The call for a great relaunching of evangelization enters again and again into the present life of the Church in a number of ways. In truth, it has never been absent. "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (cf. 1 Cor 9:16). This statement of Paul of Tarsus has been true for every age in the history of the Church. Paul, a converted Pharisee, was untiringly driven by that "woe." The Mediterranean world in which he lived heard his message-the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. And that world began to reflect on the significance of such a message. Many people followed the apostle. We must never forget the mysterious call that drove Saint Paul to cross the border between Asia Minor and Europe (cf. Acts 16:9-10). This led to the first evangelization of Europe.
The Gospel's encounter with the Greek world proved to be exceptionally fruitful. Among those whom Paul succeeded in gathering around him, those who heard him at the Areopagus in Athens merit special attention. An analysis of Saint Paul's speech at the Areopagus reveals that it is a masterpiece of its kind. What the apostle said and how he said it illustrate his genius as a preacher of the Gospel. We know that the day ended in failure. As long as Paul spoke of an unknown God, his listeners followed him because they detected in his words something that spoke to their own religious sensibilities. But when he mentioned the Resurrection, they immediately rose up in protest. The apostle then understood that the mystery of salvation in Christ would not be easily accepted by the Greeks, accustomed as they were to mythology and to various forms of philosophical speculation. Nevertheless, he did not lay down his weapons. After his setback at Athens, he nonetheless continued with holy stubbornness to proclaim the Gospel to every creature. This holy stubbornness finally led him to Rome, where he met his death.
Thus, the Gospel was carried beyond the narrow confines of Jerusalem and Palestine, beginning its march to the confines of the then-known world. The words Paul preached in person he reiterated in his Letters. These Letters attest to the fact that the apostle left behind him, wherever he went, living communities in which he did not cease to be present as a witness to the Crucified and Risen Christ.
The evangelization undertaken by the apostles laid the foundations for the building of the spiritual structure of the Church, becoming the seed and, in a certain sense, the model valid for every age. Following the apostles' footsteps, the second- and third-generation disciples continued the work of evangelization. This was an heroic age, the age of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Saint Polycarp, and many other outstanding martyrs.
Evangelization is not only the Church's living teaching, the first proclamation of the faith (k=erygma) and instruction, formation in the faith (catechesis); it is also the entire wide-ranging commitment to reflect on revealed truth, a commitment which has been expressed from the very beginning in the works of the Fathers in the East and in the West. And when this teaching had to confront the speculations of Gnosticism or various emerging heresies, it could be polemical.
Evangelization was, in particular, the driving force of the various councils. In the early centuries, if the Church's encounter with the Greek world had not taken place, the Council of Jerusalem, held by the apostles themselves around the year 50 (cf. Acts 15), would probably have been enough. The ecumenical councils that followed sprang from the need to express the truth of the revealed faith in meaningful and convincing language to people living in a Greek world.
All of this belongs to the history of evangelization, a history that developed in the encounter of the Gospel with the culture of each epoch. It must be recognized that besides providing the basis for theological and philosophical doctrines of the first millennium, the Fathers of the Church played a fundamental role in the evangelization of the world. Christ had said: "Go into the whole world" (Mk 16:15). As the known world slowly expanded, the Church also faced ever new challenges in evangelization.
The first millennium saw the Church's encounter with the many peoples who, in the course of their migration, came into contact with centers of Christianity. There they accepted the faith and became Christians, even if very often they were not able to comprehend the mystery in its fullness. Thus many of them fell into Arianism, which denied the equality of the Son with the Father, and they fought for the victory of this heresy in the Christian world. These were not only ideological disputes; there was a constant struggle to preserve the Gospel itself. Yet, throughout these controversies, the words of Christ continued to echo: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (cf. Mt 28:19). "Ad gentes!" These words, uttered by the Redeemer of the world, have borne astonishing fruit.
One of the greatest events in the history of evangelization was certainly the mission of the two
brothers from Thessalonica, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius. They were the apostles of the Slavs-they introduced the Gospel and at the same time laid the foundations of Slavic culture. In some measure, the Slavic peoples are indebted to these saints for their liturgical and literary language. Both were active during the ninth century between Constantinople and Rome, working on behalf of the unity of the Eastern and Western Church, even though this unity had already begun to crumble. In the vast regions of central and southern Europe the heritage of their evangelization lives on. To this day, many Slavic nations acknowledge them not only as teachers of the faith but also as fathers of their culture.
A great new wave of evangelization began at the end of the fifteenth century, originating above all in Spain and Portugal. This is all the more extraordinary because it was precisely in that period, after the schism between the Eastern and Western Churches in the eleventh century, that the tragic division in the West was taking place. By now the great splendor of the medieval papacy was past; the Protestant Reformation was spreading rapidly. At the very moment in which the Roman Church was losing the peoples north of the Alps, Providence opened up new prospects. With the discovery of America, the evangelization of that entire hemisphere, from north to south, was set in motion. We recently celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of this evangelization, with the intention not only of commemorating an event of the past but of considering our present
obligations in light of the work carried out by the heroic missionaries, especially religious, who labored throughout the Americas.
The missionary zeal, which was so apparent on the other side of the Atlantic with the discovery of a new continent, also elicited ecclesial initiatives aimed at the East. The sixteenth century is also the century of Saint Francis Xavier, whose missionary achievement was directed to the East-India and Japan, in particular. He was enormously effective there, despite the strong resistance he encountered from cultures which those great peoples had developed over thousands of years. It was necessary to set about the work of inculturation, as Father Matteo Ricci, the apostle of China, proposed, if Christianity was to penetrate the soul of these peoples. I have already mentioned that only a small percentage of Asia is Christian; nonetheless this "little flock" is certainly part of the Kingdom given by the Father to the apostles through Christ. The vitality of some of the Asian Churches is remarkable-once again this is the result of persecution. It is particularly true in Korea, Vietnam, and, recently, in China as well.
The awareness that the entire Church is in statu missionis (in a state of mission) was strongly felt in the last century, as it is today, especially among the ancient Churches of western Europe. In the past (for example, in France), fully half of the priests in some dioceses went off to the missions.
The encyclical Redemptoris Missio, published a few years ago, embraces this distant and recent past, beginning with the Areopagus in Athens and continuing up to our own time, in which episodes similar to the one at the Areopagus have occurred over and over again. The Church evangelizes, the Church proclaims Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; Christ who is the one mediator between God and man. And despite its human weakness, the Church never tires of proclaiming Christ. The great missionary wave that arose in the last century was directed toward all continents and, in particular, toward Africa. Today on that continent we meet a fully established indigenous Church. There are many black bishops. Africa is becoming a continent of missionary vocations. And vocations-by the grace of God-are not lacking. As they are diminishing in Europe, the more they are growing in Africa and Asia.
Perhaps, one day, the words of Cardinal Hyacinth Thiandoum, who foresaw the possibility that the Old World would be evangelized by black missionaries, will prove true. Again, we must ask ourselves if this is not evidence of the Church's ever renewed vitality.
I bring this up in order to throw a different light on the somewhat troubling question of the number of Christians, and of Catholics in particular. Truly, there are no grounds for losing hope. If the world is not Catholic from a denominational point of view, it is nonetheless profoundly permeated by the Gospel. We can even say that the mystery of the Church, the Body of Christ, is in some way invisibly present in it.
Against the spirit of the world, the Church takes up anew each day a struggle that is none other than the struggle for the world's soul. If in fact, on the one hand, the Gospel and evangelization are present in this world, on the other, there is also present a powerful anti-evangelization which is well organized and has the means to vigorously oppose the Gospel and evangelization. The struggle for the soul of the contemporary world is at its height where the spirit of this world seems strongest. In this sense the encyclical Redemptoris Missio speaks of modern Areopagi. Today these Areopagi are the worlds of science, culture, and media; these are the worlds of writers and artists, the worlds where the intellectual elite are formed.
In its ever renewed encounter with man, evangelization is linked to generational change. Generations come and go which have distanced themselves from Christ and the Church, which have accepted a secular model of thinking and living or upon which such a model has been imposed. Meanwhile, the Church is always looking toward the future. She constantly goes out to meet new generations. And new generations clearly seem to be accepting with enthusiasm what their elders seemed to have rejected.
What does this mean? It means that Christ is forever young. It means that the Holy Spirit is incessantly at work. Christ's words are striking: "My Father is at work until now, so I am at work" (Jn 5:17). The Father and the Son are at work in the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of truth, and truth does not cease to fascinate man, especially the hearts of the young. Therefore we should not consider statistics alone. For Christ, works of charity are important. Despite all of the losses the Church has suffered, it does not cease to look toward the future with hope. Such hope is a sign of the power of the Spirit. And the power of the Spirit must always be judged in the light of these words of the Apostle: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (cf. 1 Cor 9:16).
Ten years after the Council, the Synod of Bishops on the theme of evangelization was convened. It bore fruit in the apostolic exhortation of Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi. It is not an encyclical, but in its great importance it perhaps surpasses many encyclicals. It can be considered the interpretation of the Council's teaching on the essential duty of the Church: "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!"
As the year 2000 approaches, our world feels an urgent need for the Gospel. Perhaps we feel this need precisely because the world seems to be distancing itself from the Gospel, or rather because the world has not yet drawn near to the Gospel. The first case-the move away from the Gospel-is particularly true of the "Old World," especially of Europe; the second is true of Asia, the Far East, and Africa. The expression new evangelization was popularized by Evangelii Nuntiandi as a response to the new challenges that the contemporary world creates for the mission of the Church.
It is symptomatic that Redemptoris Missio speaks of a new spring of evangelization, and it is even more significant that this encyclical was received with great satisfaction, even enthusiasm, in various quarters. Following Evangelii Nuntiandi, Redemptoris Missio represents a new synthesis of the Church's teaching about evangelization in the contemporary world.
The encyclical sets forth the main problems; it identifies by name the obstacles which beset the road of evangelization; it clarifies certain concepts, which at times are misused, especially in journalistic language; finally, it indicates the areas of the world (for example, the post-Communist countries) where the truth of the Gospel is anxiously awaited. For these countries, which have had a long history of Christianity, a kind of "re-evangelization" is called for.
The new evangelization has nothing in common with what various publications have insinuated when speaking of restoration, or when advancing the accusation of proselytism, or when unilaterally or tendentiously calling for pluralism and tolerance. A careful reading of the Council's decree Dignitatis Humanae on religious freedom can help to clear up these problems, and also to allay the fears that some are attempting to stir up, perhaps with the aim of depriving the Church of its courage and enthusiasm in taking up the mission of evangelization. The mission of evangelization is an essential part of the Church. The Second Vatican Council made this point in a colorful way by affirming that "the Church...by her nature is missionary" (Ad Gentes 2).
In addition to these objections, which concern evangelization as such and its possibilities in the contemporary world, other objections have been raised concerning the ways and methods of evangelization. In 1989 at Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, the World Youth Day took place. The response of the young (above all, of young Europeans) was extraordinary. The ancient pilgrimage route leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James came alive once again. The importance that this shrine and pilgrimages in general have had in Christianity is well known; particularly well known is their role in the formation of European cultural identity. Nevertheless, almost at the very time that this very significant event was taking place, voices were heard saying that "the dream of Compostela" belonged irrevocably to the past and that Christian Europe had become a historical phenomenon to be relegated to the history books. That the new evangelization should give rise to such fear in certain quarters of public opinion is something to think about.
In the context of the new evangelization, today's rediscovery of the authentic values found in popular piety is very significant. Until fairly recently there was a tendency to look down on popular piety. In our time, however, some of its expressions are experiencing a true rebirth-for example, the revival of former pilgrimages and the establishment of new ones. Thus, the unforgettable witness of the gathering at Santiago de Compostela (1989) was followed by the experience of Jasna Góra in Czestochowa (1991). The younger generations in particular are excited about pilgrimages. Not only in the Old World but also in the United States, where, despite the absence of a tradition of pilgrimages to shrines, the World Youth Day in Denver (1993) brought together hundreds of thousands of young believers in Christ.
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There exists today the clear need for a new evangelization. There is the need for a proclamation of the Gospel capable of accompanying man on his pilgrim way, capable of walking alongside the younger generation. Isn't such a need in itself already a sign of the approach of the year 2000? With ever greater frequency pilgrims are looking toward the Holy Land, toward Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem. The people of the God of the Old and New Testaments are alive in the younger generation and, at the end of the twentieth century, have the same experience as Abraham, who followed the voice of God who called him to set out upon the pilgrimage of faith. And what other phrase in the Gospel do we hear more often than this: "Follow me" (Mt 8:22)? This is a call to the people of today, especially the young, to follow the paths of the Gospel in the direction of a better world.