Viewpoint: Evangelization Means the Renewal of Catholic Institutions

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.


  1. I certainly agree that our institutions, including the institution of the church itself, needs to be re-evangelized. And I agree that it is good for institutions to consider anew what it means to have a Catholic identity.

    If I may offer an observation: individuals also need to be evangelized and re-evangelized. People don’t get initiated into sacramental life, and don’t participate as disciples in sacramental life, unless they are first called to do so. And that calling is 1:1, person-to-person.

    Up through the Boomer generation, it seems that this person-to-person sharing of faith and the Good News happened primarily through families: parents had their infants baptized and ensured that their children were further initiated into sacramental life, and non-Catholic and non-Christian adults were initiated into Catholicism by the influence of the sacrament of marriage. Of course, these things still happen, but both the family and marriage are considerably weaker as social institutions now.

    It seems to me that the church needs to think about new modes of evangelizing, on a micro scale, person-to-person. Unchurched families, single-parent families, unmarried adults – these modes of living are becoming ever more prevalent in our local communities. We Catholics have to find ways of sharing our faith, proclaiming the Good News, and inviting persons to come and see what it is that fills us with joy and faith.

  2. Hear, hear! Msgr. Mannion bore out this philosophy, too. The Cathedral of the Madeleine and especially the Madeleine Choir School are excellent models of evangelization.

    I am a convert (confirmed at the Madeleine), and was drawn to the Catholic Church through an already developed love of the amazing history of sacred art, architecture and music. I remember that my undergraduate music history teacher told us that the Vatican II reforms shamefully did away with all that wonderful stuff. Once I realized that was not true, I began to seek out a church that at least tried to realize that beauty, which was much harder than it should have been. The Catholic Church has a pretty great thing going for it in that regard – it should use it more.

  3. According to your defining statements, I must be Catholic, though a Lutheran. The sacramental character of our (parish) is defined by the same incarnational evangelism with the Word being primarily expressed in the Eucharist, which is necessarily preceeded by Holy Baptism, with the recognition and confession of our individual sinful nature and the reconciliation facilitatted in the sacrament.

    I get the gist of the article, but it once again shows the futility in the Roman Catholic pradtice of classifying all non Orthodox (if they are mentioned at all) non Roman Catholic Christians as “Protestants”. To imagine placing me and a Primitive Baptist in the same sacramental character is beyond humorus.

  4. I think your distinction between an “evangelical Protestant” sense of evangelization and Catholic use of the term is misleading. In the stage of Initial Proclamation, Catholic evangelization is (or should be) as “word-centered” (to include preaching rooted in Scripture) and oriented toward “charismatic” (Holy Spirit led and gift-filled) conversion that includes a fundamental decision that orients one’s life as a believer [i.e. Evangelii Nuntiandi 22-23, Deus Caritas Est 1].

    While your examples are indeed excellent examples of pre-evangelization or the witness of those who have been evangelized, alone this is not the fullness of Catholic evangelization as too many stages/phases/movements (whichever term one prefers) of evangelization are left out. This is by no means perfect, but it’s my best attempt at visualizing what this full definition of evangelization is in the Church: It’s important not to downplay any particular stage, especially personal conversion of the individual–which is the turning point that enables the beautiful institutional witness you propose.

    Also, justifying less “word” emphasis based on a quote “attributed to St. Francis of Assisi” seems a bit unwarranted, as I’ve never seen any historians attribute those words to Francis. The closest Francis comes to that line that I’ve seen is in his 1221 Code where his direction was that “No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister” but that all can preach through deeds. Made sense for traveling preachers–but clearly not a widely applicable mantra for the vast majority of us today who don’t need the direct permission of a local bishop or religious superior to use words 😉

  5. I think the distinction is crucial to make, as Msgr. Mannion does. I hear too often from evangelists that “you (Catholics) have been sacramentalized, but you have not been evangelized.” These are new evangelists speaking to Catholic audiences. Not only do they NOT make the distinction that Msgr. Mannion has articulated, but they actually degrade Catholic sacramentalism (although perhaps unconsciously). Msgr. Mannion helps us get back to the communal dimension of Catholicism by what he has written – which is vital in my estimation. I have stated this elsewhere, but it seems to me that many new evangelists operate out of a deficit model of Catholicism -meaning Catholics are deficient in emphasizing Catholic sacraments and broader sacramentality.

    1. @Michael McCallion – comment #6:
      I agree. This deficit model is especially operative where “the New Evangelization” is used to mean “re-evangelization” of the laity. What is meant is simply post-baptismal/mystagogical catechesis. The implication of “re-evangelization” is that the sacraments “didn’t take.”

      I think Colleen Vermeuelen’s model is very helpful in understanding the Evangelization as a modality within the ecclesial economy. Msgr. Mannion seems to be affirming the role of a robust and coherent communal sacramental life as an essential part of that economy.

  6. The Evangelicals grasp that we are living in a pagan culture, and Christianity offers an alternative, a different path. Their evangelization emphasizes personal conversion to Christ and giving witness to one’s faith both in church and in everyday life.

    We Catholics often act as if we are still living in Christendom where our values are automatically the dominant values of the culture. If this was ever the case, it certainly ended by the 1960s. We presume that our people have faith and are living as Christians, we just need to provide the sacraments and some catechesis to help them along the way. We seem to be unaware that most Catholics in this country, even those who attend Mass and the sacraments, are functional agnostics or even atheists if they really thought about it.

    Consider a typical baptism. I’m not speaking of the wonderful process of the RCIA, but the typical infant baptism experienced by nearly all Catholics. The baby’s parents call the rectory, attend a 1-hour class, and schedule the baptism. Even if these are done well (many are not), this family has interacted with the church for roughly 2 hours. There’s a good chance we won’t see them again until we spend a few more hours going through First Reconciliation and First Communion, then Confirmation.

    People experience our sacraments as rites of passage or go through them just to appease grandma. Few make any connection between what goes on in church and how they live their everyday lives.

    Unless we learn how to effectively convert people’s hearts and minds to live as disciples of Christ in this pagan culture, we will continue to experience a steady decline in the life of the Church.

  7. I think Scott Pluff (#8) nailed it.

    I am a Catholic. But I am influenced by “Protestant” thinking whenever our “separated brethren” seem to get it right. That said, I find it odd that Catholics seem to be the only Christians who write articles about evangelization that never make a reference to Jesus.

    Sacraments are not evangelization. Catechesis is not evangelization. Liturgical precision is not evangelization. Beautiful buildings are not evangelization. These things can support the work of evangelization. But evangelization is something else (and I think non-Catholic Christians are correct when they say so). And, yes, it’s possible to be sacramentalized without being evangelized. Is that really debatable, given the Mass attendance numbers in the US and elsewhere?

    I really believe that we Catholics will go a long way toward solving our ongoing “issues” (and our malaise) when we finally get the “evangelization thing” figured out. We have everything else, but evangelization is the “missing piece” within large precincts of the Catholic Church.

    “There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences. For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family. And this is scandalous to some people! Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal. He does not think of the close-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity.” –Pope Francis, Homily, 15 Feb 2015

  8. Randy and Scott – you miss the point, but people have been for some time now in this area of Church life. How do you know those who come to Church are deficient? I often hear what you have written along with “only about 5% who attend are good Catholics.” How do you know? What data have you collected to determine this? Come to my parish on Sunday and point out the 5% who are good and the 25% who are not (deficient). Sociologically, those who attend on Sunday (and give an envelop) are super Catholics. This argument about pleasing Grandma is unsubstantiated – anecdotal. I understand 70% of Catholics don’t attend regularly and if we follow Msgr Mannion’s points we would be better for it. But to start denigrading the 30% who attend (which you did not say directly, but I sense you would because I have heard so many others that say what you say articulate that directly) is not helpful. As I like to say, my Father was the best Catholic I ever knew and he knew nothing about the New Evangelization — although I’m sure it would have helped. Moreover, the New Evangelization has been implemented for approximately 20 years in my diocese and our Kenedy numbers continue to decline. Arguing Catholics are sacramentalized but not evangelized is simply NOT HELPFUL — and it is poor evangelization to boot (it assumes a deficit model of Catholicism).

  9. I don’t think it’s about “knowing” in advance that anyone is deficient or sufficient, I mean, the heart of Jesus’ offer of salvation is that we are all deficient! I do think it’s very possible to be sacramentalized but not evangelized. I lived it. I received sacraments of initiation “on time” (aka the typical grade levels). I was highly active and engaged in parish life as a child and teen. Yet, I’d never responded to the initial proclamation–an essential part of evangelization in the Catholicism (see previous post/diagram). I may have done the sacraments of initiation and looked like I was giving witness, but my witness was participation of my own choice and motivation due to “liking” the music at Mass, civic desire to “do good” by helping others, etc.

    As Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est §1, believing in God’s love is the “fundamental decision” of a person’s life. It’s a “fundamental decision” that gives life a new horizon and decisive direction.” This decision is “not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person [Jesus Christ].” I don’t think the vast majority of people can make this fundamental decision without realizing it. It’s fine if we use a term other than “sacramentalized but not evangelized,” but it’s important to talk about the reality. That’s what matters (and that’s why the concise term is helpful). Call it “engaged/active but not having responded to the initial proclamation,” call it “those who’ve never made the fundamental decision for a new and decisive direction in life after encounter with Christ,” whatever…but talk about it.

    Truly loving all souls, even people like me who were “sacramentalized but not evangelized” isn’t about accusing anyone of being deficient. It’s about loving us enough to not assume that everything’s okay because it looks “good Catholic” on the outside, and asking us about that “fundamental decision” after encountering Jesus.

  10. Colleen Vermeulen makes a much better argument in #11 than I can, but I’ll add another two-cents…

    I will go this far: I have no way to judge whether individual Catholics are “deficient” and wouldn’t presume to do so. But I do believe the Catholic Church is “deficient” when it comes to evangelization. And I believe that’s the main reason why so many sacramentalized Catholics are not present at Mass on Sundays.

    I’m not passionate about most of the debates that go on in the Church. But I am passionate about this one. I really think that we (the Church) have to get the “evangelization thing” figured out. We can’t just keep doing the same old things in the same old ways and expect different results. The world has changed too much (see #8 above). And we can’t keep structuring our parochial efforts along the lines of the same old “programs” with the same old unrealistic expectations. In my view (for what it’s worth), there is literally no future in that (see #1 above).

    What is needed (in my opinion) is simply a recovery of something so basic, so essential, that the Church cannot live without it.

    The missing piece is evangelization–that primary and most important mandate. We need to be about proclaiming the “good news” as we actually find it in the scriptures. We need to be about introducing individuals to the Jesus of the Kerygma and assisting them in forming personal, transforming relationships with him. And certainly we must do that within the context of sacraments, catechesis, and liturgy. But the “fundamental decision” (see #11 above) has to once again become the norm. I really think that that piece is (often) missing because we keep insisting that evangelization is just the aggregate of all the familiar and programmatic things we’ve always done in our parishes. My position: That kind of thinking isn’t going to get us anywhere in 2015 and beyond.

  11. The Church lacks outreach. There are millions of lapsed Catholics to bring back. Yet I’ve never heard of a priest knocking on the door of a lapsed Catholic to invite him or her back. For much of the Church decline is a forgone conclusion. The hierarchy, for the most part, doesn’t like criticism and is content to live off the crumbling remains of the past.

    And what of the millions who’ve been lost in Latin America? Why doesn’t the pope put together the best minds in the Church to try to stop the decline in Latin America?

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