Are You More of an Active or Contemplative Evangelist? The Church Needs Both

Gillian Weyant

Are You More of an Active or Contemplative Evangelist? The Church Needs Both

The importance of evangelization has always been emphasized in the religion of Christianity, even in its most incipient stages.  Christ and His apostles sought not to keep the faith to themselves and to their immediate acquaintances, but rather to disseminate the truths of the Church to all corners of the globe.  In the Gospel of Matthew, it is written: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.  Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”  Christianity was always meant to be preached to all humankind, and in the days of the early Church, Christ and the apostles worked to spread the truth of the faith to everyone they would encounter.  

It is no surprise that modern evangelization looks vastly different than it did in the days of the early Church when Christ Himself was there.  Most Catholics are lay people and do not have the ability to devote their lives to evangelization in the same way that a missionary or even a priest might.  The challenge of the modern lay Catholic is to develop an understanding of how to proclaim the truth of the Gospel by word and deed in a way that draws souls to Christ. In the concept of evangelization, there is a delicate balance that needs to be struck: while one certainly seeks to state the truths of the Church in a concrete and correct way, one also should be wary of forcing these truths on others in a way that might make them feel alienated and unwilling to pursue Christianity.

Active and Contemplative Evangelization

Evangelization is further complicated by the fact that one way of evangelizing might work for one person but not for another, simply based on a difference in temperaments and personalities.  To help resolve this difficulty, it is useful to turn to the Christian ideas of the active life and contemplative life. Although the terms active and contemplative are often used to describe religious orders, it is possible to use these terms to consider the ways in which we can approach evangelization in our own lives.  Some of us might be called to a more active kind of evangelization that involves more instruction and proactivity, whereas others might find a more contemplative approach more fitting where we might lead by example rather than actively teach. 

These two ideas are borne out in the lives of two of our most recent popes: Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  Pope St. John Paul II is a wonderful example of an active kind of evangelization: over the course of his lifetime, he traveled approximately 775,000 miles to roughly two-thirds of the world’s countries, read aloud 20,000 addresses to millions and beatified and canonized nearly 2,000 people.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, on the other hand, evangelized in a much more quiet, contemplative and theological way by the steadfast nature of his demeanor and papacy. 

Pope St. John Paul II: Active Evangelization

There are a number of things we can learn from the life of Pope St. John Paul II.  Throughout his lifetime, his courage, gregariousness and joyful devotion to the Church was readily apparent.  Even before he was elected as pope, he sought to bring the joy of the Gospel to all he encountered. As a young priest, he frequently accompanied groups of students on hiking, kayaking and camping trips despite Poland’s Stalinist-era rules that forbade priests from traveling with students.  His athleticism and enthusiasm were apparent to all, and his integration of such qualities with his intense devotion to God and to the Church was incredible to behold.  

The life of Pope St. John Paul II provides us with inspiring examples that are, in many ways, easily incorporated into our own lives.  While it is not possible for us to go to the exact lengths to which he went to evangelize, one of the things we can learn from him is a very fundamental and accessible idea.  That idea is that Christianity should pervade every aspect of our lives, whether or not it may seem specifically religious. Pope St. John Paul II incorporated this idea into his evangelization by seeking to bring Christ deeply into whatever activity he was currently involved in, whether it was climbing a mountain, speaking to a person of a different religion or celebrating Mass himself.  By doing this ourselves and realizing that God is present in all aspects of human life, we may access a kind of evangelization that does not feel forced and thus might be more well-received by those whom we meet.

The other way in which Pope St. John Paul II teaches us to evangelize is by moving forward and actively seeking to promulgate the teachings of the Church.  In his papacy, he did this to an amazing extent, preaching to an audience of many millions over time. Although this is an obviously unrealistic idea for the laity, we can be inspired to courageously proclaim and explain the truths of the Gospel to those whom we meet, although such teachings might be unpopular in our era of moral relativism. In our daily lives, it is absolutely possible to seek to bring up the teachings of the Church and our firm beliefs in them, whether it is to a close friend, a family member or an acquaintance who expresses doubt or disbelief.  Like Pope St. John Paul II, we can always find an occasion to which we may bring the presence of Christ. This kind of evangelization is especially good for the more outgoing among us, although it is a good lesson to us all that we may bring the presence of Christ to everything we do.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: Contemplative Evangelization

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, by contrast, is the kind of Catholic figure who is not afraid to speak plainly about the truths of the faith, but more often than not tends to lead by prayerful example.  He has expressed the fact that evangelization is inherent in the Catholic faith by saying, “The Church always evangelizes and has never interrupted the path of evangelization. She celebrates the Eucharistic mystery every day, administers the sacraments, proclaims the word of life—the Word of God, and commits herself to the causes of justice and charity. And this evangelization bears fruit: It gives light and joy, it gives the path of life to many people; many others live, often unknowingly, of the light and the warmth that radiate from this permanent evangelization.”  

This quotation expresses a kind of evangelization that is much different from that of a more active figure such as Pope St. John Paul II.  By saying this, our Pope Emeritus expresses that simply by living as Catholics and devoutly partaking in the sacraments, we are participating in an effort to evangelize that spans over two millennia. While obviously we cannot say that we are evangelizing simply by doing our duties as faithful Catholics, there certainly is something to learn here: leading by example and making concerted efforts to live holy lives is a truly powerful tool that can bring many souls to the Church.  Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has also noted that “the fundamental task of the evangelization of culture is the challenge to make God visible in the human face of Jesus.” This expresses a similar notion to Pope St. John Paul II’s idea that God can be found in all aspects of life: in our humanity and in our efforts to live lives of virtue, we are creative expressions of the face of God, and in this way are able to bring Christ to all we meet.

“Go, and Make Disciples of All Nations”

Although it can be a daunting and sometimes uncomfortable task to evangelize and seek to bring the Catholic faith to those we meet, there are several things that can give us hope.  One of these things is the idea that there is no one type of evangelization suitable to all, and it is possible to bring the faith to those we meet by the particular people that we are and the particular vocations that we have. Another is the fact that the Catholic Church is an eternal institution, and due to its permanence and its nature, we are in some way evangelizing simply by living our vocations as good Catholics. In spite of the challenges we may face as modern-day Catholics, may we always find hope in the examples of the great evangelists who have gone before us, and seek to replicate their zeal and holiness in our own lives.