Evangelization: Our Role, Obligation, and Approach
Evangelization can be a scary word for many Catholics in our culture today. Yet, we don’t have any trouble recommending a restaurant, television shows, movies, or the best coffee place in town. If the Catholic faith is true—if it is not, there’s no reason to be Catholic—what it offers is, by its nature, ranked far ahead of food, entertainment, or mochas. How is it that something infinitely greater than worldly pleasures is so difficult to discuss with others? Catholics today aren’t well known for evangelization, unfortunately. St. John Paul II pointed this out in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio, “one of the most serious reasons for the lack of interest in the missionary task is a widespread indifferentism, which, sad to say, is found also among Christians” (#32). In addition to indifferentism, I think the Catholic attitude toward evangelization includes ignorance, fear, and misconceptions. No matter the baggage, every Catholic is obligated to evangelize. The good news? There are many different roles and approaches.
Our Obligation to Evangelize
Before we complain too much about our obligation to evangelize, remember that the command comes from Jesus Himself: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). For those that don’t necessarily like being told what to do, this command can be seen as an extension of a more familiar one: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Jesus repeats Himself a few verses later for emphasis: “this I command you, love one another” (John 15:17). The surest expression of the love of others is to bring them to knowledge of the truth; or, more specifically, to a knowledge of Him, Who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
What Catholicism offers is the surest path to that truth and to eternal salvation: in Evangelii Nutiandi, Pope Paul VI explains that “the Gospel entrusted to us is also the word of truth. A truth which liberates and which alone gives peace of heart is what people are looking for when we proclaim the Good News to them” (#78). Charity compels and obliges us to share the gospel with the human race!
Now that the obligation is laid out and good reasons set for it, the next step is for each Catholic to see his/her role in evangelizing. For many of us, that can only begin by clearing up some misconceptions. Sometimes evangelizing is equated with John the Baptist preaching in the desert—that everyone has to go to a street corner and preach. This might be a calling for some, but not for everyone. St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that “there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:5-7). In the same chapter, St. Paul goes on to give his famous many parts/one body discourse. The Church needs apostles, but not all are apostles; the Church needs teachers, but not all are teachers. The roles are many, and the Holy Spirit tailors our gifts to our particular roles.
Another mistake in evangelizing is to assume it is the job of someone else, either the clergy, religious, or well-known apologists. In Good News, Bad News, Fr. John McCloskey and Russell Shaw note that many Catholics have been:
content to leave this particular job more or less exclusively in the hands of the clergy… that attitude was and is a terrible mistake, an abdication of a duty that comes with baptism and membership in the Church. Approximately 98.5% of Catholics in the world are laypersons. Leaving it entirely up to the other 1.5% to proclaim the gospel and lead people to Christ just doesn’t make sense” (pg. 56-57).
On this note, it’s one thing to give a non-believer a CD of Stephen Ray or Scott Hahn, then offer to discuss it with that person—it’s another thing to assume that the CD absolves us of our responsibility.
Inherent in these latter two misconceptions is a foundational flaw: if I’m not a priest/religious or a famous apologist, then I don’t have anything to offer. That’s patently false: every Catholic has something to offer. The Holy Spirit that enlivened the apostles at Pentecost is the same Holy Spirit that every Catholic received at their baptism and confirmation. The documents of Vatican II stressed this; Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, devoted a chapter to the laity. The council fathers also promulgated an entire document devoted to the laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem). Years later in Redemptoris Missio, St. John Paul II reminded us of our history, that “it is clear that from the very origins of Christianity, the laity–as individuals, families, and entire communities–shared in spreading the faith” (#71). His proclamation of the New Evangelization might be a new effort, but the call echoes back two thousand years.
The Church has been blessed with a number of books that detail aspects of evangelization. For more exhaustive treatments, check out Patrick Madrid’s Search and Rescue, Mark Brumley’s How Not to Share Your Faith, or Terry Barber’s How to Share Your Faith With Anyone. In a less exhaustive treatment, here are five keys to keep in mind when sharing the Catholic faith:
“In order that the message of salvation can show the power of its truth and radiance before men, it must be authenticated by the witness of the life of Christians” (CCC #2044). On a common sense level, we don’t need the Catechism to tell us that our witness is key to evangelizing. It is easy to tell if a religious education teacher is conveying a list of facts or if they’re passing on the faith that they love. In addition, all of the intellectual arguments in the world won’t win as many converts as a sanctified life. Bl. John Henry Newman, a convert from Anglicanism, is an example of that. He was one of the intellectual giants of his day; theological considerations and events within the Anglican Church gradually moved him to the doorstep of Catholicism. He was reluctant to go through the door, however, until he encountered a holy priest, Fr. Barberi. Just in case we need to be reminded on the importance of living a holy life: Fr. Barberi had no clue of the effect he had on Newman until the latter asked to be received into the Catholic Church (Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, 211).
The Christian life is unlivable without prayer. In terms of evangelization, pray for opportunities to evangelize and for guidance. And always pray for those with whom you speak! Besides prayer of petition for others, make sure to stay spiritually healthy. Each Catholic engaged in evangelization would do well to remember Jesus’ warning: “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?” (Matt 16:26)
Before jumping into evangelization, first know and love the faith. Any serious evangelical endeavor cannot progress very far without knowledge of Catholic beliefs and teaching. This is one of the immense gifts to the Church of the modern era: there are easily available, fantastic resources on apologetics, history, common questions, and Catholic doctrine. Catholic Answers has a website full of information as well as discussion forums; numerous Catholic authors keep blogs; many Catholic publishers offer a wide array of theological and spiritual books. The Catechism is online at the USCCB website, the Catholic Encyclopedia is online, there are smart phone apps for Catholic editions of the Bible, and every recent papal document is on the Vatican website. Never before has the intellectual wealth of the Catholic Church been so readily available to the faithful. Take advantage of it, and build your knowledge of the faith.
All the praying in the world still requires us to take action. Yes, pray and discern; examine your gifts and solicit as much inspiration as possible. But don’t wait around for the Holy Spirit to send you a formal request to start volunteering. If you’re unsure of a place to start, try teaching religious education at your parish, or volunteering with the youth group. At most parishes, there’s a constant need for volunteers. Perhaps the first lesson you learn may be that you can’t handle third graders, or teenagers. No matter the result, it’s worth the effort. Every time I’ve had to give a talk for the youth group or for confirmation class, I probably learn more than the youth do. I have to do research, delve into the Catechism, and deepen my knowledge of the Bible. I have to seek its application to my life before I can make it relatable to the youth.
On the interpersonal level, do not be afraid to say “God bless you” or to talk about upcoming events at your parish. Stand up to anti-Catholic talk, or to blasphemous speech. And, be on the lookout for small openings in conversations. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with non-Catholic family or friends have resulted from a tiny openings in one-on-one moments. Confidence might not come immediately, but it does develop over time.
A great model for evangelical confidence is St. Martin of Tours. The 4th century bishop traveled throughout his diocese in Gaul (present-day France), going from town to town. He “did not wait until the peasants in his diocese came looking for him, but, rather, went out to meet them” (Pernoud, Martin of Tours, 79). His zeal and faith are great models to every Catholic.
Top everything off with the virtue of humility, the most Christ-like of virtues. We shouldn’t pick fights or let our conversations overstep the bounds of charity. St. Therese of Lisieux desperately wanted to be a missionary to the foreign lands, yet she did not rebel against the role that the Lord chose for her. Rather, she flourished in her brief life as a Carmelite nun and has become a posthumous missionary. She’s the patron of missions together with St. Francis Xavier, and her relics have traversed the globe since her death.
Our vocations/roles within the Church will necessarily differ, and our part in turning the heart of someone may not always be clear. It may not be our arguments that turn someone’s heart toward the Catholic faith. God’s plan for our role might be to merely plant a seed. Strive to let God define evangelical success, and don’t get caught up in human definitions of success. St. Peter Chanel traveled to the Canary Islands in 1837, bearing the gospel. His ministry had not lasted very long on the isle of Futuna when the king’s son desired to convert. This brought the king’s ire onto Peter, and one of the king’s warriors clubbed Peter to death. By human standards, this mission was an utter failure. God’s work had only just begun, however—the inhabitants of Futuna soon converted, including the warrior who killed St. Peter.
Present God with a willing heart and a love for the Catholic faith; pray for and be willing to accept your role in spreading the Gospel. Grace builds upon grace when we share it: “missionary activity renews the Church, revitalizes faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!” (Redepmtoris Missio #2).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 1990.
McCloskey, Fr. C. John and Russell Shaw. Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion and the Catholic Faith. Ignatius Press, 2007.
Newman, Bl. John Henry. Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Penguin, 2004.
Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 1975.
Pernoud, Regine. Martin of Tours. Ignatius, 2006.
Scripture quotes used from:
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version – Catholic Ed. Ignatius, 1966.