Defining the New Evangelization is Like Herding Squirrels

We were having dinner with several other Catholics when my wife Jennifer posed the question, “What’s the first thing you think when you hear the phrase new evangelization?”

Around the table, everyone nodded in agreement with the hypothesis that, even though the phrase is frequently used in the Catholic Church—and despite the fact that Pope Benedict XVI declared a Year of Faith with a focus on the New Evangelization between October 2012 and November 2013—many people don’t have a clue as to what “new evangelization” is, what their role in it is, or how to make it a part of their daily lives.

Sadly, this seems to be the case even after three decades of discussion on the topic.

During his historic 1979 visit to Poland, Bl. John Paul II first coined the phrase when he proclaimed, “A new evangelization has begun, as if it were a new proclamation, even if in reality it is the same as ever.”

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase “new evangelization”?

Defining new evangelization is like herding squirrels

There are many different ideas of what the new evangelization is and isn’t. You might think it has something to do with improving religious education, or perhaps it has to do with new media, podcasts, blogs, and social networks. Or maybe you simply think the new evangelization is about a whole new way of sharing the Faith.

The fact of the matter is that the new evangelization includes each of these approaches, and many more. With so many possibilities, coming up with a concise definition for such an important topic might cause additional trepidation for someone who is already apprehensive about any form of evangelization, new or old.

Simply put, the new evangelization is all about Jesus Christ and living out the faith that draws us closer to him. It’s about your relationship with Christ, as well as helping others to continually develop a relationship with him, too. But it’s also about the many approaches available to do so, and the fervor with which we embrace this challenge in today’s secular and relativistic culture.

That’s why I say that defining the new evangelization is like herding squirrels: It can take you in a multitude of different directions, sometimes all at once.

Second chances

It’s difficult to find someone in today’s world who has not at least heard of Jesus Christ.

That’s because the initial, first, and primary evangelization that started with the apostles has accomplished what Jesus instructed them to do, which was to be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

The new evangelization can be considered a secondary follow-up to the first evangelization that introduced the world to the salvific message of Jesus Christ. It is meant not only for those without any relationship with Christ, but also for those who have been introduced to Jesus, but who, for one reason or another, have not developed or maintained a relationship with him.

As Bl. John Paul II wrote in Redemptoris Missio, the new evangelization is, in part, for “Catholics [who have] lost a living sense of faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church.”

Likewise, the new evangelization is an ongoing effort that applies to you, me, your priest, the pope—everyone who currently doeshave a relationship with Christ.

Three-step approach

An easy way to think about the new evangelization is to break it down into three parts: know the Faith, live the Faith, and share the Faith.

For the new evangelization to work, it is necessary for each of us as Catholics to engage in all three areas and do so on a constant, unending basis. The new evangelization is a challenge to continually grow in our relationship with Jesus and to help others do the same.

This starts with knowing our Faith.

When giving talks to groups, I regularly remind people that from the moment we are conceived, we are 2,000 years behind the curve when it comes to learning about the history, traditions, and sacramental life of the Catholic Church. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

We can (and should) spend our entire lives on an unending quest of knowing as much about our Faith as possible. Our hunger for the truth should drive us to question our misunderstandings and incomplete knowledge and seek out answers that the Church readily provides.

And if you’re like me, growing up in the 1970s and 80s, perhaps the catechesis you did receive did not provide a truly firm foundational understanding of the core tenets of Catholicism—such as the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, for example.

But if we stop at just knowing the Faith without living it out, then we’re just talking the talk and not walking the walk. I know many people who can quote the Bible, chapter and verse, but do a miserable job actually acting in the way that Christ commands. Therefore, the second aspect of the new evangelization is living the Faith through regular reception of the sacraments (especially the Eucharist and reconciliation), as well as striving to be Christ to others in this world. It is finding ways each day to actually implement the teachings of the Faith through our thoughts, words, and actions.

Lastly, if we just know and live out our faith without sharing it with others, we are not living out our faith with the zeal of the first apostles. To truly be new evangelizers, it is not enough to just focus on one of these areas. It is absolutely mandatory that we strive to grow in all three.

  1. Know the Faith.
  2. Live the Faith.
  3. Share the Faith.

Future thinking

Knowing that the new evangelization is something that applies to each and every Christian, how will you make it a part of your life?

I suggest taking small, incremental, ongoing steps combined with a concrete game plan.

A week from now, what realistic steps will you have taken to better know your Faith?

A month from now, what are some tangible ways will you be more fully living out your Faith?

A year from now, what would it look like for you to more successfully share your Faith with others?

Writing down realistic goals and action steps ultimately has a snowball effect on how we know, live, and share our Faith. Though it may seem we’re only making minor improvements each day, week, month, and year, over time our incremental efforts build upon each other, making our Faith more exciting, engaging, and life-altering.

What’s your game plan? Given how basic the new evangelization truly is, what steps will you take to become a new evangelizer?

10 Ways to Know the Faith

  1. Pick one short book from the Bible (like James or Mark) and read it all the way through.
  2. Learn more about the Eucharist by reading, studying, and praying over John 6 (especially the Bread of Life discourse).
  3. Learn to use the Index of Citations in the back of the Catechism to learn what the Catholic Church teaches about individual passages of Scripture.
  4. Read Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI.
  5. Watch episodes of That Catholic Show at NewEvangelizers.com.
  6. Visit USCCB.org and read the bishops’ document, Disciples Called to Witness.
  7. Ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom.
  8. Read the Catechism’s explanation of the Nicene Creed to better understand the words we recite at Mass.
  9. Brush up on the Ten Commandments.
  10. Start bringing your Bible to Mass with you, and write notes in the margins during the homily.

10 Ways to Live the Faith

  1. Go to confession. Seriously.
  2. Clean out your closet and find at least five items to donate or give away.
  3. Go sit in front of the tabernacle and tell Jesus you love him.
  4. Increase your tithe at least 1 percent, if not more.
  5. When you drive by a Catholic Church, make the sign of the cross and say aloud, “I love you, Jesus!”
  6. Pray for others, especially people you don’t like.
  7. Rest on Sundays. Turn off electronics. Focus on God and family.
  8. Keep a crucifix next to your computer.
  9. Vote as a Catholic—not as a Republican, Democrat, Conservative, or Liberal.
  10. Anonymously give cash to someone in need.

10 ways to share the Faith

  1. Hang a holy card in your office at work or on your refrigerator.
  2. Start a blog and write about your faith journey.
  3. Invite someone to Adoration, especially your kids or spouse.
  4. Forgive someone who hurt you.
  5. Buy Catholic newspaper and magazine subscriptions (like Catholic Digest) for other people.
  6. Eat dinner as a family and always start with a prayer.
  7. Offer to teach a class or get involved in other ministries in your parish.
  8. Wear Catholic T-shirts in public.
  9. Use Twitter, Facebook, or other social media to share your favorite verse from Mass each week.
  10. Make sure every person in your family has a Bible and rosary and offer to help them learn how to use them.

*Like this list of ideas?  For an entire year of ideas for knowing, living, and sharing your Faith, pick up a copy of The New Evangelization and You: Be Not Afraid.

This article originally appeared in Catholic Digest.

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About the Author
Greg is married to Jennifer. They've got five kids.

15 comments on Defining the New Evangelization is Like Herding Squirrels

  1. Tracy says:

    Great post. Well done.

    1. Greg Willits says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Tracy!

  2. I appreciate this article. New Evangelization is a term that does have little, real definition; simply because it has not been defined in a manner other than the somewhat abstract and bland. So, I appreciate the writer’s effort to do so. I am going to venture quite a bit further than the writer and define New Evangelization in a more radical sense.

    Should Jesus have the opportunity to review the three “10” lists, I do believe we’d see Him just shake His head in a “are they ever going to get it” kind of mindset. We, as Christians, are still proclaiming ourselves as the apostles, unable to comprehend His message, and we appear to rejoice in it. He did not call us to a banal, vanilla existence. Christianity isn’t just about reading a little Humanae Vitae, going to Confession, and wearing Catholic t-shirts in public (that’s the most damning of all). It’s about being “on the field”; in play with the poor of heart, the poor of spirit, and the poor of sustenance. It’s about taking a significant part of one’s life, not a little bit on a Sunday, or a little bit at the dinner table, and devoutly devoting oneself to the true needs of others; in other words, social work. The idea that wearing a Catholic t-shirt in public is sufficient in spreading Christ’s teachings (heaven forbid we stress ourselves with a real relationship with Christ) is a significant demotion of what Christ call us to.

    New Evangelization is social work. The poor need a way out before they can ever be shown a way up, but today’s Catholics appear to not have the stomach for real evangelization, real mission work, Christ’s real message. The claim that we must secure our families needs first sounds awfully shallow and disingenuous when we toss our 40″ TVs for the newer 60″ models, and then discover, after “securing ” our family, that we just don’t have the time to get over to the nearest food bank to volunteer, or the time to go on a mission trip, or the time to teach catechism to our youth, or the time to sponsor someone in RCIA, or the time to pray in front of an abortion clinic, or the time to teach english to new immigrants, or the time to do jail ministry, or the…. I hope you grasp where I’m going here. The list is endless, voluminous, and eternal (as long as we sit on our duffs).

    Most Christians today believe that to be a Christian is to walk a personal journey in relationship with Jesus Christ. Not so, my dear friends. Christ doesn’t want you walking with Him, He wants you walking with your brothers and your sisters in communion; to walk with the common, to lead them out of their sufferings. One can only accomplish one’s personal journey with Christ through the communion with all men and women, and not just those who are like you or of your family. This is what Christ taught and what He hopes for mankind.

    1. TomD says:

      “Christ doesn’t want you walking with Him, He wants you walking with your brothers and your sisters in communion; to walk with the common, to lead them out of their sufferings.”

      I agree with you from the perspective that the challenge is that as Christians we must do both, walk with Him and walk with our brothers and sisters. One follows from the other; and the latter is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

      The foundation to walking with our brothers and sisters in communion is that we must first, individually and personally, take Christ into our own heart, and walk with Him. We are first commanded to ” . . . love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . .” (Mk 12:30, RSV-CE), secondly to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk 12:31, RSV-CE).

      Nothing of this earth, no purely human effort, will ultimately lead our brothers and sisters out of their sufferings . . . only Christ will. For Christ is ” . . . the way, and the truth, and the life . . .” (Jn 14:6, RSV-CE).

    2. Greg Willits says:

      L Reese,

      Thanks for your comments. A few counter-points:
      1) The “Top 10 Lists” are just starting points to get people thinking. My book actually has 52 suggestions for each area of knowing/living/sharing the faith. And actually, these were *not* TOP 10 lists. They were just *a* list of 10 things you could do.
      2) I think you misread my suggestions or oversimplified them. You mentioned the t-shirt thing twice. I’ve actually had first-hand experiences of people striking up serious conversations about God with me simply because of the t-shirt I was wearing. Don’t discount the Holy Spirit’s ability to do huge things through our simple actions.
      3) About securing my family’s spiritual needs first – I stand by that point. If I ignore my children’s spiritual needs so I can go help someone else, then I’ve ignored the primary role and vocation God has given me as a husband and father. Also, all of the other ways of living out your faith are also listed in my book as suggested ways of knowing/living/sharing your faith.
      4) I also disagree with your last point. It’s not about walking with Jesus *OR* walking with others. It’s about both. But you can’t do the latter if you don’t do the first.

  3. James Ryan says:

    Well the new evan. under your guidance sounds a lot like a Cursillo retreat. Here’s a thought. Outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation. If you realize this in your own walk with Christ you will not fail in your personal salvation. If you realize this in your outreach you will be ridiculed by most so called Catholics, but that’s OK dogs bark at what they don’t understand. If you live like Christ is your King and believe that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church you will convert more people than you could possibly imagine.

    1. Greg Willits says:

      Of course there’s no salvation outside of the Catholic Church, but that’s because Christ established the Church, and the Church upholds Scripture and Tradition. But to just proclaim “no salvation outside of the Church” without explanation also makes it sound like “Only Catholics go to Heaven,” which is not what the Church teaches.

  4. Isaiah says:

    …or like herding kittens. Thank you for this article, very nice and very articulate. When I first heard the term of New Evangelization I thought ‘what could be new about something that’s over 2000 years old.’ It seems, just to me, that it encompasses new ways of evangelizing, such as social media. We do this to spread the joy and love that God has shown to us. As we all know, the faith cannot be privatized and just kept to ourselves, that’s how the faith dies. If we’ve experienced the love of Christ, how can we not spread it and give it back to others. If we don’t, it would seem the gospel message has not taken root in our souls. Love, no matter how grand it is, is absolutely nothing if it is not given away…this is why God created the Holy Trinity, a sharing and outpouring of love amongst the three, but also to us.

  5. Janet O'Connor says:

    I have a sincere and honest question. Why a New Evangelization at all? I mean what was wrong with the old Evangelization taught for 2000 years until after Vatican II in the 1960s with the primary focus not on going out and making followers of all the nations. Instead it was go out and make the world a better place for humanity. So the emphasis shifted from Christ to the betterment of Man’s earthly life.

    1. Greg Willits says:

      Janet – the New Evangelization is about new methods and new ardor, but the same glorious message. I write about it in more detail on pages 12-25 in my book.

  6. Paul Cat says:

    I’m not sure if JPII can be credited with coining the term “new evangelization.”

    http://www.aliveandyoung.net/2014/01/the-new-evangelization-is-rooted-in.html

    1. Greg Willits says:

      The term, yes, but not the concept. Pope Paul VI said in 1975, “The Church exists to evangelize.” But JP2 is the first to use the actual phrase, “New Evangelization,” back in 1979.

  7. John Fisher says:

    Until the Church re-establishes continuity instead of rupture there can be no new evangelisation. The antiquity of the Church is a powerful witness to veracity. For the followers of Rahner and Von Balthasar there is no need to evangelise as Christ commanded as because for them all or most are saved and Christ saves outside the Church. The new liturgy… Sacraments and rupture in the Church make it seems either anything can be changed at pontifical whim or it is all untrue because rupture can be commanded by committees and Popes. Popes don’t protect or conform themselves to tradition but make and unmake it. So why evangelise?

  8. davidbrainerd2 says:

    The new evengelization is the Protestantificaton and communistification of the Catholic church.

    1. Greg Willits says:

      Thanks for the laugh, David.

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