When I mentioned to a friend that I intended to write this month's column on the new evangelization, he accused me of having an obsession - a "holy" obsession, he qualified - with that theme. I told him that if I do indeed have such an obsession, it is because I am convinced that the work of helping people encounter Jesus Christ and His saving message is the primary mission of the Church ... at this time, and at all times. Evangelization is, as Blessed Paul VI declared in his 1976 encyclical "Evangelii Nuntiandi," the "deepest identity" of the Church. The Church, he wrote, "exists in order to evangelize" (#14).
To evangelize is to fulfill the command of Jesus: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
The "new evangelization" is an expression coined by St. John Paul II in a 1983 address to the Latin American bishops. So what is new about it? Certainly not the content. The content is a person, Jesus Christ, and His gospel of joy. What is new is the changing landscape of our culture, especially with regard to religion and its role in personal and social life. What is new is the diverse audience to which evangelization must be directed. What is new is the call of St. John Paul to "new ardor, new methods and new expression" in our efforts to "re-propose the gospel" to the people of our time, as Pope Benedict XVI put it.
Some challenging trends confront us as we consider this theme. You may be familiar with recent research data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Here are a few pertinent facts:
31.7 percent of U.S. adults were raised Catholic
31.4 percent of U.S. Catholics attend Mass weekly
About 13 percent of Americans are former Catholics
2 percent of Americans are converts to the Catholic faith
16 percent of millennials (born between 1982-2004) identify as Catholic
68 percent of Catholics with children under age 18 have involved them in no faith formation whatsoever
1 in 3 Catholic parents do not find it very important that their children celebrate their First Communion
1 in 4 Catholic parents do not find it very important that their children be confirmed.
And then we hear about the "nones," the folks who check "none" when asked about their religious affiliation. This group represents about 20 percent of the U.S. population. It is not a shrinking demographic, either. We used to find at least some small consolation when people said they were "spiritual, but not religious." However, this category appears to be shrinking as well.
Thus we have lots of work to do. And we have the people to do it ...you and me and the hundreds of thousands of self-identified Catholics who are the Diocese of Buffalo, the Catholic community of Western New York. One of the special graces of my ministry as your bishop is that I regularly get to meet in every parish and school, every campus ministry center and social service office, men and women, boys and girls, teens and young adults who love the Lord Jesus, are happy to be Catholic, and are doing their best to live their faith in their daily lives. The problem is that most of us do not think of ourselves as evangelizers. Imagine what could happen if we begin to do that and to live that!
Our assignment as evangelizers, rooted in our baptism, is to look for every possible opportunity to share with others the joy and meaning we know from our life in Christ, the strength and solidarity we experience from participation in the community of faith, and the nourishment and healing we receive in the sacraments. Catholic parents promise to do that at the baptism of their own children. Teachers in our Catholic schools share their faith every day. Parish leaders - ordained, lay and religious - spend their lives at this holy work. But the new evangelization is the work of ALL of us and it is a matter of urgency.
The command of Christ to "make disciples" is as fresh and urgent as it was when He spoke those words 2,000 years ago. The challenges are real, even daunting, and we need to be realistic about that. The mission to evangelize is given to each Christian at baptism. It is your responsibility as well as mine. And remember - it is God's work. God invites and empowers us to cooperate with Him in getting it done. Let's get to it!