Beware the “E” Word
By Carolyn Vogt Groves, consultant for the Office of Religious Education for the Diocese of Springfield
The pastoral letter recently released by Archbishop Jose Gomez of San Antonio calling Catholic laity to their “duty” to evangelize is not news to many of us. Coming of age during the Second Vatican Council, my own faith and life’s work has been definitively influenced by the council documents. One of them, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity describes our role in this way: But the laity, too, share in the priestly, prophetic, and royal office of Christ and therefore have their own role to play in the mission of the whole people of God in the Church and in the world.
They exercise a genuine apostolate by their activity on behalf of bringing the gospel and holiness to men, and on behalf of penetrating and perfecting the temporal sphere of things through the spirit of the gospel. In this way, their temporal activity can openly bear witness To Christ and promote the salvation of men. (c.2) It is only recently however that our church leaders have begun to use the term “evangelization” with reference to this expanded role Vatican II envisioned for the laity.
There are good reasons to use the “e word”. Since Vatican II there have been many changes which have inaugurated the “new evangelization” movement among the Catholic hierarchy. The various statistical studies done by the PEW Foundation and CARA tell us that Catholics in the United States have left the church in unprecedented numbers; that young people are leaving and not coming back when married and having children as they have in the past; that practice of the faith among those staying is more occasional than weekly and that Pentecostal and Protestant mega churches are havens for former Catholics. Cultural Catholicism, our usual method of evangelization (where being Catholic seemed to come through our mother’s milk) is no longer effective for many reasons — the breakdown of Catholic ethnic and neighborhood groups, and loss of large and extended families living in the same vicinity; the decline in numbers in Catholic elementary and secondary schools; the general breakdown of a Christian culture and its replacement by a secular one. We counted on all of these realities to evangelize and catechize; it was our way of “becoming Catholic.”
With their demise it is now up to us as Archbishop Gomez states. There is a problem though in using the term “evangelization”. It does not have “brand name” recognition among most American Catholics – it is what Protestants do, not Catholics unless we are talking about the “missions” far away.
A few years ago my pastor in Chicago suggested to the parish Outreach Commission that they make evangelization one of their goals for the year. This did not go over well. “What does he want us to do – meet after Mass on Saturday morning, be given a bag of rosary beads and go throughout the neighborhood ringing doorbells before the Jehovah witnesses arrive with their Watchtowers. Catholics do not do this,” responded a commission member. Most Catholics I have met have similar reactions and visual scenarios with the term “evangelization.”
On the other hand we are more than willing to witness to our personal faith given the right circumstances and a comfortable atmosphere. As I visit parishes to present evenings of adult faith formation, I often begin with a question such as “what difference has the Catholic faith made in your life or what does it mean for you to be Catholic? There is first the silence of surprise, never having been asked the question and then the responses begin to come. “I know I am never alone,” a gentleman began one evening recently. “I know that God became man in Jesus so He would know what human life was like so we would never need to feel alone.” A woman continued, “I know that I can always turn to God and be forgiven, make a fresh start. That is why Jesus died, so we would know we could be forgiven.”
After a few moments of quiet, a third person spoke. “Through being in the church, I know it can never be just about me. We are called not just to think of ourselves but to respond to the needs of others. Without the church I would be a selfish person.” What happened that evening is that through our stories, we evangelized each other. The stories were about our beliefs, operating at a deeper level in our lived experience.
As the Spirit would have it, there was a woman who attended that night who had been away from the church for thirty years; she had been invited by a friend and decided to come. Afterwards, she shared some of her story with me concluding that “it was time to come back.” She was planning to join that parish. Catholics have their personal faith stories; I never cease to be “wowed” when I hear them. But they don’t come if people are afraid of saying the wrong thing or feel they don’t “know” enough to speak. We have to find ways in the context of adult faith formation gatherings that are open, accepting and welcoming, where people can explore what the Catholic faith has meant in their lives, how they have encountered God, how the sacraments have fed them, what they want to pass on to their children, how living the Catholic faith has transformed them?
These are the evangelizing questions, the places for reflection to start. The responses will come from people’s minds and hearts, out of their experience. It will bring people back home, it will intrigue others who are seeking, it will challenge those of us in the church to deepen our encounter with Jesus. But Shh, don’t start with the “E Word” too soon; it might scare them away.