemas resting on a sociological or psychological basis are quickly seen to be quite valueless.

Therefore, the first step to accomplishing a New Evangelization is not a clever strategy, a billboard, or a social media platform, but a prayer to the Holy Spirit. For the Holy Spirit is “the protagonist, ‘the principal agent of the whole of the Church’s mission.’ It is he who leads the Church on her missionary paths” (CCC 852), and “wherever the Spirit intervenes, he leaves people astonished. He brings about events of amazing newness; he radically changes persons and history” (John Paul II, Address to Renewal Movements in 1992). As Mary Healy and Peter Williamson note in The Urgency of the New Evangelization:

We would do well to consider whether the church today has sufficiently taken into account this link between Pentecost and evangelization… It is common to presume that since the first Pentecost the Church enjoys the fullness of the Spirit and can get on with the job of proclaiming the gospel. But a fresh outpouring of power from on high is as necessary today as it was in the early church. To take the New Testament witness seriously is to conclude that there can be no new evangelization without a new Pentecost.

First Pentecost : First Evangelization :: New Pentecost : _________________

Looking back at the history recounted in Acts of the Apostles affords us with some startling insights. We know that the disciples were commissioned to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” and then seemingly left alone by Jesus after the Ascension. They made their way back to the upper room and waited, together as one, and prayed for this Advocate who was to help them fulfill this mission.

So, here they are, facing a seemingly impossible task, yet they are gathered together in prayer, in the very place where the Eucharist was instituted. But let’s look further into the context. Many Jews were gathered in Jerusalem at that time for the celebration of Pentecost. One one level Pentecost was a harvest festival and on another it was the religious celebration of Moses’ reception of the stone tablets at Sinai.

Jews who had been dispersed from Palestine due to the exile gathered in Jerusalem for the celebration. While for most religions, this dispersion would indicate its end, Judaism survived. Yet to deny that the diaspora proved harmless to Judaism would be an oversight. We all know from experience that when one is removed from a religious setting (a retreat, etc.) and inserted securely into secular culture, a certain assimilation of secular ideals occurs, to whatever extent one allows. Hence in Acts 2, we have Jews from all over the region, who identify themselves first by their nation/region (see Acts 2: 8-11), gathered in Jerusalem.

Liken this to the present-day situation of Catholic Christianity. Here, we have the breakdown of Christendom, division within the Church, and the creation of a post-Christian culture that has resulted in secularism infiltrating the very innards of the Church herself. The new context within which the Gospel must be proclaimed is precisely to the dispersed Catholic Christian — he who has been baptized, yet, for whatever reason, is far away from home.

Right in the middle of this context, the apostles beg for the Holy Spirit and the force of wind makes its way into the Upper Room, the glory of God manifests itself in tongues of fire, and the Gospel message is able to be expressed in an understandable manner — in a language that the “modern Jew” could understand.

Do we not need the same force, the same power, the same action of the Spirit today?

The coming of the Spirit for the apostles meant the end of fearful following and attempts to “figure it out.” Peter goes on to proclaim the Gospel and to testify to Christ Jesus crucified (i.e. he did not mince words; cf., Acts 2:22-23); and 3,000 were added that day (Pentecost). Thus, on the harvest feast, the first evangelization reaped its first fruits. On the day celebrating the reception of the stone tablets at Sinai — a day also marred by the golden calf and the slaying of 3,000 (Exodus 32) and consequently Israel’s adoption of the stony heart that would be a refrain throughout the Old Testament (e.g. Ezekiel 36:26) — on this very day God’s Word would cut 3,000 to the heart and give them new hearts through the rebirth of Baptism.

The apostles did not need cute programming to launch the first evangelization. They needed the Holy Spirit. We need the same in our times — a new movement of the Spirit, a new outpouring, a new spiritual ardor capable of cutting through hearts that have become stone cold (including our own). This Pentecost, I pray that we do not merely celebrate an historical event, but experience it anew in our lives.

“Let us implore from God the grace of a new Pentecost for the Church… May tongues of fire, combining burning love of God and neighbor with zeal for the spread of Christ’s Kingdom, descend on all present!” (Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, April 19, 2008)

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