One of the topics that has been on my mind for the last few years is the topic of evangelization. I am not speaking so much in terms of methods and means, but rather the fundamental element of evangelization: a fostering of an encounter with the risen Jesus. That is what evangelization is, encountering the love of the risen Jesus which saves me and leads me to a life that is new and full of richness and wonder.
But the topic of evanglization is no easy one. The fostering of this encounter, at least within North American culture, is, at least to me, an increasingly different one. We need only keep our eyes on the world, see what is happening both around us and within us to see that fostering this encounter is seemingly impossible in our post-modern world.
The word “post-modern” is essential here. To be post-modern is to have no true basis except for skepticism. To an extent, this is not a bad thing, because the post-modern attitude is skeptical even of enlightenment and modern ideals which, in my opinion, have tended to only hurt the understanding of ourselves more than to help them. But we need not worry about that. I don’t want to be too academic today. All we need to remember is that post-modernism tends towards skepticism and if our life is rooted in skepticism. Not even the rational is held as a possible ideal in post-modernism. To definition of rationality in post-modernism is to be skeptical of rationality itself.
This has some very important effects in a variety of areas of our lives as post-modern people. We have no sense of history, no sense of identity. Even gender becomes questioned in this cultural context. Some may say “well, these are broad, overarching strokes, what do they have to do with real life?” The answer, simply, is everything. If these are the presuppositions of people who we are trying to make Christ present to, then we need to be able to address these problems and issues if we are to have evangelical success.
I believe there is much to be said on this topic, but I wish to speak of only two aspects of ecclesial life that will help us regain evangelical success by addressing the issue of living in a post-modern culture: preaching and evangelical love.
I am, personally, a big proponent of the idea that for the Church to regain evangelical credibility and success, we need to address the crisis of preaching that exists in the Church. Most people, in the average parish, would be able to say that this is one of the biggest issues in their life. How often do we we hear homilies with pious platitudes, of dealing with “our daily lives” without actually dealing with our daily lives, of being told to be good people? How often is the name of Jesus not mentioned in the homily? How often is “encountering Jesus” made possible within the context of the homily? How often is spiritual interpretation done with regards to the Scriptures? How often do priests ramble without structure, clear delineation, and with a point? I think, unfortunately, we will tend to find that it is more a reality that the negative responses to such questions are more prevalent than positive responses.
I mention preaching first because it is, really, the privileged place within the Mass to reach out to the people in the pews, and it is unfortunately true that we are failing miserably at reaching people according to their situation. Even priests who are very faithful are unable or unwilling to reflect on the reality of their people. This occurs because they are unwilling to get to know the people they serve and are unwilling to engage with the culture their flock live in. Television shows, popular novels, and movies all speak to and reflect the cultural attitudes of the people they serve. So, if one were perceptive, they could see how fatalism – the idea that the world has no purpose and that whatever happens is determined – is so very popular by virtue of shows such as Breaking Bad (which is amazing and will be the basis of a post in the future), Joss Whedon productions, etc. Thus, fatalism, we could say, is a cultural attitude that needs to be addressed in the homily. The homily, in this example, needs to create a space for an experience of freedom because people, frankly, feel that they are unable to exercise freedom in this world. This is not done through syllogisms, logical argumentation, or by presenting facts, but rather by creating experiences in which the Person of Jesus Christ is encounterable as the One Who loves us, a love that brings freedom to be the person we have been made to be.
By preaching an encounter, by creating a space to experience Christ, by helping the faithful come to see how Christ is encounterable within the liturgy, we would find a growth in personal devotion to the person of Christ. This would fulfill the call of the New Evangelization which has as its goal the re-evangelization of the Catholics in the pews. But until priests are able to see that the homily is the privileged place for such an encounter, the New Evangelization will be slow to get going. We thus need to address this crisis, which is a presbyteral crisis in its essence, in order to address the greater cultural and human crisis of lack of meaning and direction in life.
The second element that is needed is lived charity, or “evangelical love”. We need to seek opportunities to bring the love of Christ that we encounter in the Eucharistic celebration to the world. This occurs in simple lived daily realities at home and work, but also in more intentional activities such as service to the poor. In fact, it is service to the poor that is perhaps one of the greatest ways to manifest the love of Christ to the world. It means we intentionally go out to seek those who are abandoned, alone, and hungry. We bring them food, we address them as persons, and treat them with the love of Christ. Such a love can bear amazing fruit, seen both visibly and even provoking questions in others as to why someone would care for this poor person on the sidewalk, a person most people would ignore (they are ignored, by the way, because it is too uncomfortable to address them in their poverty. Their poverty is a sign of everyone’s internal and spiritual poverty).
Such solutions are by no means all encompassing nor are they meant to be concrete. But if we can foster news ways of encountering Jesus through preaching and encountering Him in the under-served with Christian charity (which is fundamentally different from community service or volunteering due to its central personalist dimension) then we may see greater evangelical success as we rediscover the Church’s core mission of evangelization. This is important. Post-modernity breeds a fundamental instability in people’s lives. They live isolated and lonely lives in which meaning is distant and purpose is virtually non-existent. The Church too will be called to live this situation of isolation and existential loneliness. But what will make us succeed in evangelization is that, despite the darkness of spirit that post-modernity breeds, we will still grasp hold to the person of Jesus Christ. This will give us a “place to stand” in the world, and by having that stable place, which is the Person of Jesus, we will show people that life can have direction, meaning, and freedom if only they open themselves to encountering Jesus.
in Christ through Mary