The New Evangelization

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Master, I want to see.” Such a simple request. But it makes sense only if I don’t already have what I am asking for. I would ordinarily not need to ask for food if I was already stuffing my face and enjoying a feast. I would not need to ask for love and friendship if I was already surrounded by my loving family and friends. I would not need to ask for freedom if I was already free to do as I please. Now I might consider asking for what I do not yet have. But I need to know what I don’t have before I can ask for it. Do I want a million dollars? Do I want health and a long life? Do I want more patience, a deeper faith, a more compassionate heart, a truly generous spirit? And when I become aware of what I do not have, am I then able to bring my need to God with heartfelt confidence and humble sincerity?

“Master, I want to see.” This past week, the bishop and the priests of our diocese gathered in convocation in Staunton. We listened to Fr. Bob Schreiner from Crookston MN speak about the New Evangelization. What is this New Evangelization, you might ask, and why in the world would we want it? And if there is such a thing as a “new” evangelization, does that make the previous version “old and outdated”? Pope Benedict has been speaking about the New Evangelization for some time now, inviting us to revisit and explore our faith deeper, and rediscover God at work in our lives anew. And here at St. John’s we have been reflecting on portions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church a few minutes before mass for a few weeks now in the hope of reacquainting ourselves with our own faith. So as I was saying, the Pope has been speaking about the New Evangelization, and these past three weeks, more than 260 bishops gathered in Rome to brainstorm and plot out some strategies to bring the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to a world that has definitely already heard it, but is so utterly disconnected from it. We do not disregard the work of missionaries among native peoples who have never encountered the gospel. But instead, we are to direct our efforts toward those who claim to be Christian yet seem so unaffected and unmoved by that faith they claim. The work of evangelization is essentially about proclaiming God’s saving action on behalf of the human race which is that one singular event in history that is the central truth of our Christian faith – the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But evangelization is also about proclaiming God’s saving action in God’s desire to encounter each of us personally and intimately in the experience of conversion and the transformation of our minds and hearts. This gives us even now in this passing world a foretaste of the eternal and heavenly kingdom. Like Jesus tells us, the Kingdom of God is already in our midst.

In calling us to a New Evangelization, the Pope acknowledges that we have heard and continue to hear the gospel each time we gather in this place. We have become members of the family of God’s children through baptism, and are nourished by the sacramental life of the church. We live our lives fairly immersed in those values we believe to be Christian. We even possess the freedom essential to making good moral choices. Yet we who call ourselves followers of Jesus Christ and members of his body the church can be so unseeing, so obtuse, so blind. We profess a faith in name only when we harden our hearts to the message of hope proclaimed in sacred scripture, when we ignore, or even reject, the healing and forgiveness God offers, when we are convinced we encounter God in the Eucharist but refuse to meet him in the world and the people around us, when we turn our backs on the Holy Spirit who would help us uphold the values of the gospel with conviction and charity while the selfish values of the world distract us and cloud our minds.

This New Evangelization is not simply a re-statement of the eternal truths of our faith in ways that may have even been successful in generations past. It is not merely a re-proposing of complex doctrines and dogmas, nor merely a revival of mechanical devotional practices and tedious prayer formulas. It is not merely a reintroduction of religious ideas now largely obscure or foreign to many who have lived on the fringes of the institutional church. This New Evangelization is intended as a new way of thinking, and seeing, and living that relies more on personal conviction, accountability, and the willingness of the Christian believer to encounter God in daily life. God is not an idea. Faith is not a human initiative. And we do not attain salvation with sheer determination and hard work. Rather, God invites us to meet him in mystery and in the ordinary. God offers us faith, his gift freely given, that we may know the healing of our spirits through our own conversion from selfishness and sin. And God calls us to live lives steeped in true joy, confident of his compassion and providence, resistant to the influence of selfishness, and ever mindful of God’s salvation fulfilled in the suffering, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

But before any of this is even possible, before the church can proclaim anew the saving mysteries that God has done and continues to accomplish on our behalf, the Holy Father pleads with us to first accept with humble and repentant hearts the very truths we hope to proclaim to others. We need to be transformed ourselves by the Word we hear proclaimed and preached in sacred scriptures. And when that Word transforms us, we will know our need for conversion. We will not be able to convince others of their need for conversion if we are unwilling to recognize our own need first. We will not be able to convince others to see themselves and the world with new eyes if we are unwilling to recognize our own blindness first. “Master, I want to see,” said the blind beggar who stood before Jesus. And Jesus did not touch his eyes, nor did he speak a prayer of healing. “Go on your way,” he told the blind man. “Your faith has saved you.” The power to see that he desired so much was already within him. He had only to recognize first that he was blind.

At the start of this Year of Faith, the Holy Father calls us to embark on the New Evangelization, to receive a new way of thinking, and seeing, and living. It begins with our own openness to being transformed by grace, by recognizing that we have often preferred to be blind, by calling on God to heal our spirits. We might be fearful of the challenges ahead. And when we are fearful, we hold back. But the blind beggar shows us the way of true discipleship. After he is healed, immediately he follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, to the fulfillment of the Father’s will.

“Master, I want to see.” Even God desires to heal us. But are we willing to admit that we have been blind?