As an interfaith practitioner I’m a bit allergic to the word evangelisation, being aware of the centuries in which the Church has taught that it alone was the way to salvation and demanding conversion and baptism of indigenous people as well as those of other faiths. But this new evangelisation is not proselytization but a new way of spreading the wisdom of Christianity that is seen as ‘good news’. In doing this the Church is only doing what other faiths do for all religions believe they have a universal truth that can make a difference to how people live their lives and find purpose and meaning. How they attract people and introduce them to this truth varies from those who serve a local community and hope people will then learn about their faith, like the Bahais, or set up retreats and study programmes like some Buddhists or offer hospitality to the wider community like the Sikhs.
In his first encyclical Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis invited Catholics to “be bold and creative in the task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities…” This task of rethinking the work of evangelisation needs, I suspect, also needs a rethinking of the content of the good news and how is it to be expressed in a way that it meaningful to present day realities? Perhaps too the purpose of it needs to be looked at very honestly. Is the new evangelisation a desire to return to a time when churches were full and influential in both people’s lives and society in general? Is it really about bums on seats so to speak. Will it involve a recognition that there is goodness and wisdom and even grace outside the bounds of Christianity? Will it understand that for some people a sense of meaning and purpose is to be found elsewhere and that the message of Christianity might not be for them? Is it possible for the Church to even think this possible? Will it begin with personal interactions that listen to why people have simply lost interest in the Church and have drifted away from it? Will it be willing to be alongside people and listen to what they long for in life and be prepared to encourage them in their search for truth and wisdom, even if they find that elsewhere. Will it be able to recognise that a creed centred on sin and redemption might need reinterpreting in the light of what we know about cosmology and the historical development of doctrine? Should we emphasise incarnation rather than redemption? Should the kingdom of God be at the centre of it? Can we recognise that there are other traditions like the Celtic tradition that have expressed the faith differently from what some people would call the imperial and clerical tradition of the Church? Will we be able to take seriously the sacred interrelationship of all things that helps us live out this reality both individually and collectively? Will we recognise that, in the words of Karl Rahner, all nature is graced, and we need not fear the secular.
This new evangelisation could be a moment of revolution if it is approached honestly and creatively. Not everyone will be happy with the questions I’ve posed. Whatever way the new evangelisation goes, hopefully it will be within the context of an open and welcoming Church and not that of a fortress buttressing itself against the world. A twitter from the National Catholic Reporter has suggested “If our public witness isn't always evangelizing in a broad sense, we are just another private country club, another gated community in a world of increasingly growing inequity and isolation”. Luckily this is not the kind of evangelisation envisaged by Pope Francis. Pope Francis situates the Church firmly in the world. He is committed to human fraternity; he has talked of the revolution of tenderness and is committed to building relations with other denominations and faiths. At the centre of his thought is the common good and a healthy pluralism which respects and values differences. If we could develop the new approach to evangelisation from this perspective it could change Catholics, their Church, and the whole human family.