What does evangelization mean to you? I took a straw poll. Responses fell into two general categories. Here is the first: Bible thumping; fire and brimstone preaching; going door to door; eternal hellfire for anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and savior; doctrinaire; imposing one’s beliefs and convictions upon someone else; faraway missionaries in Third World countries; Jehovah’s Witnesses; the Book of Mormon; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Another set of responses fell into a different category: evangelization belongs to the realm of the clergy and religious, not the lay person; a sense of an inability to engage in evangelization because of an uncertainty about what evangelization means; a sense of being uncomfortable with what is perceived as a new thing in Catholicism; and finally, a sense of being overwhelmed because so much work needs to be done.
While the first category is full of negative stereotypes related to the term evangelization, the second category generally involves a lack of clarity about what evangelization is or means.
The notion of evangelization has had a mixed and even divisive reception in Catholicism in the United States. A number of historical factors play into this, but perhaps the most significant factor has been the association made between the term evangelization and the history of evangelical Christian denominations and Christian fundamentalism in the United States. This has led to the stereotyping indicated above. The presence of such Christian groups has made it difficult for an authentic and rich vision of evangelization to take hold among Catholics.
Reflecting on my own experience, after I read Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), along with having a series of rich experiences of religious faith, the false and shallow notion of evangelization that I once had began to fall away. Evangelization, in its authentic sense, is not what the stereotypes say it is. There is something more rich and inviting about evangelization. Here is how I have experienced evangelization.
At a time in life when I was surrounded by the awareness of my own inadequacy and sin, a priest in confession helped me see the unending love, mercy and commitment of God.
When I had attitudes that were religiously prejudiced, a loved one responded with patience, while at the same time making it clear how damaging such perspectives were, and how God’s love for us was perhaps more tender than I realized.
During seasons of vocational discernment, friends didn’t put me in a predefined box, but helped facilitate room for growth where my understanding and experience of God flourished.
As I was growing into an adult faith life, struggling with the realities of pain and suffering in the world, I was encouraged to not be cautious in prayer. Be bold. Be honest. Be raw. It’s okay. God loves you.
When I was growing as part of an intentional faith community of young adults, we had a shared commitment that our community was never about any one of us, but it was always about all of us and the way God’s love was present among us. This communal commitment strengthened the bonds between us and our relationships with God.
These, and other experiences, help me to understand evangelization better. A common thread that runs through these experiences suggests to me that evangelization is the facilitation of an encounter with the living and loving God. It is tilling the soil and planting a mustard seed, and watering the mustard seeds that others have planted before us.
Evangelizing is neither intellectualizing nor moralizing. Though evangelization lays the groundwork for a lifetime of moral and intellectual reflection. Evangelization touches all dimensions of religious practice, while at the same time runs ahead of whatever limited view of God that is operative in any given moment. Accompaniment, forgiveness, love, mercy, kinship, ritual, prayer and good deeds are the instruments of evangelization. It is the intentional nurturing of an awareness of the love of God through our relationships with one another, creation, and ourselves. It is being our brother’s and sister’s keeper, with the awareness that we are all co-workers in the vineyard of the Lord.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)