Bishop's Column

Seizing the Chance to Evangelize, in our modern ‘Mission Territory’

Last year, my former boss and good friend Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, commented that the United States has become "really mission territory – again, for the second time."

Archbishop Chaput was right. Our nation is "mission country." While Christianity was once a predominant factor in American cultural life, its influence today has become increasingly marginalized, or, at best, watered down. While many Americans attend Church, the impact of Christianity on what we read, or watch, or talk about has waned. Even in Lincoln, there are many people who have never heard the Christian Gospel. The United States is mission territory because in many places, the Gospel must be proposed as though for the first time.

This is part of what Archbishop Chaput meant when he described our country as "mission territory." But there was another, more hopeful element to this remark: If our country is again "mission territory," we have a new chance to evangelize – as though for the first time.

In the context of a secular nation, the Gospel now appears, not as something old and familiar, but as something strikingly new and radically different – indeed, countercultural. This, too, is part of what it means for our country to be "mission territory."

Pope Paul VI recognized this reality in 1975, when the encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi called for the "Pentecost of a new evangelization." Later, Blessed John Paul II called for a Springtime of New Evangelization in the Church.

The call to a New Evangelization gives us a blank canvas of sorts, a chance to evangelize innovatively, and the imperative to devise methods of evangelization which will reach our modern culture. This isn’t easy—the opportunities to spread the Gospel are not always clear, and the challenges are daunting.

That’s why I’m grateful to George Weigel for his new book, "Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church." Weigel proposes a detailed program for creative and faithful evangelism that can help the Church understand the positive, promising side of our new status as "mission territory."

"Evangelical Catholicism" is Weigel’s term for the engaged, energetic, Christ-centered approach that is needed for a new proclamation of the unchanging Gospel.

Why is a new approach needed? Part of Weigel’s answer – with which I agree – is that the culture around us is increasingly un-Christian, or even anti-Christian and has become toxic to breathe for believers. Yet at the same time, popular culture has become unavoidable. The only answer to this dilemma is the formation of a Catholic "counterculture": a way of life that can engage the world, while also challenging its errors and proposing the truth.

"Evangelical Catholicism," in Weigel’s words, "is a counterculture that seeks to convert the ambient public culture by proclaiming certain truths, by worshipping in spirit and in truth, and by modeling a more humane way of life. Evangelical Catholicism does not seek to ‘get along’; it seeks to convert."

Under our new circumstances, faith can’t be transmitted by habit, routine or osmosis. In our modern "missionary territory," Catholicism must be passed on with passionate conviction, by deeply converted disciples who base their lives on divine revelation. Evangelical Catholicism, Weigel writes, "creates its own culture. Because friendship with the Lord Jesus shapes every aspect of a Christian’s life, the friendship is culture forming."

The Church, in the words of Venerable Pope Paul VI, "exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass."

The Church needs to evangelize by creating a culture rooted in true friendship with Jesus Christ. This begins with our own lives of faith—and with our families, and our friendships. It isn’t easy to be Christ’s disciples. But our discipleship can transform the world. "Evangelical Catholicism" may help us to do precisely that.

Editor’s Note: "Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church" by George Weigel, published by Basic Books in 2013, is also available for purchase at area Catholic bookstores and secular book sellers in hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-465-02768-2) and e-book (ISBN 978-0-465-03787-2).

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