Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Final Thoughts: Evangelization and Paganism- The New and Old

The previous series of five blogs on Evangelization and Paganism: The New and the Old details seven differences between the New Evangelization of the twenty-first century and the Original Evangelization of the first five or so centuries. To recap, the seven differences are as follows:

1. Eternity was daily impressed upon the consciousness of the early Christians. Their preaching, teaching, worship, social discourse, good works and meditations were ordained principally towards that end. Among Catholics today, eternity is rarely a theme for sermons, teachings, books or otherwise. This is primarily due to death as being a taboo topic of discussion.

2. For the early Christians, repentance was an absolute condition upon which people entered into communion or remained in communion with the Mystical Body of Christ. Up until the 1960's, a candidate wanting to join the Church had to believe all of Christ's teachings and had to be willing to live the life of Christ. Among Catholics today, however, repentance is rarely insisted upon for the mistaken notion that a more lenient pastoral approach attracts more souls to the Church or that such insistence would scare prospective converts away from Church.

3. From the Apostles down to the great Church Fathers one necessary function of spiritual fatherhood- as with natural fatherhood –was that of discipline. Jesus said, if a sinner does not listen to the Church then treat him as you would a publican or tax collector; that is, as an outsider. St. Paul furthermore published names of blasphemers and instructed a fellow bishop, St. Timothy, to "reprimand publicly sinners publicly" so that others might be deterred from sinning. Among many Catholics today, such a pastoral approach is simply dismissed as lacking compassion and counterproductive. Nevertheless, public reprimands or public exclusions helped onlookers to know the difference between a wolf and a sheep. It also signaled to the one being reprimanded or excluded that he or she was in danger of forfeiting eternal life.

4. When there is an aversion to suffering as something useless or when the Wisdom of the Cross is undervalued, then unconventional, creative and heroic ways to advance God’s cause is sparing. The preaching of the Gospel in ancient times was a Revolution of the Cross. It gave new meaning to suffering, poverty and infirmity. It went further by proclaiming that such misfortunes could be used as instruments of grace and redemption. The saying among early Christians was, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” This understanding also allowed for great achievements. But among today’s Catholics, suffering as a condition of following Christ or as a means of reparation is not widely understood as being essential.

5. The early Christians recognized that evangelization and charity belonged together. Bearing witness to Christ’s love was not simply a matter of relieving “spiritual poverty,” as it is today among orthodox Catholics, but rather by appealing to the totality of man- body and soul. The same spiritual giants that were responsible for preaching memorable sermons and writing seminal books for the ages- such as St. Augustine and St. Basil –also founded hospices and orphanages for the needy. Currently, we have those who work for the Church by evangelizing and teaching; their main concern is the salvation of the soul. On the other hand, we have another group of people who, working for the same Church, serve the poor and disabled with hardly a thought given to their spiritual needs. The former is more important than the latter, to be sure. But in the past the latter served as a powerful instrument of evangelization; one which attracted souls to Christ. In any case, it is a problem that in today's Catholic Church one group of people administers to the soul and an entirely different group administers to the body; the former being religious, the latter being secular.

Again, evangelization and charity belong together. Our Lord juxtaposed the care for the soul and the body when "he summoned the Twelve and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick."

6. Taking it to the streets. The early Christians did not expect the unbeliever or the sinner to come to them. Instead, they went out to the public forum to meet sinners. Among Catholics today, we expect them to come to us; to our bible studies, prayer groups and conferences; most of which are on church property. I believe we cannot just limit the communication of the Gospel to religious venues anymore. We have to be more willing to go on "their turf," the turf of the sub-religious and the unbeliever. Upon arrival, we would do well to speak their language. The Gospel message, as Vatican II taught, should answer "their" questions and address "their" concerns; not just ours. After joining their conversation, we can then introduce them to a conversation with Christ.

7. In the first millennium, bishops used to preach to kings, queens and heads of state. They went to lands that were unfamiliar to them. They knew that they-not simply lay Catholics –had to lead the expansion of God’s kingdom with the fullness of Holy Orders; a fullness that gave a special anointing and efficacy to their words. Indeed, their mission field was not just the basilica or the local church; their mission was also in the public square and even in those places unfriendly to Christianity. St. Patrick of Ireland was a model bishop for this reason. Today, if a Catholic wants to see his bishop he has to burrow through a multi-layered, diocesan administration. By and large, a bishop's public appearance is confined to religious venues. The man on street- that is, the non-Catholic -is just as likely to see a bishop as he would his State governor; which is rarely, if at all.

This last point is the most important consideration for those who want to forestall the evils of a post-Christian world. Bishops, the Successors of the Apostles, are the prophetic voice of Christ; they are the extension of the Word Incarnate. This is not to minimize or take away from the rightful role the laity assumes in “sanctifying the temporal order.” To be sure, the lay person can reach into the corners of society that a member of the clergy can never reach. However, the main duty of a bishop is to preach the Gospel; not just to baptized Catholics, mind you, but to unbelievers and fallen away Catholics as well. This requires that they communicate the words and laws of Christ in non-religious venues. But how, you ask? They have to find ways…ways that work for them. They also have to be willing to expose themselves to a cruel world like we lay Catholics have to do on the streets, in classrooms, in auditoriums, and in the media. Quite often the prospect of getting ridiculed or criticized inhibits the average bishop from venturing out into the wilderness. And the wilderness is unkind, to be sure, but courage is contagious! And if courage is displayed from a bishop for all to see, I guarantee it, his courage will be multiplied a hundred-fold. His courage and his witness, to be sure, will set the Church of Christ ablaze.

I will end by quoting a Church Father who went by the name of Tertullian, a priest in Africa. He wrote a letter to a ruthless Roman Emperor in the second century who persecuted and even killed Christians without cause. Tertullian's attitude and confidence was common among the early Christians. It is something we need to recapture. He wrote the emperor saying:

“You will never destroy our sect! Mark this well: when you think you are striking it down, you are, in reality, strengthening it. The public will become restive at so much courage. It will long to know its origin. And when a man recognizes the truth- he’s ours!”