On evangelization

By Bishop David Ricken

The last scene in Matthew’s Gospel pictures the apostles gathered around the risen Christ. He has called and trained them to be disciples. Now he gives them the great commission. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20).

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Bishop Ricken

Jesus addresses these words to the church and her members today. Christ summons us to be evangelizers. Jesus wants all Catholics to be disciples. If we are not disciples, how can we hope to make other disciples? After Vatican II, Pope Paul VI realized that the biggest challenge to the church is a disconnect between believers and the culture. “The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time. … Therefore, effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of cultures” (“Evangelization in the Modern World,” 20).

His most memorable comment on this issue rings as true now as in 1975. “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. It is therefore, primarily by her conduct and by her life that the church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus, the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity” (ibid, 41).

One of our advantages is the presence of our parishes, at least 17,000 in the United States. The wordless witness of parishioners can be a silent proclamation of the Gospels. Jesus still reminds us of what he said at the Last Supper, “As I have loved you, so also you should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Of course this love should be executed by all residents of the parish. We receive this love from God. “The love of God has been poured out in us through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).

Neighbor love is attractive and appealing, the wordless witness that touches people’s lives. Pope John Paul II often praised the need for solidarity in families, in parishes, not just for the members, but all the people there. We may raise questions. Why are Catholics like that? Why do they live this way? What or who inspires them?

The simplest way to evangelize others is to live by Christ’s teachings in his Sermon on the Mount and his Last Judgment sermon, where we are invited to feed the hungry, care for the sick, offer water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and visit the prisoners. In each case we are ministering to Jesus himself. The authors of “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and at least 10 other similar books provide dozens of down-home stories that illustrate what Jesus has taught.

Now even though we have stressed forms of wordless witness to Christ, this needs to be supplemented by words, too. Willingness to share your faith with your neighbors or strangers or people in the workplace — or with those involved in social concern projects like Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels, blood donations and other similar charitable endeavors — are occasions for talking about faith. Sharing heartfelt stories of how faith has been important in your lives such as the birth of the first child, a wedding anniversary, a trip to visit parents and surviving an illness brings religion into the neighborhood, the parish and the workplace.

Another exception that calls for words is the homily that priests and deacons have a responsibility to fulfill. St. Paul wrote of the importance and necessity of preaching. Thinking of unbelievers he says, “How can they call on him in whom they have not believed. And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? So faith comes from what is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:14-15).

Various social critics have claimed we have moved on from the civilization of the word and have turned to the civilization of the image. Pope Paul VI replies that we certainly can use imagery to proclaim the Gospel, but “The word remains ever relevant, especially when it is the bearer of the power of God. This is why St. Paul’s axiom, ‘Faith comes from what is heard,’ also retains its relevance: It is the word that is heard which leads to belief.” (ibid. 42) Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI provided equal enthusiasm for evangelization and discipleship.

There are a number of core concepts to keep in mind when being an evangelizer. One way to think of evangelization is that it is virtually a synonym for the Gospel. The word is derived from the Greek and Latin evangelium, which means Gospel. An effective evangelizer preaches Christ by his behavior, as well as his talking skills and familiarity with the scholarship that interprets Scripture. Jesus preached with words such as in his Sermon on the Mount and his Last Judgment sermon and memorable parables. Also with his dialogues with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, as well as the table talk in which he participated, especially in Luke’s Gospel. These conversations and sermons were never just casual talk. Jesus framed his vision of the kingdom and his messianic purpose and destiny.

Another goal in evangelization is to make parishioners disciples of Christ. Evangelizers dig deeply into the souls of their people. This task is called “intentional discipleship,” the title of an excellent book by Sherry Weddel. She has been active in parish life for over 20 years and her book has the flavor of the fascinating experience we call parish. She is a lucid writer and provides a number of practical ways to evangelize our parishioners. Her axiom is: “To make disciples we must become disciples.” She makes a strong case for involving every parishioner in the adventure of becoming a disciple of Christ.

Among her many insights into the various thresholds seen in a parish, she writes that when people arrive at the threshold of trust, it is then they start to realize what discipleship means. We conclude this presentation with the conviction that Catholic evangelization is possible and needed. As the people of Mexico say, Viva el Cristo Rey.