Approaches to evangelisation

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by Michael Pender

The December 1 edition of NZ Catholic had an interesting article reporting on an address given by Bishop Robert Barron to the Fall 2019 meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Barron is well known as the presenter of the “Catholicism” programme and for informative YouTube videos.

He is well aware of the numbers of people leaving the Church in the United States through the rising number who enter “none” to the census question
asking about religious affiliation. He is of the firm belief that the Church needs to embark on a vigorous programme of evangelisation to bring these people back into the fold.

I suspect that the situation in New Zealand is not much different; people drift away or leave as they are disillusioned at the revelations of sexual abuse and inept handling of this scourge. Bishop Barron outlines his strategy: (i). Getting young people involved in social justice work should be an attractive starting point for them. (Agreed, but I am surprised that he did not mention that care for the environment would also be attractive to young people.) (ii). He recommends that the Church encourages its artists and writers. (Pope Benedict said some time back that looking at the lives
of saints and work of great artists reveals much about Christianity.) (iii). Bishop Barron says we have to stop dumbing down the faith. (I am not sure to what extent practice in the US relates to NZ.) (iv). He also says our parishes need to be seen as mission grounds. (An important point as parishioners might need evangelising to keep them within the fold.) These four are clearly worthy suggestions.

I have recently participated in viewing the bishop’s “Catholicism” programme. Bishop Barron is the narrator in a series of visually and musically engaging videos shot on location in many parts of the world. The programmes present the past glories of the Church and leave one wondering where to next; but his thrust is that an important strength of Catholicism is the intellectual manner in which faith has come to be
understood. My take on this is that the “Catholicism” programme is directed more at providing “head” knowledge than “heart” knowledge.

If I ask myself, a cradle Catholic, why I am still with the Church, I have to respond by saying that what keeps me here is not a system of intellectual assent, but something deeper.

At the beginning of Pope Benedict’s 2005 encyclical God is Love he states: “Being 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.”

Searching the writings of Pope St John Paul II unearths several similar comments. Pope Francis also refers frequently to the importance of our personal relationship with Jesus.

The Leaders Manual for Life in the Spirit Seminars (1971 – 1978) gives, as the first goal of the seminars, “to establish or re-establish or deepen a personal relationship with Christ”. So what Popes St John Paul II, Benedict, and Francis emphasise has been with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal since shortly after the closing of the Second Vatican Council.

The question is — how are we to develop this personal relationship? It is very clear from Pope Francis in Christ is Alive that God seeks human beings with a passionate love; Bishop Barron makes the same point in the “Catholicism” episode on “Prayer and the Life of the Spirit”.

Pope Francis in his 2013 document The Joy of the Gospel emphasises that the initiative lies with us. In paragraph 264, he says: “The primary reason for evangelising is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence . . . .”

Perhaps we can say that the personal relationship with Jesus, discussed by the three popes, develops “heart” knowledge and complements the head knowledge of the “Catholicism” programme.

Would people drift away from the Church if they had developed this personal relationship with Jesus?

Pope Francis spells out the content of the first steps of evangelisation
in Christ is Alive; what he presents is simple and not dependent on intellectual gifts.

At core there are just three statements: A God who is love; Christ saves you; and He is alive. (The explanatory text is in paragraphs 112, 118 and 124 of the document.)

Fr Ken Barker, of Brisbane, in his 2018 book “Go set the world on fire” also promotes the above three-step approach to evangelisation.

Comments on the Synod for the Amazon, held in Rome in October last year, from Cardinal Kurt Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, were reported in UK Catholic weekly The Tablet (November 9). He noted that many of those at the synod explained that the rapidly growing Pentecostal communities in the Amazon region were attracting converts from Catholicism. (The situation in New Zealand is similar.) He said: “We must ask ourselves where we have gone wrong and what we can learn from the Pentecostals . . . faith is far more spontaneous in Pentecostal communities and quite naturally a part of life, which means that the Holy Spirit is directly experienced, whereas our Western mentality is somewhat highbrow, too overly intellectual.”

With more than one approach to evangelisation, and there are more than the two above, it is a matter of choice. Personally, I think Cardinal Koch’s observation is telling.

Professor Michael Pender is a professor of geotechnical engineering at the University of Auckland. He is a member of St Michael’s parish, Remuera.

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