Spreading the News

A Report on Europe's New Evangelization

The church exists in order to evangelize,” wrote Pope Paul VI in his 1975 apostolic exhortation Evangelii nuntiandi; it is “the grace and vocation proper to the church, her deepest identity.” In the three decades since that classic statement, though, the church in Europe has found itself not growing but shrinking, so drastically that it now invites missionaries from countries to which it once sent them.

In country upon country, Catholicism struggles where it once flourished, with church affiliation and priestly and religious vocations dramatically lower than their peaks of fifty years ago. Like his predecessor John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI has stressed the urgency of the situation and called for rediscovery and renewal of Europe’s Christian identity. The note is one of concern, but not despair. The faith, while perhaps less visible, remains resilient, and many encouraging efforts of evangelization are already underway. What follows is a sketch of recent intriguing approaches to the new evangelization.

First, though, we should consider what evangelization itself is and is not. In simplest terms, to evangelize is to follow Jesus in proclaiming “the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43). Paul VI says that salvation is “the kernel and center” of this good news. Out of love for the world, God sent his Son that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17). Through Jesus, literally and figuratively, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22). And God has not reserved his salvation for some future time, but has entered into the pressing circumstances of human life to offer “abundant life” here and now. The good news is meant for those who really need it: for people dying to hear it, one might say, or dying for want of hearing it. Which means, in one way or another, all of us.

Thus evangelization is not a simple matter of “church growth,” but rather an appeal and an approach to the spirit; and only God knows the true state of our spiritual life. In any case, outward measures of church affiliation can be deceiving. Levels of affiliation measured in Mass attendance, financial contributions, and priestly ordinations do not demonstrate the quality of a community’s relationship with God. (It’s possible to join the church for the wrong reasons-social status, for example-or to be moved by the Holy Spirit while professing unbelief.) On the other hand, there is no room for arrogance in discussing evangelization-a temptation on the part of Americans, given their relatively high levels of church affiliation, to feel superior to Europeans who have “abandoned” the church. That is too easy.

One also hears calls to “take back Europe,” as if a kind of religious imperialism might save the day. Such tendencies are unworthy of the church—evangelization is a matter of love, not of religious competition or dominance—and Benedict XVI has suggested repeatedly that a smaller, more perfectly devoted church is preferable to a large, self-satisfied one. Recall that the 1991 Vatican document Dialogue and Proclamation called dialogue an integral element of the church’s evangelizing mission. Are we prepared to honor the God-given dignity and freedom of those who have made a different choice, and to hear their good news besides proclaiming our own? Do we want evangelization to succeed out of love for others, or do we need the church to succeed in the world’s eyes to prove to ourselves that our own faith is real?

Sensitive, then, to our own motives, let us turn to the actual practice of the new evangelization. Generally speaking, there are four distinct publics the church encounters when proclaiming the gospel in Europe, each posing its own set of challenges: those who practice Christianity and whose faith needs support and inspiration; those who remain ignorant of or indifferent to the church because of a lack of exposure to its teaching and practice; those who reject Christianity on experiential or intellectual grounds; and those who adhere to another religion (most typically, Islam). In the course of my own “missionary” work in one of Europe’s more secularized countries (I work for a national institute supporting Dutch parishes), I have come across numerous projects of evangelization aimed at one or more of these publics. Here are four of them that I find particularly intriguing.

The International Congress for New Evangelization

Initiated in 2000 by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, drawing on an idea from the French Emmanuel Community, the congress promotes urban evangelization. Lustiger invited fellow Cardinals Christoph Schönborn (Vienna), José da Cruz Policarpo (Lisbon), and Godfried Danneels (Malines-Brussels) to join; Cardinal Peter Erdo, the primate of Hungary, was a later addition. Each cardinal hosts a week-long congress in his own city, during which participants both reflect on and engage in evangelization. So far, congresses have been held in Vienna (2003), Paris (2004), and Lisbon (2005), with Brussels coming up this fall. Drawing on the prestige of their cardinal-sponsors—all five take an active role in each congress—the meetings have been highly visible, attracting well-known speakers along with thousands of international delegates and interested parties.

Though the congresses generate their share of documents (see, for example, www.icne-lisboa.org), these are not academic conferences but rather practical spiritual ones, where participants share ideas, pray together, and make their presence known in the host city. As with World Youth Day, the mass gatherings provide vivid evidence to Catholic attenders that they are not alone in their beliefs. Benedict XVI said last December that the “secret” of the new evangelization lies in bishops, priests, religious, and laity working together, and the international-congress approach is a fine example of multilevel collaboration, creating a forum where Catholics of all stripes can come together. Since urban areas tend to be where the church faces the most perplexing challenges of secularism and multiculturalism, these congresses have provided a welcome opportunity to pool ideas and catalyze action.

Catholic Agency to Support Evangelization

CASE is another project spearheaded by bishops—this one from England and Wales—seeking to spur evangelization. Though primarily directed to those two countries, CASE’s expertise and (downloadable) resources can be used wherever English is spoken. Its representatives run workshops that train parish and diocesan teams to generate effective evangelizing communities. CASE maintains two Web sites, one offering an overview of its services (www.caseresources.org.uk), including a national evangelization directory, a research study of evangelization in England and Wales, and much more. The second Web site (www.life4seekers.co.uk) is an online inquiry center, providing answers to questions of faith both broad (“What’s my purpose in life?”) and focused (“Why does the Catholic Church oppose in vitro fertilization?”).

Where the International Congress is an event, CASE is an agency of direct mobilization that trains evangelizers while providing information resources to seekers. Its strength is pragmatism—accessible language, nifty use of the Internet. Yet CASE recognizes that information dispensed in a “virtual” community is not enough. People need to be brought into supportive relationships with others, and the agency does a good job of establishing “real” communities where discussion, prayer, worship, and service take place. At times the CASE approach risks a least-common-denominator kind of mass appeal, and one wonders about the efficacy of clicking on a splashy graphic to summon up answers to life’s most difficult problems. But the site advertises itself as a place to begin and, happily, it leads visitors to more nourishing fare beyond itself.

Sant’Egidio

The efforts of Sant’Egidio did not originate in the past few years—and it is a community rather than a project. Established in Rome in 1968 by Andrea Riccardi, it is one of the many “new ecclesial communities” of the past century that have inspired Catholics in Europe and around the world. While any number of these movements deserve attention, I have chosen Sant’Egidio (www.santegidio.org) for its focus on the basics of Christian belief, its remarkable growth-forty thousand members in sixty countries—and its proven appeal to young adults. Relatively unknown in the United States, it is a prime example of the vibrancy of European Catholicism.

The key components of Sant’Egidio are prayer, dialogue, and action. Members do not live in community or take vows, but come together regularly for prayer, the Eucharist, and discussion groups. Sant’Egidio tries to include the poor and marginalized in its community, inviting them to share in social events and worship. The group’s emphasis on transcending differences makes it a leader in ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and peacemaking. It has played a significant role in peace processes in Burundi, Mozambique, Algeria, and elsewhere, and since 2001 has regularly sponsored “trialogues” among European Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders. Sant’Egidio’s commitment to social action translates into projects that provide food, clothing, medicine, tutoring, and legal support. Impressed by Sant’Egidio’s African DREAM program, which provides HIV/AIDS sufferers with antiretroviral therapy and nutritional support, Bill Gates recently pledged $600,000 to the program.

The Sant’Egidio movement began with a small group of students coming together to read the Gospels. The community’s vibrancy, its ongoing popularity with young people, has to do, I believe, with its remaining true to this simple but challenging practice. Sant’Egidio combines openness to the gospel message with a serious willingness to accept the personal and social consequences of that engagement. Confronting the gospel in the company of fellow seekers provides a safe forum for working through the existential questions of young adulthood and gives shape to a desire to make the world a better place.

Zenit

Zenit (www.zenit.org) is a Rome-based free Internet news provider and self-proclaimed instrument of evangelization. Each weekday Zenit sends out church news in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German; a weekly “news analysis” appears each Saturday. The news focuses first and foremost on the pope’s most recent pronouncements and activities, turning then to the Roman curia and to developments elsewhere in the church. Besides straight news stories (which inevitably present the church favorably), Zenit also features spiritual reflections, homilies, and interviews with well-spoken Catholics.

Like CASE, Zenit knows that modern people, especially young people, are to be found on the Internet. Its approach is ideally suited to the present pope, who, while lacking the telegenic charisma of his predecessor, does have a gift for writing clear and inspiring texts, statements that imaginatively “free up” key phrases and symbols. As the pope showed in Deus caritas est, he is adept at taking words we all use, like “love” and “freedom,” and revealing their extraordinary meaning in the light of the gospel. Not only does Zenit do Benedict the service of getting these messages into chanceries, parishes, newsrooms, and homes on a daily basis; it also effectively frames the messages, highlighting aspects of the text likely to speak to the average reader.

Like Sant’Egidio, Zenit has grown remarkably, recently boosting its daily reader count from three hundred fifty thousand to over four hundred thousand in an aggressive Christmas subscription campaign. Evangelizers take note: Zenit doesn’t wait for people to visit; it goes to them. And who else can claim such rapid progress in reaching so many Catholics at so little cost?

But I do have one serious reservation. Zenit’s Web site lists the agency’s owner as Innovative Media Inc., “a nonprofit organization of New York State,” providing no further information. Innovative Media turns out to be a front for the Legionaries of Christ, which also owns the National Catholic Register. That the Legion—a religious group noted for its conservatism, secrecy, and success at recruiting priest and lay associates—should establish media outlets in connection with its mission is fully acceptable. But I am troubled by the lack of transparency. The Jesuits don’t hide the fact that they publish America. Openness about the source of news reports enables readers to judge the objectivity of those reports. One searches in vain in Zenit’s archive to find a report that reflects badly on the Legion. Take, for instance, the much-publicized accusations of sexual abuse leveled against the order’s founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel. These charges—well documented in Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s Vows of Silence and recently corroborated by the Vatican—go essentially unreported by Zenit. A January 28, 2005, Zenit report dismissed them as “theories circulating in the media, including some that seem to be slanderous.” More recently (May 19, 2006), Zenit ran its story about Maciel’s removal from public ministry under the disingenuous title “Holy See Halts Investigation of Legionary Founder”—as though Pope Benedict’s decision had vindicated Maciel and not served to validate the credibility of Maciel’s accusers.

Working too hard to save appearances can create a host of new, even worse problems—this, if nothing else, should be a lesson from our recent church history. I still like Zenit’s model and still appreciate the good news it provides. Sometimes, though, what we need most to confront, in order to purify our faith, is the bad news.

Published in the 2006-09-08 issue: 

Timothy P. Schilling lives in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

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