By Patrick Schmadeke
Succinct definitions of evangelization often come in the form of something like “preaching the good news,” “sharing the joy of the Gospel” or “proclaiming Jesus as Lord and savior.” These are helpful markers of evangelization. However, these kinds of definitions can seem abstract, incomplete or not particularly relevant to a given life or ministerial circumstance.
Like definitions of love, music or poetry, a substantive and succinct definition of evangelization is evasive. With that awareness in mind, the goal of this article is to explain a foundational definition of evangelization that can serve as a starting point for fuller and more specific definitions to be worked out by the reader to meet the needs of her or his context.
The proposed definition of evangelization is this: to evangelize is to facilitate an encounter with the living and loving God. Now to unpack it word by word.
Beginning with “to evangelize,” rather than “evangelization” shifts our language, our focus, more towards a verb. “To evangelize” is an action. When we engage in evangelization, we are actively doing something.
To “facilitate” indicates a certain intentionality to our actions. We are not speaking the same words or the same message in the same way to everyone. Nor are we drifting about hoping that of all the things we throw at the wall, something might stick. We are tailoring our message to the individuals or communities with whom we find ourselves in relationship. This is not to compromise content; it is to recognize that different people hear the good news of Jesus differently.
An “encounter” is fundamentally an experience. We are facilitating an encounter with God. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”
This encounter is intensely personal, and it is with the love of God in the crucified and risen Jesus. This encounter “blossoms into an enriching friendship … here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization” (Evangelli Gaudium, #8). Facilitating an encounter with the risen Christ is rooted in our own prayer lives. It is not so much about telling people about Jesus as it is showing people Jesus by being, as St. Teresa of Avila would have it, the hands and feet of Christ in the world. It is sharing the joy born of our own personal relationship with Christ and living out the consequences of that encounter.
This encounter is with the “living and loving God.” God is alive and present. Not an abstract, distant or a merely transcendent figure. God is immediately present to us and knows us better than we know ourselves. God is also loving and the source of all peace. God’s love is expressed in mercy most acutely through the paschal mystery. St. Catherine of Siena expresses this mercy in these captivating words: “O loving Madman! was it not enough for
You to become Incarnate, that You must also die? … My heart suffocates in thinking of you, for on every side to which I turn my thought, I find nothing but mercy.”
Returning to the definition, “to evangelize is to facilitate an encounter with the living and loving God.” This is a working definition that could function as a common thread across various contexts, from the pulpit to the classroom to the factory floor to the cornfield to the firehouse and everything in-between.
Regardless of the quality of this or any particular definition of evangelization, what truly matters is living a life of faith with the Holy Spirit in our midst. This will inevitably lead us to living a life focused on evangelization.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)