Leadership, Embarrassment and the ‘New Evangelization’

“Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council revolutionized life inside the Roman Catholic Church, hundreds of bishops from around the world are gathered in Rome to confront an external threat: a mounting tide of secularization,” begins a recent Religion News Service piece from Rome that details the upcoming Synod on the “New Evangelization.” Since Pope Benedict XVI’s now-famous declaration of concern for the so-called “dictatorship of relativism,” in 2005, Church leaders have ramped up their anti-secular and anti-releativism rhetoric in various ways.

Such, I presume, is the case with the Synod on the “New Evangelization.” On the one hand, there is something rather innocuous and even laudable about a campaign to (a) reinvigorate people’s faith lives in terms of religious affectivity, personal and communal practices, and liturgical engagement; and (b) use new technology to express and discuss the faith in our contemporary age. These, it would seem, are the presenting themes of this “movement.” The USCCB’s website introduces the “New Evangelization” this way:

The New Evangelization calls each of us to deepen our faith, believe in the Gospel message and go forth to proclaim the Gospel. The focus of the New Evangelization calls all Catholics to be evangelized and then go forth to evangelize. In a special way, the New Evangelization is focused on ‘re-proposing’ the Gospel to those who have experienced a crisis of faith.Pope Benedict XVI called for the re-proposing of the Gospel “to those regions awaiting the first evangelization and to those regions where the roots of Christianity are deep but who have experienced a serious crisis of faith due to secularization.” The New Evangelization invites each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.

Yet, on the other hand, the way that bishops like Washington’s Cardinal Wuerl have been talking about the Synod lately suggests something a little less optimistic and a lot more adversarial. The RNS article continues:

In a wide-ranging speech aimed at setting the tone for the bishops’ discussion, Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl called on Christians to “overcome the syndrome of embarrassment” about their faith with a more assertive offense against the “tsunami of secular influence” that is sweeping away “marriage, family, the concept of the common good and objective right and wrong.”

“Overcome the syndrome of embarrassment’ about their faith”? I don’t think so.

As a faithful member of the Church — as a member of a religious order and a priest, to boot — I can say that there is no sense of embarrassment about our faith on my end. The doctrine of the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the true sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the continued activity of the Holy Spirit in the world, and all of our Creedal and doctrinal claims — concerning these, I, for one, am not embarrassed by any aspect of our faith!

My sense of the matter is that most Catholics (and Christians more broadly) are not embarrassed by their faith. But instead, I and so many others might be embarrassed about other aspects of our faith community, particularly the actions and priorities of many of the faith community’s leaders. Another point of embarrassment might be the perceived atrophy of certain leaders’ notion of “faith” to such an extent that, at least in some places in the United States, “faith” is equated with “sexual moral issues;” For, far too often, these are the only subjects about which many leaders will speak in the public square.

It will be difficult, I suspect, to find a self-identified Catholic who is embarrassed by Christianity’s claim that Jesus Christ is homousious (one-in-being, or “consubstantial”) with God the Father. But it doesn’t take much imagination to think about a self-identified Catholic who is embarrassed by bishops in various States campaigning against the rights of some US Citizens, engaging in the most divisive partisan politics, and ostensibly criticizing women religious for their care for the poor, marginalized, and forgotten in our society.

If this Synod on the “New Evangelization” is indeed an opportunity for the Church’s leaders to learn more about how to “speak the language” of today in terms of technology and culture in order to live up to the Second Vatican Council’s call to be open to the world in the spirit of Gaudium et Spes, then awesome!

But, if this is yet another attempt to “batten down the hatches” and put up walls against “the world,” in rather clear opposition to the teachings of the great Council whose anniversary of opening we are soon celebrating, then I think we have a serious problem on our hands.

What leads me to be cautious about the “New Evangelization” as its being discussed in Rome this week that lead to news reports which, in part, read:

Catholic leaders in the U.S. and Europe are also worried about a perceived rise of “aggressive” secularism, which they say wants to curtail the church’s role in the public sphere and reduce faith to a private exercise.

Qualifications like “aggressive” suggests an adversarial disposition, which threatens to re-inscribe the divisive “us-vs.-them” mentality of the pre-Vatican II church.

I am cautiously looking forward to what will come out of this Synod by way of statements, documents, and proposed actions. Will this be a chance for Church leaders to redirect a rather poor understanding and engagement with the broader human family and international cultures toward a stance of openness and encounter? Or will this be a rally to support Catholic isolationism, ecclesial partisan division, and ‘tests’ of who is and who is not “authentically Catholic?”

It will be interesting to see what happens.

UPDATE: The XIII Ordinary Session of the Synod of Bishops will be held in Rome October 7-28 on the theme, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.”  The Emerging Theologians Network, in partnership with the International Catholic Movement for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs (ICMICA-Pax Romana), is collecting blog posts on the synod’s theme here.  

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23 Responses to “Leadership, Embarrassment and the ‘New Evangelization’”

  1. Carl Diederichs Says:

    Daniel, thank you. I too am bothered by the negative and “we against the world” mentality of many of our church leaders. It sounds like the new evangelization is nothing more than the old recycled “Onward christian soldiers, marching on to war!”

  2. Sr. Susan Wolf, SND Says:

    Dan,
    I share your concerns. We had a Synod document on evangelization in 1975 which has yet to be fully implemented. I am praying that we will be inspired to bring the gospel to the whole world with the humility and love of Jesus as our guide. We need the Holy Spirit working here if that is to happen,

  3. Fr. Dan, I share your concern. I pray everyday that we share our ministry with the poor who Jesus cared about (ie the sisters). The poor will teach about the poor Jesus and who he is and what he is all about. I do a ministry that has a prayer vigil the day after a homicide at the scene of the homicide with families and they teach me about Jesus is constantly. Deacon Bill Coffey, SFO

  4. A great article, and one that is applicable to me as a non-Catholic Christian, as well. I find myself doing a lot of “PR work” among my atheist friends because the label “Christian” has become associated with so many truly negative things. It’s interesting, though, that the author leaves out what might be considered the greatest “embarrassment” of all in the Catholic Church today, the various scandals among the priesthood that have come to light in the last several years. It seemed like a conspicuous omission to me.

  5. But instead, I and so many others might be embarrassed about other aspects of our faith community, particularly the actions and priorities of many of the faith community’s leaders.

    Yep, this.

  6. I agree that “circle the wagons” or “batten down the hatches” is not in keeping with the spirit of Vatican II. In my own observations, coming from an interfaith marriage, I saw and experienced the most progressive aspects of Vatican II’s openness in its ecumenical and interfaith relations.
    Simply put, in contrast to a secular world devoid of transcendence, being Catholic stands as witness, but it does so along side other God-fearers with whom we share (if not an absolute theological comity) a spiritual anthropology.
    While it is laudable to gather us in and renew and enrich ourselves, we cannot escape the fact that we must also take such a mission into the world where there are many gifts and many tongues to proclaim the goodness of the Lord.
    In any case, I am reminded of a few scenes from Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing. I agree that many are not embarassed about being Catholic and being among the faithful, particularly the faithful brought forth from Vatican II. I think of Gino resisting the caricature of (a liberal progressive) curling up in a corner saying, “Please don’t hurt me…” as well as a (moderate Republican) House Member who brought an offer across the aisle to Toby Ziegler saying, “Look around you. Do you even KNOW who your friends are?”

  7. Oops, that’s BRUNO GIANELLI, not GINO.

  8. Matthew M Says:

    Wow! Amazed that one would criticize Cardinal Wuerl, who has been accused of having much more liberal leanings, especially in the four surrounding dioceses.

    I will kindly and respectfully disagree with our good friar on this one, and look forward to the outcome of the synod. While I agree that too many focus on “sexual morality” as the litmus for one’s Faith, etc., there are other factors at play. (Although, as a scholar of Blessed John Paul II, and one who recognizes that the most precious and personal and individual gift we have each been given is our sexuality, this is the most sacred aspect of our person to which Satan attacks, in an attempt to destroy our relationship with the God. We only need look to the stories of the Saints!) Some of those other factors I believe to be our sense of Catholic Idenity, and not always the liturgical (which one knows is extremely important for me), but our Eucharistic and Sacramental.

    Now, I do firmly believe that our good Friar has most worthly proven his zeal and commitment to Christ and is certainly not “embarrassed” by his Faith. However, we are not all him, nor should we be as the religious life may not be our vocation. Perhaps the “embarrassment” is the simple example that Crucifixes and/or statues were covered up at Georgetown (a Jesuit college or least historically) during Mr. Obama’s visit. (If the Italian Supreme Court can rule in favor that the Crucifix is part of their history, and has a place in classrooms, then why cannot a “formally” Catholic College do the same?) Or, perhaps it is the fact that far too many secular leaders who profess their “faith” publically, are not actually living up to their faith’s traditions and tenents, or even know the doctrine of that faith. And, if they fail, do they recognize it, seek spiritual guidence, and ask for forgiveness. (Of course, there are many Christians that are not very forgiving, whom I am certain our good friar can put on notice!)

    However, IMHO, I do not believe the bishops in anyway are maliciously intent on taking away any “rights” of some U.S. citizens. I do believe, just as I believe fully in the Credo and ALL of tenents of the Holy Mother Church, that the Holy Father and our Princes of the Church are concerned that the U.S. may fall prey to the secularism of Europe. I believe they fear people turning away from Christ and His Church and moreover His teachings.

    While the good friar, his readers, and I may believe to the core of our beings, the True Presence of the Eucharist, how many “cradle” Catholics are more protestant and believe in the symbology? How many others even recognize the importance of the sacrament of Confession? And, we know how many have “challenges” with marriage & fidelity. Perhaps we have the “chicken vs. egg” scenario, but if some of our most basic Sacraments are being lost, then how really can the alturistic good be continued. If we, as professed Catholics believe that everything comes through and from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the form of the Eurcharist, then how can minister to the masses if we forget from where we come, and for Whom we exist? I do fully understand, as our good friar and others have preached regarding seeing the face of Christ in everyone, but I also believe we need to see His Face in the Eucharist and in ourselves in order to evanglize and care for the people – the Body of Christ – the Church. (Of course there is a recipocy in our giving and receiving, but it the Spirit must ignite it from somewhere, and I believe that to be the Eucharist!)

    Lastly, my concern is the supposed premise regarding the concern for the poor. When was the last time ANYONE, heard a Bishop or Priest say that we cannot give to the poor and forgotten? I have not ever, but I am just a layperson (JPL in WTU terms). I do not believe it fair or just to accuse the Bishops or CDC of not caring for poor, maginalize, or forgotten in the U.S. just because they may or may not agree with the manner in which certain orders seem to carrying out the mission of the Church. And, at least in the U.S. there seems to be a rather “subjective” definition of the poor, “marginalized” and forgotten, so quite sure with which one is more concerned? I do however believe that just as the police force leadership worries about the corruption potential of under-cover cops going “native” — being unduly influenced by the people they are trying to capture (much like the Stockholm effect) — perhaps the leadership is rightly concerned with the situation with the LCWR. But then again, I am JPL just and very much a work in progress!

  9. Thanks, Dan, for articulating so well what I have been inchoately sensing about the “New Evangelization.” My one hope for its successful outcome is connected to some of the more competent participants in this synod, and their possible influence on its good outcome.

  10. Queen Mary Says:

    I am not embarrassed by my faith, but I am embarrassed by the men who run my religion.

    • Ditto. I’m tired of belonging to a patriarchial religion. I feel like I have no voice and I am treated like a child. I’m a well educated woman.

  11. Sr. Susan Wolf, SND Says:

    Just ran across this recent article on How to Evangelize which touches on some of the issues raised by this article and comments. It is worth reading as we anticipate the outcomes of another Synod on evangelization. http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=13628

  12. Two things come to mind in reviewing this thoughtful article. 1) I believe that the published comments calling for a “year of faith,” reflect somehow a top-down–and misunderstanding–of daily Catholicism, especially in the Western World. The problem is not embarrassment with the faith, but with the leaders who in small and large matters ignore the Gospel (the “evangel”). If the leaders simply practiced the (insanely simple) dictates of the Sermon on the Mount, Catholicism would revive stunningly. 2) I believe strongly the Holy Spirit is guiding this community of Jesus as the Body into new–radically new–forms. We have been using the Roman Empire as the model; in the future the Pontifex Maximus (of Julius Caesar AND Benedict XVI) will become less an “absolute monarch” and more of a “servant of the servants of God.” Then will faith change the world.

  13. Gregg Petri, ofm Says:

    Thanks, Dan and Joris for stating so clearly my deeply felt thoughts.

  14. You are an inspiring and beautiful person. How blessed the sons of Francis to have you among them. You speak the truth in searing honesty. The Holy Spirit lives and breathes among us in the likes of you. May God Be Blessed!

  15. This is the main problem I have with the “Year of Faith” and this synod; that we are meant to be renewing our faith, but it is not clear just what faith we are meant to be renewing. I suspect that the faith they are referring to is faith in the Hierarchy, not faith in Christ, and I see little reason to have faith in a Hierarchy that shows absolutely no faith in me. We are meant to be renewing our mission of evangelism, but are we meant to renew our efforts to spread the Gospel, or defend the Hierarchy? And why should I evangelise for a Hierarchy that condemns my call to evangelism through the priesthood as as grave a sin as that of paedophilia?

    Thank you for this post. The only thing that gives me comfort in the Church today are my fellow dissident or dissatisfied Catholics.

  16. I”ve read all of the comments to this point and agree with most, however, may I say that the condescending tone of Matthew M’s “our good friar” speaks louder than his many words about the attitude of the hierarchy toward the laity. I am aware that he is a lay person, but they too, may be infected with clericalism.

    • Matthew M Says:

      I will proudly and yet humbly submit that the position to which I hold our Priests is extremely high. They are ordained. They have chosen to heed the call of their vocation, sacrificing their own personal desires for that of the spiritual caring and feeding of a stiff-neck people. When they are presiding at the Sacrifice of the Mass or Confession, they are acting In Persona Christi. (I realize they are still men, and yes we have all seen some of our priests make grievous mistakes, but that is not the point.) Father Daniel knows, that I in no way meant any disrespect to him as an ordained priest, and it certainly was not meant as condescending. By using the term “our good friar”, it was actually a term of endearment for me, respecting both his clerical and order affiliation.

  17. “there is no sense of embarrassment about our faith on my end.”

    I won’t deny that embarrassment about our leadership is a real problem plaguing the Catholic Church today, but still there is a sense over the past couple of decades of embarrassment about the doctrines of the faith.

    Every now and then a theologian (or a homilist) will come along and attempt to explain away the multiplication of the fishes and loaves or the virgin birth or the resurrection, exchanging the possibility of the miraculous for the mundane, profane, or insane: the miracle was that the people shared the food they had, Mary was unfaithful to Joseph (or was raped), and the disciples experienced shared hallucinations of their rabbi after his traumatic murder.

    The complex reality of the Eucharist is another area of contention: already in 1965 Pope Paul VI wrote about the need to guard against discarding “transubstantation” in favor of other theories which downplayed the actual, objective substantial change of the bread and wine into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. It’s rare to hear an explanation of the doctrine of the Eucharist that balances the sacrificial and communal-sacred-meal aspects.

    The doctrines of the Church are not “cleverly devised myths” or ancient fables that modern man is too enlightened to take seriously.

    • I think you bring up an interesting point, and it is true that there are probably those who might actually take issue with doctrinal claims of our Christian faith. However, in my years of work in academic and other forms of pastoral ministry, that is rarely the experience. Most often, if people have (let’s say) “confused” notions of traditional faith claims, it’s largely the fault of the parish priests, bishops, and ministers who did not adequately answer their questions or form their catechetical foundations as young people and then as adults. Nevertheless, this is not exactly what’s at stake in the current discussion above.

      • “… the fault of the parish priests, bishops, and ministers who did not adequately answer their questions or form their catechetical foundations as young people and then as adults. Nevertheless, this is not exactly what’s at stake in the current discussion above.”

        But aren’t the failures of the others to properly catechize part of the problem that this “new evangelization” is meant to respond to? Isn’t the “secularization” the bishops are concerned about partly made possible by Christians whose foundations in the faith were not firm due to the failings of their catechists and preachers and parents? That’s not to say that a well-grounded Christian can’t have a crisis of faith, of course.

        I think the “new evangelization” is partly about re-evangelizing ourselves (knowing who we are as Catholics — that is, knowing our faith) so that we can more effectively evangelize the world. Evangelization requires interacting with and engaging the world and the broader human family.

        I would be wary of prejudging the “new evangelization” negatively (“a rally to support Catholic isolationism, ecclesial partisan division”) because in my experience, a negative prejudice is hard to overcome.

  18. Have sisters in the U.S really been chastised for helping the poor????

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