Looking back 50 years after the close of Vatican II, it may surprise us to realise that the Council was meant to give a new impetus to evangelisation and mission. Its key documents, Lumen Gentium(Christ as light of the nations), Ad Gentes (mission to non-Christians), Dei Verbum (the Bible as word of God and so relevant for today, not just a historical curiosity), Gaudium et Spes (the Church after more than a century of defensive resistance to modernity now invites dialogue with the modern world). There was excitement at the close of the Council in 1965, and the expectation that a new era of mission and dialogue was about to open up.
What the Council was proposing was an alternative to the counter-Reformation Church which many of us experienced as we grew up. This model sought to preserve Catholicism through catechetical instruction and devotional piety to shore up the fracturing of Western Christianity in 16thcentury, and as a bulwark against the triumph of modernity, the child of the Enlightenment, in the 19thcentury. This counter-Reformation Catholicism endured well into the 20th century. It was symbolised by a pyramid – the pope at the apex, then bishops, priests/religious, with a passive laity at the bottom. It was viewed largely in legal-juridical terms and led to a clerical caste. This made for clarity but crowded out the rich biblical imagery (e.g., people of God, body of Christ, vine and branches). Holiness was expressed in a rich devotional life that included the Sacred Heart, Mary and the saints. There was emphasis on the catechism rather than the Bible which was largely unread. The moral life was seen in terms of obeying rules and training of the will, rather than growth in virtue ordered to happiness.
Yet this brand of Catholicism gave birth to missionary congregations and religious communities on the one hand, while diocesan clergy concentrated on pastoral ministry, catechesis and the administration of the sacraments. Congregations of sisters and brothers were involved in teaching, nursing and social work. It produced saints, reformed the priesthood and religious life, evangelised the New World and sent missionaries to Asia, Africa and Oceania. All these characteristics played an important part in safeguarding Catholic truth, gave a clear-cut identity, and succeeded in transmitting the faith to future generations. Yet this image of the Church was no longer able to meet and respond to the radically changed culture of the late 20th century. It was not the definitive expression of the Church and was in fact culture- and time-bound. Vatican II set out to lead the Church into what would be a new, confident, evangelical future. It was to be the end of an era and the birth of a new moment in Catholic history.
It seems then that there is no real future for either traditional Catholicism or progressive/liberal Catholicism. The former wants to tighten the rules and go back to the good old days, while the latter prefers to loosen or replace them by a brand of Catholicism formed in their own image. Both are working out of the same rule-based, counter-Reformation Catholicism. Both are dying to make way for a more evangelical Catholicism born of a new Pentecost that was Vatican II, and a new missionary energy for a new cultural era. The entire Church is now called to holiness of life for the sake of mission in a de-Christianised and non-Christian world. Yet today many Catholics seem to have no evangelical fervour, no experiential knowledge of Jesus Christ, and are ignorant of the basic message of the Gospel. They have been baptised, catechised and sacramentalised, but not evangelised, that is, they have never encountered Jesus Christ in a personal manner. Pope Francis is calling all Catholics in virtue of their baptism to embrace the new evangelisation with new ardour, new methods, and new expressions.
What the Council Fathers did not foresee was that the end of the modern period was at hand. A few years after the Council ended, in 1968, the sexual revolution ushered in the post-modern world in which we are living today. There was also opposition generated by the publication of Humanae Vitae that same year (1968) that gave rise to rebellion within the Church itself, and to debates about authority versus conscience. The result was that the outreach of the Church to the nations was put on the back burner. With a reform that was often misguided, the Church became a battleground of competing elites, conservatives versus liberals, that resulted in disunity and loss of identity. There was confusion about what was essential and unchanging on the one hand, with what was traditional, and the contingent product of a particular age, on the other. In 1975, Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi tried to resurrect the missionary spirit, but by then the Church was too busy with liturgical experimentation to listen. Then in 1990, John Paul II issued his missionary encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, but at that time the Church was caught up in a liberation theology based on Marxist ideology which subsequently collapsed with the demise of communism in the West in the 1990s. Pope Francis reiterated the call to mission by declaring that the whole Church is called to mission in Evangelii Gaudium in 2013, but as yet, it seems, no great effort is being made to heed his call in the Irish Church. One wonders how long more we have to wait.
In Vatican II, there was a shift from a narrow conversion-oriented evangelisation to include dialogue, inculturation, respect for non-Christian religions, and sensitivity to a perceived Western imposition of culture. There was also a tension between the call to evangelise and the possibility of non-Christians being saved without hearing the Good News (cf. LG 16). But the failure of theologians to provide compelling reasons, other than the command of Christ, as to why evangelisation is still necessary resulted in the rapid collapse of missionary motivation. People need to know what they are being saved from and that they need to be saved in the first place. The age of the missions was regarded as past since all will be saved anyway. Instead, the Church’s mission was in danger of being reduced to a temporal project, to material well-being, while downplaying or ignoring its spiritual dimension. Now work for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation is in danger of overshadowing the direct proclamation of the Good News. But the Church is no longer Church when it ceases to proclaim Jesus Christ as the core of its message. There must be explicit proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Saviour. That is why Dominus Jesus (2000) reaffirmed the uniqueness and necessity of Jesus Christ and of the Church in God’s plan to offset a misunderstanding that all religions are equally paths to salvation.
The lack of enthusiasm for evangelisation that is widespread today springs from a crisis of faith within the Church. For example, fear for one’s salvation is rarely encountered these days. Instead, there is the banal optimism that everyone will be saved in the end. But if everybody is saved, then Christianity becomes superfluous. There is certainly hope for all, but not final salvation guaranteed for everyone. For God’s offer needs our cooperation. Factually we cannot know who will or will not be saved. The final goal of evangelisation is happiness with God for all eternity. But first of all, it is necessary to become evangelised Catholics ourselves before we become evangelising Catholics, hence the reason for the Francis’ Joy of the Gospel.
Joy is the keynote that characterises Evangelii Gaudium, the result of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that gives life a whole new meaning and a whole new sense of direction. We become more fully human when we reach out to others to impart the joy that is at the heart of the Christian message. The apostolic exhortation gives guidelines to shape a new style of evangelisation needed for our times. It is one marked by enthusiasm and vitality and that calls for the transformation of the whole Church into a missionary Church in order to go out and spread the joy of the Gospel that is meant for all people.
Francis reminds us that there is a hierarchy of truths in preaching the Gospel. A problem arises when the message of the Gospel is identified exclusively with secondary elements, however important in themselves. An imbalance results and the integrity of the Gospel, at the centre of which is the person and mission of Jesus Christ, is compromised. Evangelisation is the primary, though not exclusive, service that the Church can render humanity where the majority of the human race, particularly in Asia, have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and have a right to hear it.
Inside the Church, the Pope mentions attitudes and lifestyles that hinder the new evangelisation. For example, there are pastoral workers, he says, more intent on their own comfort, a spiritual life reduced to a few exercises, attachment to one’s own security and personal well-being, seeking power and glory, relying on one’s own powers to give feeling of superiority, faith in a disembodied Jesus who demands nothing. All of these lead to selfishness and spiritual sloth. Furthermore, there is the over-concern with bureaucracy, plans and management that lead to the grey pragmatism of daily Church life and to a worldliness disguised as piety.
The Pope is calling for a transition for a maintenance Church to a missionary one to meet the crisis of evangelisation and mission. Becoming a Catholic is a life-long process of living out the grace of baptism in missionary discipleship. It includes a radical turning around of one’s life to friendship with Jesus in a life-long conversion to the truth of the Gospel; deep fidelity nurtured by word and sacrament; joyful discipleship as the expression of gratitude for salvation in Jesus Christ; and courageous evangelisation. We must also be conscious of the world in which the new evangelisation is being preached.
A new aggressive secular culture began to gain ascendancy in the closing decades of the 20th century in the Western world that became increasingly hostile to the Church and saw Christianity as the enemy of freedom. Vatican II did not anticipate such a radical secularism that enforces a public square devoid of religious and moral reference points. We are now living in the post-modern age. Everything is now relative. There are no absolutes. What has become known as the “dictatorship of relativism” does not recognise anything as definitive. There is no such thing as objective good and evil. No such thing as objective truth, that is, being in accord with reality. There are only different opinions about why we exist, whether life has any purpose and how we are to live. I have my truth, you have yours; Christianity is for me, Buddhism is for you. You can’t impose your religion or morality on me.
Many people today have become selective relativists. They believe, for example, that terrorism and global warming are evil, but in the areas of sexual ethics and religion, each person makes up his own answers to life’s meaning. It is a matter of personal taste and there is freedom from all constraints, which accounts for its popularity. Relativism is propagated by the social media and none of us is immune from its influence. Many people, for example, are opposed to abortion but do nothing about it for fear of imposing their morality on others. Evil prevails when good people do nothing in the face of moral evil. Disagreement with the prevailing political correctness is regarded as bigotry and hate speech. Relativists think tolerance means not disagreeing with anybody on moral or religious issues. What we used to call difference of opinion is now labelled intolerance for claiming that some things are right or wrong. Times have changed, but the ideal of a missionary Church is still valid – the Church that Jesus and his disciples preached about.
The Church must proclaim a message of hope to a culture that has lost sight of it, one that lives in practical agnosticism, religious indifference, and increasingly without spiritual roots. It is one that celebrates a politics without God as human liberation and uses science, technology and development as a substitute for religion. Technology has become technocracy. In the face of a changed culture that is increasingly dominated by technology, the social media, globalisation and urbanisation, we must review our mind-sets, prejudices, stereotypes, and priorities, otherwise the Church risks becoming a museum. Reading signs of the times is a metaphor for taking change seriously. The Christian message must be integrated into the new culture that calls for new imagery and symbolism.
Cultural change in Western world and internal confusion within the Church demands a new approach that is called for in the new evangelisation. The primary mission of the Church is to tell the world the truth about itself. The Good News is that God loves the world and invites all people to eternal happiness. Truth is therefore about the origin, dignity, vocation and destiny of human beings revealed to us by Jesus Christ that will set people free and give them hope. The next generation with little religious education will be searching for a message of hope while we, the older generation, will continue to live out the passions and debates of the 70s and 80s.
It is a truism to say that we cannot evangelise without first being evangelised ourselves. This is where we must begin. Those communities that have already been converted and living as missionary disciples are the liveliest sectors of the Church today, often the result of a World Youth Day experience, with growth in vocations to the priesthood and religious life in contrast to the liberal and traditional brands of Catholicism that are stagnant and dying.
This year the Gospel read in the Sunday liturgy is that of Luke. It is an opportunity for us to contemplate the entire Gospel of Luke together with its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles. As God’s word, it retains a continuing importance in shaping the identity of the Church today. A worldwide mission is carried out in Acts under the guidance of the Spirit who equips the apostles to evangelise. Contemplating Luke-Acts can aid us in undergoing what Francis calls conversion by acquiring a new outlook, new attitudes and a new way of living and acting. These would enable us to announce the Good News to those who have yet to hear it, to Catholics who no longer practice their faith, or to strengthen the faith of practising Catholics. Luke-Acts is particularly helpful for such a task. We notice immediately the qualities of mercy, compassion, love, charm and joy that characterises Luke’s portrait of Jesus. The Lucan narrative is important for the Year of Mercy which is an integral part of the new evangelisation. Jesus’ mission in Luke is carried out in a spirit of prayer and his ministry is a source of joy especially for the outcasts of society who are more open and receptive to his message.
By way of conclusion, the following may be of help in responding to Francis’ call: