Evangelization before catechesis
Why do you suppose Blessed John Paul II talked about the “new evangelization” and not the “new catechesis”?
Until recently, I was the director of evangelization and catechesis at a large parish here in Denver. And in that time, it became clear to me that (1) there is a significant difference in meaning between those two terms and that (2) most parishes don’t fully understand that difference, and that hurts our ability to reach the people in the pews.
To put it simply, “evangelization” is the process of introducing someone to Jesus Christ. It is about sharing His good news with them, and inspiring them to make the radical decision to follow Him. It is the fundamental turning of the heart toward God, the reorientation of one’s entire life to live not primarily for self, but for Him. Evangelization is the “why.” Why do I renounce this world for the next? Why do I follow Christ?
“Catechesis,” which happens after evangelization, is the nuts and bolts of instruction — the “how.” It is where we learn in a systematic way what we need to do in order to follow Christ, how to live as a Christian, how to grow in faith and love and grace.
Catechesis, then, presupposes evangelization. It would make no sense to teach people how to live a certain way if they don’t understand why they would want to live that way. It would be like giving someone a road map to a place they have no interest in going. They’d have no use for the map. They’d be more likely to use it to line the bird cage than they would be to actually follow it.
And here is where I see the disconnect in most parishes.
Most churches operate on a presupposition. They assume that their congregations consist of the “faithful” — people who have been evangelized, who have made the decision to follow Jesus Christ, who desire to become “new creations” in Him. They are gathered together to pray, to worship and to learn how to deepen that relationship. The church’s catechesis exists to help those people, who have already made the decision to follow Christ, to follow Him more closely.
Only, in many cases, that presupposition is wrong.
It may have been true, in previous generations, that a majority of the people in the pews on Sunday mornings were fully evangelized, committed Christians who had given their lives to following Jesus Christ. That may still be the case in some evangelical congregations. But it is not the situation in the average Catholic parish here at the dawn of the 21st century.
I believe that there are a lot of people in those pews who have never been evangelized. They’re probably sincere people, for the most part. They’re there. They want to be “good.” They want to meet nice people, maybe please the grandparents, maybe fulfill some kind of obligation. But they don’t get it. They don’t understand the power of Christ to transform their lives. They don’t see the need for the radical, life-altering transformation that He offers.
It’s no wonder our catechesis doesn’t seem to be getting us too far. We’re offering them a road map to a place they have no interest in going.
And hence, the primary need in the average Catholic church is not for catechesis. It’s for evangelization. As Blessed John Paul II said in “Novo Millennio Inuente,” “Even in countries evangelized many centuries ago, the reality of a ‘Christian Society’ which, amid all of the frailties which have always market human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone.” Our mission fields are no longer in far-off lands. They are right here, in our own cities, amongst the people who gather with us for Mass on Sunday mornings. Those are the people we need to introduce, or reintroduce, to the truth about salvation in Jesus Christ.
Hence the need for the “new evangelization.” There’s nothing really “new” about it, in the sense of new information. As John Paul II himself said, “The new evangelization does not consist of a ‘new gospel.’ … Neither does it involve removing from the Gospel whatever seems difficult for the modern mentality to accept.” What we need to do is to restore the ancient truths, in all of their splendor, and release them from the extremes of sterile question-and-answer catechesis on one side and “Kumbaya and felt banners” emotionalism on the other. We need to speak those ancient truths in ways that are relevant to our modern culture, without watering them down or losing what is essential in them.
How do we do that? Unfortunately, there is no road map for that. It isn’t just a matter of purchasing the right curriculum or scheduling the right programs. It is a matter, first of all, of allowing ourselves to be transformed in Christ. It is about becoming witnesses — showing them what transformation in Christ looks like, and inviting them to pursue the same through the power of our example.
To quote John Paul II one final time: “The new evangelization is not a matter of merely passing on doctrine, but rather of a personal and profound meeting with the Savior.” The first goal of parish ministries should be just that — to facilitate a “personal and profound” meeting between worshippers and the object of their worship, Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t assume they’ve already met Him personally, or that they even know much about Him. Because I’m betting that, in many cases, they haven’t.
But I’m thinking that, if they got to know Him, they’d probably really like Him.
Bonacci is a syndicated columnist based in Denver and the author of We’re On a Mission from God and Real Love.