Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What is Evangelisation?


I am following up the last post on the New Evangelisation with some more considerations along similar lines. Vocations will come from those who follow the Lord as disciples. The danger of clericalisation is evident not only in those who do not respect the specific vocation of lay people in the middle of the world (and therefore want to get them to do priestly things) but also in a reduction of the priesthood to an empty activism. To be a disciple means to be a person who has been evangelised and has responded by picking up the Cross and following Christ. We have to be on our guard against the danger spoken of by Pope Francis that, "we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but we are not disciples of the Lord".

When Pope John Paul II called for a Decade of Evangelisation in preparation for the year 2000 I wondered how many Catholics knew knew what he meant. People knew what "telly-evangelists" were and the word "evangelisation" seemed somewhat contaminated by association. Even today I wonder how many Catholics know what evangelisation means. Recently I gave a talk on "Vocations and the New Evangelisation" to a group of priests and in the questions afterwards one of them asked if what I really meant was 'catechesis'. It is an understandable confusion but evangelisation and catechesis are two quite different things even if it is important for them to be linked in practice. We could explain the distinction in this way: evangelisation is the initial proclamation of Christ, whereas catechesis is the systematic explanation of that proclamation. It becomes easier to see the link between the two if we think of evangelisation as an encounter with Christ and catechesis as the process of learning about Christ. The importance of evangelisation become self-evident when we see that knowing about someone is not the same as knowing that person so catechesis without evangelisation is meaningless.

Most people know that the word evangelisation is derived from two Greek words: "eu" meaning "good" and "angelion" meaning "message". The first words of St Mark's Gospel are, "The beginning of the good news (eu-angelion) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God". What is 'good news' for one person is of course not necessarily good news for another. Recently I and some other priests were guests in a student house during a youth conference. I baited a mouse trap in the kitchen and caught a mouse (well six of them in fact). For the students that was good news. For the other priests it was more like, "We've got mice? That's gross!" St Mark, however, isn't just proclaiming any good news. His proclamation has a very specific and universally significant content: "Jesus Christ, the Son of God".

Although most people are familiar with the derivation of 'evangelisation' fewer are aware of the origin of its English equivalent "gospel" which is a shame because it is also quite enlightening. The word comes from two earlier English words "gud" (ie. good) and "spell". These days we associate "spells" with witchcraft and wizardry. It is somewhat ironic that its current pagan use can help us understand its original meaning. A spell has to be cast or proclaimed and when it is it brings about a change: a spell makes things happen. That gives us an important insight into what we mean by 'evangelisation': in the very act of proclaiming Christ we are making him present.

We can illustrate this by taking an example from the Mass. In the Liturgy of the Word we sit for the readings but stand for the Gospel because the Word of God is present in the very proclamation of that Word. Announcing the Gospel the deacon or priest does not extend his hands at the words "Dominus vobiscum - the Lord be with you" because it is not a 'wish' that the Lord may be with his people. Rather it is a statement that the Lord is already with them in the proclamation itself. For the same reason the deacon or priest does not pick up the book to show the people at the end of the Gospel and nor does he say (in the corrected translation) "This is the Gospel of the Lord" because the 'good news' is not the book, it is the person made present in the proclamation itself. The Gospel is the "glad tidings" of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, not the books that contain the account of that Good News.

God so loved the world that he sent his only Son who became obediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis - obedient unto death, death upon the Cross. To evangelise is therefore not only to proclaim the good news of God's love manifest in Christ but also to make him present in that proclamation. We see this for example in the Acts of the Apostles when St Peter is asked for alms. St Peter responds, "gold and silver I have none but what I have I give thee, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth arise and walk" (Acts 3:6). The man is cured precisely because Jesus is made present in the proclamation.

The avoid this post becoming too long I ail stop with one final reflection. When we speak of evangelisation the content is the proclamation of Christ but we can also speak of two distinct things that are taking place. One is the action of the evangelist who proclaims Christ and the other is the transformation that takes place in the heart of the one who receives Him. For evangelisation to be effective both are necessary. When we evangelise we are proclaiming Christ, we are offering an encounter with him. This encounter takes place in the heart of the one who is evangelised. A useful comparison is with teaching. These days we make a distinction between 'teaching' and 'learning'. In the past they would have been considered under the one heading but now we recognise that there is only good teaching if effective learning is taking place. A successful teacher is one whose children learn. We also recognise today that people have different learning styles and so the teaching has to be delivered according to the modo recipientis - the individual's manner of learning. It is for this reason that the Church has constantly to reflect on how she evangelises to ensure that the Word proclaimed penetrates to the hearts of those who do not yet know the Lord.

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