In 1990, Pope John Paul II wrote an encyclical on the Church’s missionary mandate entitled Redemptoris Missio, in which he called for a renewed and wholehearted commitment of Christians to missionary activity. Convinced of the urgency of missionary activity, he wrote:
God is opening before the Church the horizons of a humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the Gospel. I sense that the moment has come to commit all of the Church’s energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples. (3).
The two key words here were these: new evangelization. Over the past 30 years, many successful ministries, especially those directed toward young people, have begun and flourished because of the work of Catholics who were inspired to take up the pope’s call. New Evangelization ministries, created to respond to this need and to the “urgency of missionary activity”, have the invitation to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ at their core.
These ministries have changed the lives of many young people for the better, and I count myself among them. They have a commitment to the sacramental life of the Church and bring young people into community where they find the mutual support they need in order to be challenged and grow in the Christian life.
Ministries dedicated to the New Evangelization arguably tend to find their deepest inspiration and raison d’etre in the teachings and person of Pope John Paul II. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, was also deeply committed to the cause of evangelization, establishing the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization in 2010. Benedict also wrote his own share of documents with implications for evangelization ministry, such as his encyclicals Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) and Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”).
This leads us to ask: where is Pope Francis calling New Evangelization ministries and individual Catholics who either work within or have been formed by them? Put differently, how is he challenging these ministries – and missionary disciples in general – toward new growth?
The question grows out of something that Austen Ivereigh said on a podcast with this website: the pope’s job is to purify our faith and to conform us more to Christ, not to tell us what we want to hear.
Pope Francis has been pope for over eight years now, and it is a good time for both individual Catholics and the ministry organizations they form to reflect on how his teaching has stretched their personal faith and, by extension, how his teaching has found expression in their ministries.
The influence of Pope Francis’s magisterium on New Evangelization ministries and Catholics formed by them is a particular area of interest. One reason is that the genesis of these ministries was strongly tied to one person in Pope John Paul II. New Evangelization ministries are often based on a rigorous study of his teachings, which were subsequently applied to these ministries in practical ways. Pope Francis continues Pope John Paul II’s emphasis on the need for mission, but brings his own unique perspective that further develops and complements the teachings of both of his immediate predecessors. From a Catholic perspective, the same forensic study of Pope John Paul II’s teachings and the application of them to the work of individual ministries are owed also to Pope Francis’ teachings.
Each ministry and individual Catholic can begin by asking: has this study and application of Pope Francis’s teaching been occurring in our personal lives and in our ministries? An honest reflection on this question–which can require courage, as it necessitates openness to allowing one’s faith and ministry to be challenged–would open new horizons for ministries at large and also for individual missionary disciples, making them more able to evangelize our current world in a credible and effective way.
Pope Francis’s Offer to the New Evangelization
Nothing can spare individual Catholics and especially leaders in Catholic evangelization ministries the work of studying Pope Francis for themselves, and of identifying the areas in their lives and ministries that he is calling to a more radical conversion. However, I will try to point out some areas that I have noticed Pope Francis emphasizing in unique ways.
Pope Francis’s exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, from his first year as pope, was undoubtedly well-received within ministries dedicated to evangelization. At the beginning of Evangelii Gaudium, he writes:
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. (3)
With these lines, Pope Francis essentially affirms the existence of New Evangelization ministries. From the same document, he also writes something that could be identified as a challenge to deeper conversion for the same ministry encouraged by the lines above:
If the whole Church takes up this missionary impulse, she has to go forth to everyone without exception. But to whom should she go first? When we read the Gospel we find a clear indication: not so much our friends and wealthy neighbours, but above all the poor and the sick, those who are usually despised and overlooked, “those who cannot repay you” (Lk14:14). There can be no room for doubt or for explanations which weaken so clear a message. (48)
Here, a ministry or individual Catholic might ask hard questions of themselves: to what degree is our ministry directed toward our “friends and wealthy neighbours”? To what degree do we pursue a decidedly first-world version of Christian mission in which spiritual growth occurs within neatly defined programs that may challenge us in some ways, but never make us feel too uncomfortable? To what degree does our ministry choose at least a spirit of material poverty in decision-making processes?
Pope Francis has also written several other documents, each crying out for application to the missionary field. There is Laudato Si’ on care for the environment, Amoris Laetitia on love in the family, Gaudete et Exsultate on the call to holiness in our modern world, and recently his encyclical Fratelli Tutti on human fraternity. Each of these documents is inherently mission-oriented and ripe for reflection by leaders in New Evangelization ministries and individual Catholics alike.
To give just one other example using Laudato Si’, one could ask: to what degree is my home or my ministry a place of ecological conversion? Is it a place where decisions to travel are weighed carefully, with the impact of individual decisions on the planet in mind? Is it a place where we educate ourselves on where the food we buy and provide for our ministry events comes from? Do we allow our own ecological conversion to make us uncomfortable and change our budget when we’re planning outreach events?
The same reflection could be done for everything Pope Francis has written, from larger teaching documents to his short daily homilies in the chapel at the Casa Santa Marta.
After eight years of Pope Francis’ pontificate, there is a lot of material to work with and it might be hard to know where to start. One suggestion for both individual Catholics and the ministries they serve in would be to start with Pope Francis’ latest book, Let Us Dream.
In the book, which reads like a summary of his teachings to date, Pope Francis invites us to new ways of thinking and speaking about what seems like every major challenge facing humanity: climate change and ecological conversion, the arms trade, the soul sickness of racism, the throwaway culture and the death penalty, building a new economy that prioritizes people over profit, the threat of nationalism and populist politics, spiritual narcissism, and more. It’s also written in the context of our current pandemic situation and therefore uniquely tailored to speak into our times.
Many might assert that topics like the ones listed above are not relevant to evangelization, or at least not a priority in the face of the need to explicitly invite people to a personal encounter with Christ. To counter this, it is important to note that evangelization never occurs in a vacuum, but rather in the very specific context of “the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties” of human beings in our times, which followers of Christ are to make their own (Gaudium et Spes 1).
People in today’s world desire God, as is true at any time in history; if humanity was primed for the sowing of the Gospel back in 1990, it’s arguably even more so now. But people in the world also desire and have an acute ability to detect authenticity, and they will expect it from anyone presenting themselves as a follower of Jesus Christ.
Someone unfamiliar with the Eucharist, for example, might already place great emphasis on their personal environmental impact. When they see a missionary disciple sharing this conviction, maybe by buying products that are produced fairly and locally, or by showing a willingness to make uncomfortable decisions when planning their travels, and so on, they will relate. If the missionary’s conviction is sincerely rooted in the Gospel, it becomes a unique opportunity for evangelization.
Another example could be a person who may not lead a personal prayer life but intuitively knows that the death penalty is wrong. They might appreciate the witness of a Catholic who lives a consistent pro-life ethic, speaking for the unborn while also knowing the name of the last person on death row executed by their government. Yet another person might not know what Adoration is, but they recognize nationalism and divisive populist politics when they see it. They would be struck by the authenticity of a missionary disciple who has clear words to denounce this type of politics, and who refuses to compromise their principles for short-term political expediency, even on important priorities regarding the protection of human life.
Or, one can imagine a young activist who has had no contact with organized religion, but who earnestly desires to draw attention to injustices driven by racism. Maybe this person has been a victim of racism themselves. When a Catholic, motivated by their faith and grounded in the Gospel, is capable of saying to this person using their own words that “Black lives matter” without having to add a “but” or list of qualifications, they engage in the type of accompaniment that Pope Francis calls for.
People in the world will also take note when they see followers of Christ who do not become what Pope Francis calls “isolated consciences,” spiritual narcissists who presume to have the entire truth in their pockets. They’ll be attracted by missionaries who are capable of listening to and learning something from others. They will be drawn by the example of missionary disciples who clearly reject the conspiracy theories of the day because they are too focused on the bigger story of building the kind of human fraternity that the Gospel calls for.
In all of these ways and more, missionary disciples will be authentic and credible not simply because they lead a personal prayer life nourished by the Sacraments, which is the necessary foundation for any kind of missionary activity, but because of the way in which they allow that inner life to change the way they relate to the world around them.
It is precisely in this search for ways to relate to the world in a credible way that missionary disciples can look to Pope Francis as their example. If Pope Francis is anything, he is a credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and people in the world have noticed. He’s a missionary at heart, and that would be reason enough to hear his teachings and implement them as much as humanly possible to our lives and ministries. He has a deep personal relationship with Christ that forms the center of his life, and he allows it to determine the way he thinks about and speaks into our times.
The New Evangelization and the ministries it inspires, and all individual Catholics who desire to be the missionary disciples and the leaven our world currently needs, have a unique gift in Pope Francis. If they choose to accept this gift wholeheartedly, their ministries will change and grow in challenging and painful ways as they are called out of their false securities and into new waters. But in Austen Ivereigh’s words, they’ll be purified and conformed more to Christ in the process.
And, perhaps most importantly for the task of evangelization, they’ll become more authentic and credible witnesses of the Gospel to today’s world.