Evangelization: introducing people to Jesus Christ
In this week’s interview, archdiocesan communication manager David Hazen speaks with Archbishop George J. Lucas and Jim Jansen, director of the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis for the archdiocese, about what it means to evangelize.
Q: The Pastoral Vision and Priority Plan announced a year ago had as its first goal the assessment of evangelization efforts across the archdiocese. One of the next goals to be completed is the development of a comprehensive evangelization strategy. Though we hear the word a lot, we often don’t have a clear grasp of its meaning. So, what is evangelization?
Archbishop: It’s at the heart of the life of the church as it so rightly finds its place at the heart of our pastoral vision. The root of the word has to do with announcing the good news. So, evangelization is an announcement. Good news: God loves us and cares about us in a very personal way. And even though we’re sinners and unworthy of his love, he sent us his Son, Jesus, as our savior. So, while evangelization can be talked about in a number of ways, I think it’s simply the introduction of brothers and sisters to Jesus Christ. The good news is that there’s an opportunity to meet God, personally, in and through Jesus Christ, who’s alive now in his church through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jim Jansen: So, John Paul II used to say that to evangelize, you need to know two things: you need to know Jesus Christ, and you need to know modern man. Evangelization is just the introduction of one friend to another.
I can say personally that, even though I served as a missionary for many, many years, I struggled with that "announcement" part. The church’s understanding of evangelization is very rich and very broad, and it encompasses all of our silent and faithful witness, and it encompasses the liturgy and all the catechesis that we do. But the central part, that actual announcement, made me really uncomfortable.
In a master’s program and elsewhere, I came across quotes where John Paul II would talk about that announcement – that introduction of the person of Jesus Christ – as the hinge of evangelization. It’s one of the things he says in "Redemptoris Missio" ("The Mission of the Redeemer"). Everything leads up to that moment of proclamation, and everything flows from it. If you had looked at my life and my work as a missionary, I was really good at all the things that led up to it and I was pretty good at all the things that flowed from it, but because I was very much a product of our culture, I didn’t want to make that introduction.
Archbishop: I would say you’re in pretty good company. When we did the listening sessions all around the archdiocese in anticipation of articulating our pastoral vision, it’s one of the things we heard everywhere. Our Catholic people who were part of these listening sessions have themselves been listening to the recent popes, and have heard the word "evangelization" in many different ways.
They said to us, "I think I’m supposed to be evangelizing, but I’m not sure what that is." Or they thought that maybe they knew what it was, but didn’t know how to do it and they didn’t know exactly what was expected of them. So, it really is part of our challenge to have a rich understanding in the church of what evangelization is. Many of us feel that we’re not quite there yet, but would like to be.
Jim Jansen: I think all of us are challenged by the vision that is being put before us: To re-propose and re-introduce the world to the person of Jesus.
Archbishop: I’m happy that we’re giving some attention and energy to this in this archdiocese, because we’re hearing we’re supposed to be evangelizing and I think sensing in our own hearts that, whatever our vocation may be, we have this desire. So, that begs the question: "How do we do it? And what would that look like or what would that feel like here?"
I’m grateful to Jim and others who are trying to help us realize this vision and really become better equipped to evangelize, but then also to step out and become an evangelizer, to take the responsibility to make that announcement of the coming and the presence of Jesus.
Q: What are parishes going to be encouraged to do or to do differently as this vision takes shape?
Archbishop: We desire to offer more formation in discipleship for those who have positions of leadership in our parishes. A lot of people are competent in specific areas of ministry. However, we want to offer those in leadership the opportunity to grow closer to the Lord and to be mentored in an understanding of what it really means to be a disciple – that is, someone who is very close to Jesus, who then also accepts a mission from the Lord to have an effect in the lives of others.
The second thing I hope for as we move in some new directions in our parishes, is that we look for the places where through the Holy Spirit, our work is bearing good fruit. We’re not so much interested in the number of programs we have and how much we can fill up the bulletin or the website of the parish. Again, there are many good efforts, but we really want to take into account of where people are being touched by the Lord and where they have the opportunity to encounter him, and to put more of our energy and resources there.
Jim Jansen: The key is engaging in a process of conversion wherein we let ourselves fall in love with the Lord and with our neighbor again, in a deeper way. I appreciate a metaphor that Father Mallon shared (at the archdiocesan Divine Renovation conference). We want to avoid what he calls "spiritual vampirism," which basically says, "Oh, I’m so glad to see young people here! I’m so glad to have someone new at our parish, because we need their body to fill this committee."
Pope Francis says, "I dream of a missionary option capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, languages and structures, can be suitably challenged for the evangelization of today’s world rather than our self-preservation" ("The Joy of the Gospel," no. 27).
I find that striking at two levels. One, there’s almost nothing about our parish life that ends up untouched. But that last little phrase is the most important: "… for the evangelization of today’s world rather than our self-preservation."
When we let ourselves fall in love with the Lord again, we let ourselves encounter and fall in love with those people – our neighbors, fallen-away family members, people that may seem or look very different from us. When we fall in love with them, then we’re at a place where we’re able to reach out.
Archbishop: One of our challenges is to be patient with the time that love takes and it’s not a formula. It doesn’t happen on a calendar, or on a liturgical schedule for that matter. And those of us who are now working and living in parishes may need to help our parishes take a first step toward encountering our neighbors, those who are not what we’d call practicing Catholics, or those who haven’t really had a personal encounter with Jesus.
While we’d like to think we can get results for them and for our parish within a certain amount of time, we need to trust that the Lord is sending us as his disciples to love our neighbors for their own sake, not for what they might do for us or how we could put them on the tally of the parish. Then we will see what kind of fruit that will bear in the Lord’s own design.
Q: Archbishop, what prayer do you suggest we adopt as we seek to respond to this call to evangelize?
Archbishop: As we picture ourselves in the presence of Jesus in our prayer, we should realize he really is with us there, and wants to be with us. Invite him to tell us, "What are you offering us at this particular moment? In the life of our parish and the life of our archdiocese, what is it that you want us to receive from you, and what are you asking of us?"
That conversation and prayer with the Lord is a great one for any disciple, and no matter where we are on our journey of faith, the Lord wants to give us a deeper relationship with him than we’ve had so far. I know that’s a desire that he has for us. But also, he does have a mission for us and he’s asking us to invest ourselves in it. It’s his saving mission. He wants us to participate in it.
And so my prayer for us in this archdiocese is that we will understand more prayerfully the answers to those questions: What’s the Lord offering us at this moment? What’s he asking of us?