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On Catholic Evangelization

Evangelization. The word alone can strike fear in the heart of a Catholic. Images of young men in white shirts or women with booklets in their hands coming to the door quickly come to mind. “Have you been saved?”, they ask. The fact is, this is not evangelization. This is proselytizing; trying to convert someone to your beliefs. So what is evangelization?

“Evangelizing means bringing the Good News of Jesus into every human situation and seeking to convert individuals and society by the divine power of the Gospel itself.”  Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States

Well, that sure sounds easy enough. Yeah, right. I think I’ll pass.

The reality is, as Catholics we are all called to evangelize. In the parish there are many ministries. There is a Eucharistic ministry, a grief ministry, a religious education ministry and many others. However, there is no evangelization ministry. Why is this? Is it because no one cares to do it? No. It is because every ministry, as well as every member of the Church, is called to evangelize. How does a Catholic evangelize? Through witness and sharing.

Witness in this sense is not the witness often given at non-Catholic Christian altar calls where someone stands before the assembly and gives witness to his belief in Jesus Christ. Instead, witness is how you show others the Good News by how you live your life. Let me give you an example.

I heard a young man talk about how he became Catholic. He grew up in the Bible Belt in a Baptist family. When he went to college he lived in a fraternity house. His roommate happened to be Catholic. Now Saturday nights were social nights at the house. Parties would last late into the night and alcohol was available to all. He noticed that no matter how late his roommate had stayed up, or how much he had drunk, his roommate always got up on Sunday morning and went to Mass. He, however, slept in. The year was almost over before he finally decided to get up one Sunday and attend Mass with his roommate. This experience eventually led to his entry into the RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and finally into the Catholic Church.

The roommate in this example gave witness to his Catholic faith by the example he showed to the man who told the story. In his book Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Peter Kreeft writes, “the world is won for Christ not by arguments, but by sanctity: ‘What you are speaks so loud, I can hardly hear what you say.'”

The other way Catholics evangelize is by sharing. Again, let me give you an example.

In my essays On Faith and On Prayer I made reference to the Catholic belief in the Real Presence. If I were speaking to a non-Catholic about my belief in the Real Presence I could quote them scripture or the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, that might not be enough to help another understand why I believe in the Real Presence. Rather than just stating what I believe and what the Catholic Church teaches, I could share why I believe in the Real Presence. So I will do just that.

I am a cradle Catholic. I made my First Communion during the days of the Latin Mass and the three hour fast before communion. It was not unusual in those days for most people to not receive communion. Even after the fast was reduced to one hour, as it is currently, I still did not make it a regular practice to receive communion every time I went to Mass. In fact, I, like many others, would leave Mass after the priest had consumed the host and drank the precious blood but before communion was distributed to everyone else. This was a throwback to the earlier years when the obligation for Mass attendance required you to be present for the offertory, consecration and priest’s communion.

One day, a priest who was new to my parish addressed in his homily the habit of late arrivals and early departures by many of the faithful. He talked about the Mass being both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. That is, the obligation is to be present for the whole Mass, not just the offertory, consecration and priest’s communion. He put it this way, “If you miss this (here he offered the introductory blessing, the sign of the cross which begins every Mass) you have missed the Mass.” In other words, the whole Mass is important.

Well, after that I found myself going to communion regularly rather than leaving early. Over time I noticed a change in my whole approach to Mass attendance. It no longer felt like an obligation I had to perform. It became something I looked forward to. Even when I would be on vacation with my wife and daughters and could validly dispense with Mass on Sunday because of the difficulty in attending Mass due to time and distance from a church we would still make the effort to find a church and attend Mass.

Now some might say this is not a proof of the Real Presence. Well, I don’t offer it as proof for them. But I will say this. I was never really late for Mass. I always was present for the Liturgy of the Word. Yet that was never enough to really create an enthusiasm for the Mass. For that matter, I have attended other liturgies where the Word of God was proclaimed but without the Eucharist and, while I found it uplifting, I have never experienced what I experience when I receive the Eucharist.

And it isn’t a matter of the presence of others who have given me this enthusiasm. That is, it’s not the social aspect of Mass that makes the difference. I’ve been to Mass in a packed St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco with wonderful music and great pageantry. I’ve been to Mass where it was just me, the priest and one other person. I’ve been to Mass in homes, in small chapels, outside on the mountainside at Lake Tahoe and in an auditorium at Yosemite. I’ve experienced enthusiastic congregations and lukewarm congregations; uplifting music, abysmal music and no music; engaging homilies and deadly boring homilies; Mass said in Spanish and Mass said in French, neither of which I am fluent. In all of these experiences I have never walked out of Mass without feeling better for having gone. And the one thing that is the same, no matter what, is the Eucharist.

Now I could go into other experiences of the Eucharist outside of Mass to further share why I believe in the Real Presence, but that isn’t the point of this essay.

So what is the point of this essay as well as the other two essays? Simply this. As Catholics we have an obligation to evangelize. We have an obligation to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to the rest of the world. We do this primarily by witness and sharing. Remember Godspell?

Day by Day
Day by Day
O dear Lord, three things I pray
To see Thee more clearly
Love Thee more dearly
Follow Thee more nearly
Day by Day

To follow Christ is to live like Christ in the world. Simply put, that is evangelization. Before we can do that, however, we have to love Christ. We fall in love with Christ after we come to know Him. We are able to know Christ through the virtue of faith. Faith is the power to know God as He has revealed Himself. Faith must be nurtured through education in the faith and we must cooperate with the grace we have received. Prayer helps us to cooperate with that grace. It assists us in discerning the truth. In fact, it assists us in knowing Truth “and the truth will make you free.”

philneri, 5/7/2000

Updated 5/8/2024

© 2024 Greg Gillen

Image Credit/The Holy Name of Mary Evangelization Team, Bedford, VA

Day by Day/Stephen Lawrence Schwartz

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