By Phil Lawler ( bio – articles – email ) | Mar 09, 2023
At his Wednesday public audience this week, Pope Francis compared Vatican II with the first council of the young Church, the Council of Jerusalem. Both councils, the Pope remarked, issued a call to evangelize the world. Yes, but there is also a marked difference between the results of the two councils. After the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles quickly spread the Gospel message across the world. After Vatican II, the Church talked about evangelization.
Does that seem harsh? Look at the circumstances facing the Church during and immediately after the two councils, and compare the concrete results.
Apart from the Gospel message and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the disciples who fanned out from Jerusalem had very little working in their favor, practically speaking. They were not educated; they were not trained in public relations. Travel was slow and sometimes dangerous. Communication could only be done face-to-face, or by letters that might take weeks to arrive. The earliest missionaries worked in societies that clung to their pagan religions; they often faced open persecution. Nevertheless, during the lifetime of the original apostles the Christian faith spread across thousands of miles, all along the coasts of the Mediterranean and beyond, from India to Spain and from Ethiopia to what is now Germany.
Now consider the resources that have been available to Christian evangelists since the time of Vatican II: increasingly fast and easy international travel, instant global communication, and more recently the internet. The Church owns and operates thousands of schools; graduate programs offer professional training for priests and religious, theologians and apologists. In the Western world, at the time of the Council, most governments were friendly to the Christian message, if not openly supportive. And yet in the years since the Council, the influence of the Church has shrunk, most dramatically in the societies where it had been strongest.
Perhaps we should notice, in passing, that the regions where the Church has experienced significant growth in the past decades have been areas where the prospects for evangelization did not look so promising in the 1960s. In many parts of Africa, it was and still is dangerous to be a Christian; yet the faith has grown fastest on that continent. In Asian countries the Church grew despite government oppression.
Meanwhile in the affluent West, in what was once known as Christendom, open hostility to Christian beliefs has become fashionable. On the day before the Pope compared the two councils, the British Parliament passed legislation that makes prayer— even silent prayer— illegal under certain circumstances. The nation that gave us George Orwell has now produced the first law against “thought crime.”
True, the new British law applies only in the vicinity of abortion clinics. But do you doubt that the no-prayer zones will be expanded? If prayer at an abortion clinic is condemned as a form of intimidation, the same logic can easily be applied to silent prayer in the workplace, on the city streets, and certainly in the schools, where students may be trained to regard Christianity as dangerously subversive.
By the way, secular zealots are right to regard Christian prayer as dangerous to their cause. If only we used our most powerful weapon more effectively! But I digress. My point is that despite the undoubted encouragement of Vatican II, the cause of evangelization has not prospered. Quite the contrary.
What have we been doing wrong? Since the Council the Church has poured enormous resources into programs for evangelization. Catholic colleges and universities— and more recently, stand-alone institutions— have churned out graduates with appropriate professional credentials. Publishers have produced texts and workbooks and videos and apps. Entire new categories have appeared on the Catholic scene, devoted to spreading the Gospel message: the diocesan Office of Evangelization, the professional apologist.
It’s not working. Because evangelization is not a program; evangelization is a way of life. What we need, to spread the Gospel, is not more professional advice, not more material resources, and especially not more centralized planning. We need more zeal for the Gospel.
Last year the American bishops embarked on a program to restore reverence for the Eucharist. The goal is commendable, but the “program” is, I’m afraid, doomed to fail. Scholarly conferences and video presentations and special events will not revive reverence as long as ordinary Catholic parishes are satisfied with mediocrity (or worse) in the Eucharistic liturgy. Lukewarm Catholics will not be inspired with awe at the great gift of the Blessed Sacrament, as long as prelates offer that inestimable gift even to Catholics who despise the teachings of the Church.
Reverence is not the result of a program; reverence, too, is a way of life. When Catholics live the faith, and make sacrifices for the faith, and show that their lives have changed because of the faith, then they become effective evangelists. We teach the Gospel when we live the Gospel.
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