A few years ago, a term such as “evangelisation” would have been unusual in a conversation about the Catholic Church’s sense of mission and purpose. Since Vatican II, however, the impetus of renewal has introduced the term into the very heart of the Church’s discussions of itself and its mission.
The lack of readiness of Catholics to evangelise is not simply a cultural phenomenon. The answer to this issue can be partly given by understanding the reason and motivation behind those who fervently evangelise: it is the appreciation for what Jesus has done for them, the realisation of the eternal consequences, the clarity of the gospel message and a personal love for Jesus as Lord, saviour and friend.
The elements that underpin the successful and enthusiastic evangelism by Evangelicals are the very elements that are often missing in the life of the average Catholic. Consequently, there is a notable lack of evangelisation among Catholics. This lack of evangelisation needs to be treated as a consequence rather than a cause. Professor Peter Kreeft, the Catholic philosopher,1 comments that, “Most Catholics in America simply do not know how to get to heaven, how to be saved. Most Catholic students do not even mention Jesus Christ when they answer the question of how they expect to get to heaven. They think they’ll get in if they are good enough. This means quite simply that the single most fundamental lesson of the entire Christian religion, the most important thing anyone can ever know on earth, they don’t know…And this is not simply a lesson it would be nice for us to learn; it’s a lesson absolutely necessary for us to learn. Eternity is at stake.”
When Pope John Paul II was speaking to a group of American bishops,2 he stressed that, “Sometimes even Catholics have lost or have never had the chance to experience Christ personally; not Christ as a mere ‘paradigm’ or ‘value,’ but the living Lord: ‘the way, and the truth and the life’” (John 14:6).
Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium, in commenting on the inroads of the New Age movement among Catholics, pointed out how an imbalanced emphasis on certain aspects of the Church, rather than on the personal encounter with Christ, has made Catholics vulnerable to such deception.3
Throughout the centuries, the Holy Spirit has raised several movements and associations of lay people within the Catholic Church to foster evangelisation, holiness and acts of mercy. This work of the Holy Spirit is evident through the second Vatican Council which gave birth to a wave of new movements and associations of lay people dedicated to the Great Commission.
Nowadays it is impossible to speak of new evangelisation without referring to ecclesial movements. During the unforgettable meeting of the ecclesial movements with the late John Paul II on 30 May 1998, the Pope referred to the movements and ecclesial communities as “a response, given by the Holy Spirit, to this critical challenge at the end of the millennium.” During this unprecedented event that fell on Pentecost 1998, the Pope drew the lay movements to the heart of the Church and launched them into the world with the commission to discover, know and love Jesus and make him known to all peoples. The powerful evangelising potential of movements was discovered by John Paul II as Archbishop of Krakow. He not only encouraged them, but sustained and promoted them in the Church. At the same time he was demanding and expected them to aim high.
When referring to this phenomenon of lay movements, Pope John Paul II defined this move of God as a “hope for the Church and all humankind.” The Pope saw in these lay movements the fruit of a springtime for the Church—a work of the Spirit that gives new life to the Church in a world that is increasingly secularised.
Lay Movements in the Catholic Church
A typical example of these movements is the Charismatic renewal that started in 1970 when a group of students in Ann Arbour, Michigan, USA, got together to pray for a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Today this movement is present in about two hundred countries. It is a Christ-centred movement that brought to the forefront the importance of Catholics to surrender their life to Jesus Christ and to trust in the grace of God for a complete transformation in Christ through the person of the Holy Spirit.
Another example is the Focolare movement, founded in 1943 by Chiara Lubich, which numbers about four million people throughout eighty-one countries. This movement brings to the Church a great gift—that of helping people open their lives to Jesus Christ through a way of life characterised by selfless love.
In the year 2000, Millennium Films International initiated from the Vatican a worldwide distribution of the JESUS Film, which is undoubtedly an effective tool for evangelisation. The response was phenomenal. During the World Youth Day, an event sponsored by the Vatican which gathered about two million young people around Pope John Paul II, hundreds of thousands of video cassettes were given out. Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, commented that the JESUS Film is a useful instrument for evangelisation and wished that it would spread rapidly. Indeed it did. Since then, more than 6.5 million copies in different formats and languages have been distributed worldwide. Today, our challenge is to meet the demand.
The Neocathecumenal movement was founded by layman Kiko Arguello, a former artist. This is one of the largest worldwide Catholic movements, with millions of members and several thousand full-time evangelists. This movement is radical concerning conversion and a total surrendering of one’s life to Jesus Christ. It places emphasis on an uncompromised walk of discipleship. It has also established many seminaries to form priests according to this radical Christ-centred spirituality.
Evangelisation and the Catholic Church
On Sunday 24 April 2005, Pope Benedict XVI was chosen to lead the Catholic Church. In his inaugural homily, the new Pope quoted John Paul II’s own inaugural exhortation: “Do not be afraid! Open wide the doors for Christ!4 It is only in this friendship (with Christ) that the doors of life are opened wide. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. Christ takes nothing away but he gives us everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors of Christ—and you will find true life. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!”5
God is opening before the Catholic Church the horizons of a humanity more fully prepared for the sowing of the gospel. Consequently, no believer in Christ, no institution of the Church and no member of the Church can avoid this supreme duty, namely, to know Christ and to proclaim him to all peoples.
1. National Catholic Register, 24 April 1994.
2. Oss. Roman English Edition, 24 March 1993.
3. Christ or Aquarius? Exploring the New Age Movement. Veritas Publication, 1992.
4. John Paul II inaugural homily, 22 October 1978.
5. Pope Benedict XVI inaugural homily, 24 April 2005.