Teaching Our Faith — Synod on evangelization

Who are we? What are we doing? What should we do?

These fundamental questions of identity and purpose were asked by Pope Paul VI when he inaugurated the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1974 between Sept. 27 and Oct. 26.

Ten years after the close of the Second Vatican Council the church was struggling to implement one of the council’s most profound insights: the church’s mission (its identity and purpose) is to proclaim the Gospel — the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. This proclamation is not something that the church does along with many other things. It is the very heart of who we are, what we do and what we should be doing as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Pope Paul VI chose the theme of “evangelization” from several topics that had been proposed for the synod. His reason: “The subject of evangelization touches closely upon the serious difficulties the Church is faced with in the fulfillment of her mission, owing to the multiplicity and speed of the changes spreading throughout civil society and the Church itself, therefore occasioning the need of a consultation in order to see how, in this new world in transformation, and in the present circumstances, (the Church) must carry out her salvific mission of proclaiming the Gospel” (Paul VI, Letter Announcing the Synod).

Pope Paul VI believed that the church must do a better job of proclaiming the Gospel. In a rapidly changing world with many new challenges and opportunities, the church cannot afford to merely perpetuate the status quo. Societal conditions oblige us, the Holy Father said, “to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man. For it is only in the Christian message that modern man can find the answer to his questions and the energy for his commitment of human solidarity.” (qtd. in Evangelii Nuntiandi 3)

The bishops spent many intense hours talking about “the serious difficulties the Church is faced with in fulfilling her mission” today. They also discussed the need “to revise methods” and “to search through all available means” to communicate the Gospel to all people and to respond to questions that are being asked in today’s fast-paced, global society — sometimes in words but more often by the way people live.

The results of the bishops’ discussions were presented to Pope Paul VI at the synod’s conclusion with a request that he address these vitally important issues. The pope welcomed this opportunity, and a little more than a year later, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1975, he issued his magnificent encyclical, Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in the Modern World).

This beautiful encyclical offers a clear and comprehensive summary of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. It also establishes a solid foundation for all of the initiatives inaugurated by Paul VI’s successors under the title “the new evangelization.”

What did Pope Paul VI teach us about “evangelization”?

First, it is not a single, isolated act but an extensive process that is rich, complex and dynamic. To evangelize is to preach the Gospel, but it is also to give witness to the person of Jesus Christ. Evangelization is catechesis, the deepening of faith; it is theology, profound reflection on God’s revelation of himself in Christ; and it is the sacramental life, our experience of the grace of Christ through the church’s ministry.

Evangelization means bringing Jesus to anyone who does not know him. It also means giving a more complete and systematic knowledge of our faith to all who have been baptized. Evangelization has an external “missionary” focus and an internal aspect of rediscovery, renewal and conversion. Both dimensions seek to reveal God to humanity and to help us transform our world by living the Gospel.

The Synod on the New Evangelization to be held in October 2012 carries forward the work begun at Vatican II and continued by the first synod on evangelization 38 years ago. May it help us all come to a better understanding of who we are, what we do and what we should be doing as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Daniel Conway,
Special Assistant to the President, Marian University, Indianapolis

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