The preacher of the Pontifical Household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, was a keynote speaker at a conference this month in Norfolk, Virginia.
The conference was titled “Awakening the Domestic Church,” and Father Cantalamessa gave three addresses there.
This one is called “How Covenant Communities and Ecclesial Movements Fit Into the Plan of a New Evangelization.”
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We can identify in the history of the Church four times in which one can see an increase or a renewal of missionary activity, namely:
1. the first three centuries of Christian history, in particular, the second half of the third century when large parts of the Roman Empire were converted. Protagonists: the bishops;
2. the fourth to the ninth centuries, in which we witness the re-evangelization of Europe after the barbarian invasions. Protagonists: the monks;
3. the sixteenth century, with the discovery of the inhabitants of the New World and their conversion to Christianity. Protagonists: the friars;
4. the current era, which sees the Church engaged in re-evangelizing the secularized West. Protagonists: the laity.
What changes and distinguishes the various waves of evangelization mentioned is not the object of the announcement—“the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints,” as the Letter of Jude (v. 3) calls it, but its respective recipients: the Greco-Roman world, the barbarian world, and the New World, namely, the American continent.
Therefore, we ask ourselves: who comprises this new group that allows us to speak of a fourth wave of new evangelization taking place today? The answer is the secularized, and in some ways, post-Christian, Western world. This specification, which already emerged in the documents of Blessed John Paul II, became explicit in the teaching of Benedict XVI. In his motu proprio entitled “Ubicumque et semper,” in which he established the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, he speaks of many countries of “Churches of ancient Christian origin … [that] seem particularly resistant to many aspects of the Christian message.”
Parallel to the appearance of a new world to evangelize, we have also witnessed a new class of evangelizers emerging each time: bishops during the first three centuries (especially in the third), monks during the second wave, and friars in the third. Even today we are witnessing the emergence of a new category of protagonists of evangelization: the laity. This obviously does not mean replacing one category with another, but rather adding a new component of the people of God to the other, while the bishops, headed by the Pope, always remain the authoritative guides and ultimate responsible of the missionary task of the Church.
Like the wake of a great ship
I said that throughout the centuries the recipients of the message have changed but not the message itself. I must clarify this statement. It is true that the essence of the proclamation cannot change; however, the way of presenting it, its priorities, and the departure point of the message itself can and must change.
Let us summarize the unfolding of the Gospel message up to our present era. First came the announcement made by Jesus, which has as its central theme the news that “the kingdom of God has come near.” This unique and unrepeatable stage, which we call the “time of Jesus,” was followed after Easter by the “time of the Church.” In this second stage, Jesus was no longer the announcer, but the one announced; the word “Gospel” no longer meant (except in the four Gospels) “the Good News brought by Jesus,” but the Good News about Jesus. It had as its object Jesus himself, and in particular, his death and resurrection. This is what Saint Paul always meant by the word “Gospel.”
It is important, however, to be careful not to excessively separate the two “times” from the two announcements—that of Jesus and that of the Church, or (as some have been saying) the “historical Jesus” from the “Christ of faith.” Jesus is not only the object of the Church’s proclamation, that which is announced. Woe to us if we reduce him to only this! That would mean to “objectify” him and deny the resurrection. In the Church’s proclamation, it is the risen Christ who, with his Spirit, still speaks today. He is also the subject who announces. As a text of the Second Vatican Council says, “[Christ] is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.”
Starting with the original announcement, we can summarize the successive unfolding of the preaching of the Church with an image suggested by Péguy. Consider the wake of a great ship: it begins in a point, which is the bow of the ship. But it continues to broaden more and more, until it is lost in the horizon and touches the two opposite shores of the sea. This is what came about through the Church’s proclamation: it began with a point—the kerygma—Christ “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (see Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:3); and, expressed in an even more emphatic and concise manner, “Jesus is Lord” (see Acts 2:36; Rom 10:9).
The initial expansion of this point occurred with the appearance of the four Gospels (written to explain that initial core), and then with the rest of the New Testament. Then came the Tradition of the Church with its magisterial teaching, liturgy, theology, institutions, laws, and spirituality. The end result is an immense patrimony, which suggests precisely the wake of a ship at its maximum expansion.
At this point, if we want to re-evangelize the post-Christian world, we must make a choice. Where should we begin—at any point along the wake, or from its beginning? The immense abundance of doctrine and institutions can become a handicap if we try to present this to the person who has lost all contact with the Church and no longer knows who Jesus is. It would be like vesting a child all at once with one of those old, huge, heavy brocaded liturgical copes. It would crush him.
Instead, we must help these people establish a relationship with Jesus. We need to do with them what Peter did on the day of Pentecost with the three thousand people present: speak to them about this crucified Jesus whom God raised up. We should take them to the point at which they, too, cut to the heart, shall ask, “Brothers, what should we do?” Then, we shall respond with the words of Peter, “Repent, and be baptized” (Acts 2:37ff), if you are not yet baptized, or confess, if you already have been.
How and when to do this will depend on our creative ability. And it can vary, as happened in the New Testament: from Peter’s discourse to the large crowd on the day of Pentecost, or person to person, like Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch of Queen Candace (see Acts 8:27). Those who shall respond to the announcement will unite, as they did then, around the community of believers. They will listen to the teaching of the apostles and partake in the breaking of bread. Depending on the call and response of each person, little by little they will make their own that entire immense heritage born of the kerygma. People will not accept Jesus based on the word of the Church, but they will accept the Church based on the word of Jesus.
We have an ally in this effort: the failure of all attempts by the secular world to replace the Christian kerygma with other “screams” and “manifestos.” I often use the example of the famous painting by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, called The Scream. A man stands on a bridge with a reddish background. His hands are wrapped around his wide open mouth, from which he emits a cry. We immediately understand that it is an empty cry full of anguish, without words, only sound. This image seems to me the most effective way to describe the situation of modern humanity. Having cast aside the cry full of substance—the kerygma—humanity now finds itself having to scream its existential angst in the dark.
Christ, our contemporary
Now I would like to try to explain why it is possible to begin anew in Christianity at any moment from the point of the ship, without deceiving ourselves or simply digging up the past. The reason is straightforward: the ship still sails the sea and its wake still begins with one point!
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said some truly wonderful things about the faith and about Jesus, yet on one topic I do not agree with him. One of his favorite themes is that of the contemporaneity of Christ. But he understands such contemporaneity to mean that we should be contemporaries of Christ. “He who believes in Christ,” he writes, “is obligated to be contemporaneous with him in his humbling of himself.” The idea is that in order to really believe with the same faith required of the apostles, we must disregard two thousand years of history and testimony about Christ and put ourselves in the shoes of those to whom Jesus spoke, when he said, for example, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). What would we think of a man who says this, while knowing that he does not have a stone on which to lay his head?
No. I think that the true contemporaneity of Christ is something else. It is he who makes himself our contemporary, because, having risen, he lives in the Spirit and in the Church. If we were to make ourselves contemporaries of Christ, it would be merely an intentional contemporaneity; if it is Christ who makes himself our contemporary, it is a real contemporaneity. According to a bold idea of Orthodox spirituality, “anamnesis, that is, liturgical memorial, is a joyous remembrance that makes the past more present than when it was lived.” This is not an exaggeration. In the liturgical celebration of the Mass, the event of the death and resurrection of Christ becomes more real for me than it was to those who were actually physically present at the event: at that time, there was a presence “according to the flesh,” while now, after the resurrection and Pentecost, the presence is “according to the Spirit.”
The same thing happens when one proclaims with faith, “[The Lord] was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). A fourth-century author writes: “For every man, the beginning of life is that moment when Christ was sacrificed for him. But Christ is sacrificed for him at the moment when he recognizes the grace and becomes conscious of the life procured for him by that sacrifice.”
I realize that these things are difficult and perhaps not even possible to say to people, let alone to those in our secularized world. But we who evangelize must be very clear about this in order to draw courage from and believe in the words of John the Evangelist who says, “for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).
The laity, new protagonists of evangelization
I said at the beginning of the chapter that, lay people are the new protagonists in the present phase of evangelization. Their role in evangelization has been acknowledged by the Council in Apostolicam Actuositatem, by Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi, and by John Paul II in Christifideles Laici: respectively the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (November 18, 1965), On Evangelization in the Modern World (December 8, 1975), and The Lay Members of Christ’s Faithful People (December 30, 1988).
The basis of this universal call to mission is already present in the Gospel. After commissioning the first apostles, we read in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus “appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (Lk 10:1). Those seventy-two disciples were probably all he had gathered by that point, or at least all those who were willing to make a serious commitment to him. Jesus, therefore, sends all his disciples.
I once met a layman in the United States who, besides being a father of a family and having a profession, also strove intensely to evangelize. He had a great sense of humor, and he often spoke to audiences in such a way that they would roar in laughter (so typical of Americans). Whenever he would go to a new place, he would start out by saying (quite seriously), “Twenty-five hundred bishops gathered at the Vatican and they asked me to come and preach the Gospel to you.” The people would naturally become curious. He would then explain that the twenty-five hundred bishops were those who had taken part in the Second Vatican Council and had written the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), which urges every Christian layperson to participate in the evangelizing mission of the Church. He was perfectly correct in saying, “They asked me …” Those words of the Council were not spoken as if to the wind—to everyone and no one—but they were personally addressed to each lay Catholic.
Today we know that nuclear energy is released from the “fission” of an atom. An atom of uranium is bombarded and “broken” in two by the collision of a particle called the neutron. This process releases energy and starts a chain reaction. The two new elements are fissile, that is, in turn they split into two other atoms. These, then, split into four and so on until there are billions of atoms, “liberating” an immense amount of energy. This energy is not necessarily destructive because nuclear energy also can be used for peaceful purposes to benefit humanity.
We can use this analogy on a spiritual level to say that the laity are a kind of nuclear energy within the Church. A layperson who is inflamed by the Gospel, by living near others, can “spread” to two more, who then spread to another four. And since lay Christians number not just in the tens of thousands (like the clergy) but in the hundreds of millions, they can truly play a decisive role in spreading the light of the Gospel throughout the world. What makes the evangelization of the laity even more praiseworthy is that it is often done freely, by spending money out of their own pockets.
The apostolate of the laity was discussed even before the Second Vatican Council. The element that the Council introduced regarding this matter, however, was the title used to describe how the laity contribute to the apostolate of the hierarchy. Laypersons are not merely “collaborators” called upon to give of their time, professional abilities, and resources; they are bearers of their own charisms by which, Lumen Gentium says, “[The Holy Spirit] makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices that contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church.”
Jesus wanted his apostles to be shepherds of the flock and fishers of men. For members of the clergy, it is often easier to be pastors and not fishermen, that is, to nourish with the Word and sacraments those who already come to church, rather than go out in search of those who are far away and live in the most diverse environments. The parable of the lost sheep is reversed today: ninety-nine sheep have strayed and only one remains in the sheepfold (see Mt 18:12). The danger is that we spend all our time nourishing the remaining one and have no time (due in part to the lack of clergy) to go out and search for the lost ones. To this end, the contribution of the laity seems providential.
The most advanced achievement in this regard is represented by the covenant communities and the ecclesial movements. Their specific contribution to evangelization is to provide adults with the opportunity to rediscover their baptism and become active and committed members of the Church. Many conversions today, both of nonbelievers and of nominal Christians returning to the practice of their faith, are made in the context of these movements.
Benedict XVI stressed the importance of the family in view of evangelization, speaking of a “leading role” of Christian families in this matter. “And just as the eclipse of God and the crisis of the family are linked,” he said, “so the new evangelization is inseparable from the Christian family.” Saint Gregory the Great, while commenting on the aforementioned passage of the seventy-two disciples, wrote that Jesus sent them out two by two “because when there are less than two people, there can be no love,” and love is that by which Jesus’ followers are recognized as his disciples. This applies to everyone, but especially to two parents. If they can no longer do anything to help their children in the faith, they would do much if their children, in observing them, could say to one another: “Look how much Mom and Dad love each other.” Scripture says, “Love is from God” (1 Jn 4:7), and this explains why wherever there is a little true love, God is always proclaimed there.
The first evangelization begins within the walls of the home. To one young man who asked what he must do to be saved, Jesus responded, “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. . .; then come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). But to another young man who wanted to leave everything in order to follow him, Jesus did not permit him, but told him instead, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you” (Mk 5:19).
There is a famous African American spiritual entitled, “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” Some of its words can encourage the laity (and not only them) in the task of evangelizing—person to person, door to door. The hymn says: “If you cannot sing like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, go home and tell your neighbor, he died to save us all.”