Parish Resource - Rev. John Nuelle
The Mission of Evangelization in the World Today
by Rev. John R. Nuelle, MS, PHL, STL
United States Catholic Missions Association
In the Gospels, "mission" is always a dynamic reality. Conveying the meaning of empowering someone to accomplish a task of special importance, various forms of the verb "to send" are used more than two hundred times. Jesus was the life-giving Emissary empowered by the Father (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 2nd ed. [Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana—United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2000], no. 858). Clearly, in the minds of the Gospel writers, mission was seen as a dynamic spirit conferred on someone—principally Jesus and his disciples—to initiate the "kingdom" or "reign" of God, of which the Church was to be the sign and the "universal sacrament of salvation" (see Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Church's Missionary Activity [Ad Gentes Divinitus (AG)], no. 1, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1996]).
For centuries the Church emphasized the dynamic role of mission as the life-giving activity of proclaiming the Word of God to those who knew little or nothing of Jesus (CCC, no. 854). In this Gospel proclamation, commonly known as "ad gentes," there was and is a vitality that energetically unfolds and that is, in itself, a reflection of the Trinity:
- The Father, who so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life (Jn 3:16)
- The Son, who came so that people might have life more abundantly (Jn 10:10)
- The Holy Spirit, the Advocate who is the dynamic force teaching all that the Son revealed (Jn 14:26)
Indeed it was in turning to this Trinitarian reality of God that the Second Vatican Council placed the origin of mission, which, of her very nature, is integral to being Christian and Church (AG, no. 2). Drawn into the life of the Trinity itself, can the Church be other than missionary?
Jesus revealed his purpose by proclaiming, "I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly" (Jn 10:10). Because of his obedience, even unto death on a Cross, Jesus was exalted in glory (Phil 2:7-9) to the benefit of all humanity (Jn 12:32). Death had no lasting power over him (Jn 10:17). In dying and rising from the dead, Jesus' dynamic mission of salvation was completed once for all in himself [AG, no. 5]. In the joy of Easter, the Lord shared the fruit of his Death and Resurrection with his Apostles, saying "as the Father has sent me, so I send you" (Jn 20:21). Then he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit" (Jn 20:22). In this way, he united them to the mission he had received from the Father, simultaneously conferred on them the principal agent who would lead them forward, and gave them the courage to forge new paths.The gift of the Holy Spirit was not conferred on them so that they would keep it for themselves. "All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (Mt 28:18-20).
In the supernatural dynamism of Pentecost, Jesus' disciples first gave their bold witness to the world. In so doing, both the Church and her missionary activity—evangelization—were born. "The pilgrim Church is missionary by her very nature, since it is from the mission of the Son and the mission of the Holy Spirit that she draws her origin, in accordance with the decree of God the Father" (AG, no. 2). From that moment and "until the end of the age," all disciples of Jesus are called to witness to him and their faith. "Thus it is the whole Church that receives the mission to evangelize, and the work of each individual member is important for the whole" (Pope Paul VI, Evangelization in the Modern World [Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN)], no. 15, www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/apost_exhortations/documents/hf_p-vi_exh_19751208_evangelii-nuntiandi_en.html). "The person who has been evangelized goes on to evangelize others. Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelization: it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn" (EN, no. 24).
We live in extraordinary times. Ideas and imaginings of one society, previously limited geographically, are now universally available through the World Wide Web. Scientific research and discovery, formerly restricted to a privileged few, are readily accessible to many. Injustices and atrocities committed in one part of the globe are rapidly communicated via social media. Diversified cultures and religions, whereby people exercise their beliefs, philosophies, values, and creativity, are now touching us through the lives of our next-door neighbors. Freedom, individualism, ecology, consumerism, education, dialogue, economic development, poverty, migration, and globalization are all integral parts of modern society. As such, every aspect of human life is influenced (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World [Gaudium et Spes], nos. 4, 5, 6, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1).
Underneath this global advancement and transformation, the basic hunger and thirst to be fully human, fully alive, remains unchanged. The quest for meaning in life endures, and the longing for a relationship with God—the Supreme, the Ultimate, the Alpha and the Omega—persists. "Missionary activity is intimately bound up with human nature and its aspirations" (AG, no. 8). The permanently relevant question for the Church in the world today is how to contextualize "the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man's concrete life, both personal and social" so as to evangelize it (EN, no. 29).
Adapting traditional wisdom to the technology of today, we recognize that methods of evangelizing vary according to different circumstances of time, place, and culture and thereby present a continual challenge to our capacity for discovery and adaptation. Though methods may vary, certain elements and aspects of evangelization remain constant.
- The "principal agent" of the Church's mission is Holy Spirit who leads the company of believers to form a community, to be Church (CCC, nos. 852, 858).
- "There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed" (EN, no. 22).
- The divine mandate to proclaim the Gospel to every creature has been and remains primarily the duty of the Church to which Christ gave his Spirit (EN, no. 59).
Missionary by her very nature, the work of evangelization is one of the most basic duties of the People of God (AG, no. 35) and the primary service that the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity in the modern world. Within the Church, responsibility is incumbent predominantly on Bishops, the successors to the Apostles (CCC, no. 862). Yet accountability does not end with them. Bishops must educate the faithful so that the whole Church may truly recognize its missionary vocation and the entire People of God can fulfill its missionary obligation (Pope Paul VI, Ecclesiae Sanctae, introduction to Chapter 3, www.vatican.va/holy_father/paul_vi/motu_proprio/documents/hf_p-vi_motu-proprio_19660806_ecclesiae-sanctae_en.html); Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], no. 17, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1).
From the perspective of the world today, it can never be stressed too strongly that the mission of evangelization consists in more than the preaching and teaching of a doctrine. The Gospel must be proclaimed by witness—verbal and nonverbal, personal and communal—that draws others into questioning themselves (EN, no. 21). Following Jesus' example, the starting point of evangelization must always focus on life (Jn 10:10) and be directed to the person. The life that Jesus came to restore will be bestowed on those who can open their hearts to loving and reconciling relationships with God and among themselves, caring enough to feed the hungry, succor the sick, and welcome strangers into their midst (Mt 25:35-40).One of the central purposes of the mission of evangelization is to bring people together in hearing the Gospel, in fraternal communion, in prayer, and in the Eucharist (Acts 2:42).
One of the greatest challenges to the Church today is represented by the hunger of vast de-Christianized populations who have lost all sense of being "the People of God." To help them rediscover the one who is "the way and the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6), a renewed sense of prayer (EN, no. 28) and apostolic zeal need to be enkindled in the hearts of today's modern disciples (Lk 12:49). To proclaim the Gospel in the early pilgrim Church, apostolic messengers traveled over roads built by Roman engineering. Navigation today entails going digital. Nearly a third of the world's population uses the information superhighway, the Internet, on a daily basis. It is the world's fastest growing new language, which freely crosses all borders. Evangelizing via the information superhighway requires a paradigm shift. Can it be developed as a catechetical tool empowering our de-Christianized brothers and sisters in their search for Christ, in their quest for meaning and fullness of life (Pope John Paul II, On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate [Redemptoris Missio], no. 37c, www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_07121990_redemptoris-missio_en.html)? Missionary by nature, the Church must employ every appropriate means at her disposal to witness "to the ends of the earth." This includes being aware of the potential benefits, challenges, and dangers of social media.
Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.
Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana—United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, copyright © 1975, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Ecclesiae Sanctae, copyright © 1966, LEV; Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, copyright © 1990, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.