In March of 1983, Blessed John Paul II, still in the first years of his service as Holy Father, visited South America and spoke to the delegates at CELAM (the super-Episcopal Conference that comprises about 30 Episcopal Conferences located in South and Central America and the Caribbean).
During this address, he used the term “new evangelization” for the first time. Joining himself to Pope Paul VI of the decade before, he said that there is a need for an evangelization “new in its ardor, methods and expression and capable of bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to a modern world hungry for hope and joy.”
In my preparation for the October Synod that will address this central topic, I was reading a new pamphlet, the first in a series being offered by the Knights of Columbus, entitled, “What is the New Evangelization?” The author, Michelle K. Borras, quoted Blessed John Paul’s quote from 1983, which reminded me that the new evangelization, like the Year of Faith about to begin in October, is not so much a new “program” but rather a new “ardor.”
I went to the dictionary to look up the word “ardor.” Coming from the Latin ardere, which literally means “to burn,” this ardor or zeal is something that begins in the heart. It is a fire that elicits passion in individuals. This is the image evoked by the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who were dejected after the crucifixion of Jesus but experienced a new enthusiasm after having a direct experience of theRisen Christ. Thus, the new evangelization is an experience of Jesus that burns in our hearts and, like any “good news,” looks for outlets and for expression.
In his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI provides one of my favorite descriptions of an encounter with Jesus. He says that our religion is not first about beliefs or programs but about an encounter … the meeting of a person. And, our Holy Father says, once you and I meet Jesus in our lives, our Lord opens to us “new horizons and a decisive direction.” These new horizons call us to look beyond ourselves and set us on a mission or an adventure in life.
I am finishing a captivating book by Ross Douthat, a young Catholic columnist for the New York Times. The title of his book — Bad Religion — grabbed my attention. His thesis is simple. In this age, some promote theories that religion does not matter and, in fact, causes much of the discord in this world. The conventional wisdom that follows from this assumption concludes that we are in an age beyond religion. As self-sufficient individuals, we do not need God. People of faith are dinosaurs, and once religion has become irrelevant, our problems will end.
Douthat states that as talk shows proclaim this abandonment of religion, many are becoming more religious. The problem is that we are becoming a “pick-and-choose” religious people. And the things we pick to believe in seem simply to reflect our own priorities.
We see this in those who describe wanting to have Jesus in their lives but not religion. Father Bob Barron of the Word on Fire web site calls this the quest for the “harmless Jesus.” We simply pick out a verse or two or a story or two from the Gospels and conveniently remember only these. Thus, the Jesus we seek is a Jesus of our own making who mirrors ourselves. In this path, there is no need for conversion, since this Jesus is really like us. There is also no call out of ourselves… if anything, this is the call to comfort.
For my money, one of our best local responses to the new evangelization — the real call to conversion found in the Gospels — is the Why Catholic? process in your parish. Year two is about to begin with an engaging and attractive local theme: “Pray First!”
Why Catholic? provides the age-old, proven way for renewal in faith — an encounter with the Lord Jesus. Without this personal encounter, we can ask and ask that Catholics witness to their faith, but sadly, they will have little to share. Father R. Cantalamessa speaks of the greatest dangers to dampened witness. The first is easy to understand: laziness. Some are just not motivated to act or have too many distractions in their lives. The second danger is less intuitive. Father Cantalamessa calls it “empty human activism,” which translates into mindless programs, actions without soul, and witness without an encounter.
By the way, I found the opposite of the word ardor in my search. You can guess it: apathy. The new evangelization clearly offers the choice of embracing ardor or apathy.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz