Seven Marks of a New Evangelist

by on February 19, 2015

Both St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have declared that the New Evangelization should be the central preoccupation of the Catholic Church at the beginning of this third millennium. Accordingly, upon becoming rector of Mundelein Seminary, I resolved that this historic place should be placed on a New Evangelization footing. This means that Mundelein will be about the business of training priests skilled in the art and science of announcing the Christian message to a culture that is growing increasingly indifferent, even hostile, to it.

What precisely are the marks that ought to characterize someone geared to this mission? There are, of course, many, but I would specially highlight seven.

In Love with Jesus Christ

First, a new evangelist has to be in love with Jesus Christ. Evangelization is not simply the sharing of ideas or convictions. If it were, any theologian or historian of ideas would be automatically skilled in it. The Good News is about a relationship with the person of Jesus, a friendship with the risen Christ. As the Romans said long ago, nemo dat quod non habet (no one gives what he doesn’t have); therefore, if someone wants to share this friendship with others, he has to have it himself. This is why the new evangelists we are seeking to train here have to be men of prayer. The reading of Scripture, the Liturgy of the Hours, daily Eucharist, the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the Rosary, Lectio Divina, and contemplation must be regular features of their lives, for these are the means by which a relationship with the Lord is cultivated.

Passion and Enthusiasm

Second, a new evangelist must be a person of passion and enthusiasm. In a talk given in Haiti, in 1983, St. Pope John Paul II said that the evangelization practiced today must be new “in ardor.” I believe that St. Pope John Paul II sensed that in the years following the Council, the Church had lost a good deal of its fire. Caught up in endless debates about its own internal dynamics (largely concerning sex and authority), many Catholics had forgotten that their fundamental task was to proclaim Christ to the world with boldness and confidence. In his Rhetoric, that masterpiece dealing with persuasive speech, Aristotle argued that people finally only listen to “an excited speaker.” Catholic evangelists, who are unsure of the truth of Catholicism, hesitant in speech, and lacking in ardor, will simply fail to persuade anyone. I want to train a generation of preachers who have the requisite fire.

Knowledge of the Story of Israel

Third, new evangelists must know the story of Israel. The “good news,” the evangelion, is that the great adventure of Israel had reached its climax, or as St. Paul put it, that all of the promises that God had made to his chosen people had found their “yes” in Jesus Christ. God had chosen a people Israel and then had shaped them according to his own heart, giving them law, covenant, prophecy and temple. All of these institutions had one purpose: to bring divinity and humanity together, to produce friendship between God and human beings. In the person of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, law, covenant, prophecy and temple had all been fulfilled, for in him the human longing for God perfectly met the infinitely more passionate divine longing for us. In light of this stunning state of affairs (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”), all the nations had to know about what the God of Israel had accomplished. This was, and still is, the basic evangelical task. And this is why a Christ divorced from Israel, presented, as he so often is today, as a generic spiritual teacher, is so un-compelling. We need evangelists who know that the Church is the new Israel and that Jesus is the “glory of his people Israel.”

Understand the Culture

Fourth, new evangelists must understand the culture that surrounds them. Karl Barth, the greatest Protestant theologian of the last century, famously commented that the preacher must prepare his sermons “with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” This is wise advice for the evangelist as well. 

“New evangelists should therefore see secularism as an opportunity, for it has produced an army of people thirsty for the Gospel.”

One might be a friend of Jesus Christ and a passionate proclaimer of the fulfillment of Israel, but if he doesn’t appreciate the cultural dynamics that shape the people to whom he speaks, his words will fall flat.

Perhaps the dominant cultural force of our time – at least in the West – is secularism, by which I mean, a worldview that involves the shutting down of the transcendent dimension. What this has produced is a society of deeply frustrated people, for as St. Augustine taught us long ago, we are all, by nature, oriented to God. Nothing in this world can ultimately satisfy us, because we have been wired for infinite truth, goodness and beauty.

New evangelists should therefore see secularism as an opportunity, for it has produced an army of people thirsty for the Gospel. Another mark of our time is a relativism or indifferentism in regard to ultimate values. This “dictatorship of relativism,” to use Pope Benedict’s term, has conduced toward what I call the “Meh” culture. In the “Meh” world, nothing finally makes a difference; everything is just a matter of opinion; and every person is sequestered in a world of his or her own making. This bored, listless, drifting and lonely culture is, in fact, crying out for the energy and objective value of the Gospel. I want Mundelein Seminary to produce evangelists who know the secular culture better than do the secularists themselves.

The Heart of a Missionary

Fifth, a new evangelist must be a person with the heart of a missionary. We all know the distressing statistics: only 25 percent of Catholics attend Mass on a regular basis; ex-Catholics are so numerous that, if they were counted as a separate denomination, they would be the second largest religion in America, “The nones,” that is, those who claim no ecclesial affiliation at all, are the fastest-growing “religious” group in the country. These facts should break the hearts of faithful Catholics, and they should profoundly bother anyone who aspires to evangelize. I want to train priests who are hungry for souls, who want to rescue people from the dismal fate of being separated from God. I want priests who are not content simply to maintain the structures and institutions of our parishes, but who have a passion to go out into the highways and byways of the secular world and to find the lost sheep.

Knowledge of the Traditions of the Church

Sixth, a new evangelist is someone who knows and loves the great Tradition of the Church. Catholics do not subscribe to Martin Luther’s sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone) principle. We love the Scriptures, but we also love the rich and loamy interpretive tradition which has developed over space and time and which allows us more adequately to appreciate the Bible. We hold that Christ is more fully known in the measure that he is seen through the lenses provided by the writings of Origen, Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Bernard, John of the Cross, John Henry Newman and Joseph Ratzinger. More to it, we believe that Christ is more completely appreciated when he is illumined by Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Mozart’s Requiem, the poetry of T.S. Eliot, and the Cathedral of Chartres. New evangelists must be mystagogues, those who guide others into the mystery of God. To do this work effectively, they must, therefore, be students of the great artists, poets and spiritual masters who have walked the way before them.

Adept at Using the New Media

Finally, new evangelists should be adept at the use of the new media. In the address that I referenced earlier, St. Pope John Paul II said that the New Evangelization is new, not only in ardor, but also in method. Undoubtedly he had in mind the extraordinary power that new technologies offer to the proclaimer of the Gospel today. We have tools now for which Fulton Sheen would have given his right arm: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, podcasting, the Internet, etc. With these methods, we can reach millions of people who would never otherwise have any contact with the Church. I learned to type on a manual typewriter (which shows how old I am), but Mundelein students today were brought up with the new technologies, and they have the skill to use them in their brains and nerves and fingertips. I want to form a generation of evangelists who know how to reach out to the world through these new media.

This is a great time to be a priest or seminarian, for the harvest, as the Lord said, is indeed plenty. May a corps of evangelists go forth from Mundelein to meet the secular world with intelligence, ardor, prayerfulness and panache.