by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion
The Catholic Church in the U.S. has been committed since Vatican II to a new and vigorous program of evangelization. However, discussions and writings on what this means have often suffered from inadequate clarity.
The word “evangelization” itself may be part of the problem. While it clearly means proclaiming the Gospel, it is not always evident how this takes place. Perhaps the word “evangelization” is hampered by its association with evangelical Protestantism with its emphasis on Bible preaching and charismatic conversion processes.
While this model of evangelization can be instructive for Catholicism, it is necessary to distinguish Protestant evangelization from Catholic evangelization.
If Protestant evangelization is word-centered, Catholic evangelization is sacrament-centered. Catholic evangelization is properly guided by the affirmation of Vatican II that the Church has the character of a “sacrament,” a “sign and instrument” of God’s saving activity in the world.
This calls to mind words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Christians must proclaim the Gospel by every means possible–and if necessary use words.” Catholic evangelization does not work primarily through preaching, but by doing.
Accordingly, Catholic evangelization means, in great part, a practical renewal of the institutions by which the Church has traditionally maintained a saving presence in society.
An evangelizing parish means one ministering within a defined portion of the diocese. (The Catholic parish does not incidentally mean only the local community of Catholics; it means everyone living within the parish boundaries.)
It means a parish church in which the liturgy is conducted in a truly public way and which is open to the whole community as a place of prayer and contemplation. Catholic churches are places for all people.
Evangelization involves an excellent religious education program which reaches even beyond the Catholic community and serves as a forum for reflection and dialogue for the larger community.
It requires an organized parish ministry serving the poor and suffering and offering comfort and assistance in times of need.
Catholic evangelization involves a program of arts and humanities, keeping in mind Pope Benedict’s often-stated conviction that the two things most attractive to non-Catholics about Catholicism are sanctity and beauty.
Catholic primary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities have always been outstanding media of evangelization. Through its colleges and universities, the Church’s influence has permeated the worlds of philosophy and education, the arts and humanities, medicine and science.
The same is true of the institutions comprising Catholic Charities in every diocese (the name varies). Catholic Charities continues to have a magnificent record across the U.S. in ministry in the name of Christ to the poorest and most deprived. Catholic Charities and other institutions like it stand at the heart of the Church’s evangelizing ministry.
Catholic hospitals have been among the most visible and effective means of evangelization. By their Christ-centered apostolate of healing, they have given Catholicism a powerful presence far beyond the Catholic community in evangelizing the world of medicine and health care.
However, these institutions face today a crisis of identity. In one way or another they are in danger of becoming secularized. Church leaders need to lead them in a constructive way to a renewal of their original mission so that they will participate again fully in the Church’s mission of evangelization.
The multi-faceted institutional presence of the Catholic Church in the U.S. since its foundation has been a monumental evangelical success and has rendered Catholicism the most visible, public religious denomination in the country.
In a new era of evangelization we need to build upon and be guided by that history.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.