The Theology of Evangelization
If you were to ask the average Catholic to name the essential mission of the church they would probably say: the Eucharist, serve the poor, or Catholic education. The answer given by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in their 2001 document, Go and Make Disciples (Paragraph 8) is “Evangelization is the essential mission of the Church.” This is also a direct quote from the Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Paul VI, Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi) (1975.) Not many Catholic parishes think that the primary mission of a parish is to spread the gospel but it is.
The title of the Bishop’s document, Go and Make Disciples (GMD), is from the last verses of the Gospel of Mathew:
Go, therefore, 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." (Matthew 28:19,20)
Evangelical protestant denominations know this verse as “The Great Commission” and that it is the primary mission of a Christian church. The Bishops' document says, “we have an essential role in sharing that faith through our daily lives as believers” and “evangelization is what we are all about!” (GMD paragraph 8)
Does this mean that we are to start going door-to-door and invite everyone we meet to go to church? Although this is the image that most Catholics consider to be evangelization, it is not at all what the Bishops' letter has in mind. There are five spiritual aspects to be considered when active evangelizing takes place. This understanding of the process of Catholic Evangelization is not formally named in GMD but I will call it the Spirituality or the Theology of Evangelization. There are six components. The first is already discussed and the others are:
- Evangelization is the essential mission of the Church
- Evangelization is a parish community event
- We are called to prepare for the eternal and look past the material
- Evangelization is an inward first and then outward event
- Conversion is continuous but there are many ways to conversion
- Let the Holy Spirit and Grace be the primary evangelizers
These six spiritualities of evangelization are all defined in the USCCB GMD letter prior to actually defining evangelization. The Theology of Evangelization puts a context around evangelization by placing it as a normal component of parish life. Evangelization should naturally occur as the Holy Spirit acts on the parish and in the lives of the faithful.
1. Evangelization is the essential mission of the Church
(As described above.)
2. Evangelization is a parish community event
This spiritual aspect is that evangelization is a community event not a personal event.
Some might think of evangelization solely in terms of Jesus and our relationship with him. Yet our relationship with Jesus is found in our relationship with the community of Jesus—the Church. The way to Christ is through the community in which he lives. (GMD paragraph 26)
We evangelize best through the parish community. The parish is designed to bring all men and women into the presence of God. The church has a purpose and it is to bring all to Jesus. It is not a solitary effort but the combined action of the parish.
3. We are called to prepare for the eternal and look past the material
As Christians we do not buy into what the powers of the world are selling. The gospel message provides an alternative non-material meaning for our lives.
“We do not
- see a world of blind forces ruled by chance, but a universe created to share God's life
- view life's purpose as the gathering of power or riches, but as the gracious invitation to live for God and others in love.”
- merely look for many years of contented life, but for an unending life of happiness with God” (GMD paragraph 21)
We are called to be in the world but apart from the world and to convert the world through our love for each other. Our most important activity is not mindlessly consuming as encouraged by a hyperactive media defined culture. Our primary action is paying attention to our spiritual needs and preparing for the life that is eternal.
4. Evangelization is an inward first and then outward event
The fourth spiritual aspect of evangelization is that there is an inward effect on our souls before the outward effect on the lives of others. “Inwardly it calls for our continued receiving of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our ongoing conversion both individually and as a parish community. It nurtures us, makes us grow, and renews us in holiness as God's people.” (GMD paragraph 23)
“Outwardly evangelization addresses those who have not heard the Gospel or who, having heard it, have stopped practicing their faith, and those who seek the fullness of faith.” (GMD paragraph 23)
We are called to first allow Jesus to penetrate inward with the Holy Spirit and spiritual practices. Through our continued conversion we become able in time and through living our faith to attract others to find their faith.
5. Conversion is continuous but there are many ways to conversion
Every person or every soul may find a relationship with God in a different way. No way is the right way and no way is less effective than another. The ways we experience an inner spiritual conversion include:
- A sudden, shattering insight that brings rapid transformation
- A gradual growth over many years
- Taking part in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults
- The ordinary but continuing relationships of family and friends
- Formation received from Catholic schools and religious education programs
- Ongoing conversion in renewals, retreats, parish missions, and spiritual practices and devotions (GMD paragraph 13)
You may experience God and conversion in a way not mentioned here. As Catholics there are many ways to experience God and many different spiritual devotions. These normally flow from the parish and the response flows back through the parish. There is no predetermined course for conversion so it is best to let all ways be present to those seeking God and to let the Holy Spirit provide the direction.
6. Let the Holy Spirit and Grace be the primary evangelizers
The sixth spirituality is the Holy Spirit and grace cause the awakening of our realization of God in our interior lives and the expression of God in our exterior lives. The Bishops' document puts it this way: “This is crucial: we must be converted—and we must continue to be converted! We must let the Holy Spirit change our lives! We must respond to Jesus Christ. And we must be open to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit who will continue to convert us as we follow Christ. If our faith is alive, it will be aroused again and again as we mature as disciples.” (GMD paragraph 14) It is the active presence of God in our lives that changes everything.