Pope Francis has repeatedly spoken of the need for a Church that goes out from itself, bringing mercy to the margins of society. This call is evident in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), in which he states, “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”
These words, like much of Pope Francis’s thought, draw heavily from Pope Paul VI (1963-78), whom Pope Francis will beatify, or bring one step closer to being declared a saint, October 19.
On December 8, 1975, Pope Paul issued Evangelii Nuntiandi, “On Evangelization in the Modern World.” This apostolic exhortation was shared with the hope of fostering “a new period of evangelization.” Pope Francis has called Evangelii Nuntiandi “the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written to this day.”
Evangelii Nuntiandi advanced the call of the Second Vatican Council to become a Church that reaches outside of itself and transforms the world around us (see Decree on the Apostolate of Lay People, 2). Through proclaiming Christ to the world, the Church and those who accept her message will experience a profound change of mind and heart.
Paul VI was keenly aware that evangelists had to first be evangelized. The self-righteous, the judgmental, those who feel they are better than others would not bear fruit. Repentant sinners, those who realize they can’t live life on their own and need Christ, those willing to listen to others and share their own stories of how Christ has touched their lives – those would be the needed witnesses who experience continual conversion.
Paul VI also challenges us to see evangelization as more than just a one-on-one encounter, but also the transformation of society and culture. Evangelization calls for a new way of living personally and as a people. The power of the Gospel affects, or as Paul VI states, upsets “mankind’s criteria of judgment, determining values, points of interest, lines of thought, sources of inspiration and models of life which are in contrast with the Word of God and the plan of salvation.”
Yet Paul VI realized that even as the Gospel transforms peoples and societies, “the conditions of society in which we live oblige all of us therefore to revise methods, to seek by every means to study how we can bring the Christian message to modern man.” In other words, the way the Church spreads the Good News is always evolving. This has been evident recently in the calls for “new language” at the Synod of Bishops in Rome. It’s also the case with the many Catholics, bishops, clergy and lay people alike, who have generated a powerful witness through their use of social media, Pope Francis chief among them.
The vast and immediate reach of digital technology means today’s evangelizers have more tools than ever at their disposal. This is a gift, especially because proclaiming Christ to the world is not optional for the Church. All Christians are called to share the joy of Christ and his Gospel. Bishop Paul Bradley of Kalamazoo, Michigan, recently said on Twitter: “It’s not that the Church has a mission; rather the Mission, of spreading the Good News of Jesus, has a Church to carry out the mission.” Or as Paul VI said, “She exists in order to evangelize.”
Paul VI prayed that evangelization would become our “daily preoccupation” and “a way of life and action." With the Lord Jesus Christ as the center of our lives, may we go forth boldly, sharing the joy of the Gospel with all we meet.
Bishop Ricken is bishop of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. He tweets @BpDavidRicken.
CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin