10th Anniversary: "Go and Make Disciples"


The following is a history of the former Committee on Evangelization  which, on January 1, 2008, merged with the Committees on Catechesis, World  Missions, and Stewardship, becoming the Committee on Evangelization and  Catechesis.

September 13, 2002
Oakland, California Bishop William Houck

The  church, the people of God, has always been called to be an evangelizing church  sent by Jesus as he returned to the Father to: "Go and make disciples of  all nations…" There have been successes and failures in fulfilling this  commission of Jesus. The Second Vatican Council in our time gave a significant  thrust to this essential mission of the church.
  In 1973, Pope Paul VI chose evangelization as the theme for the fourth synod of  bishops. In 1975, he issued his Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelii  Nuntiandi", a clarion call to the church to fulfill better its mission, in  which he clearly described evangelization as the essential and primary mission  of the church.
  The Evangelization Committee traces its origin to action taken by the body of  bishops at their November 1976 meeting on the Mission of the NCCB/USCC. At that  meeting, a proposal to establish a "broad-based religious education  program which would develop evangelization programs for the unchurched,  fallen away Catholics, members of other churches, and Catholics  themselves" was approved by the bishops. It was determined at the meeting  that the task should be committed to the Committee on Pastoral Research and  Practices or to a special ad hoc group of bishops.
  In February 1977, Archbishop Bernardin informed the Administrative Board that  an Ad Hoc Committee on Evangelization had been formed and that Archbishop  Francis Hurley would serve as chairman with Bishops Balke, Daley, Hickey,  Mahony and John Sullivan as members.
  At the annual meeting of the bishops in November 1977, Archbishop Hurley  submitted an information report which outlined the program envisioned by the  Committee.
  The committee proposed two thrusts directed primarily to parishes: the first to  raise the level of awareness among Catholics of their duty to support and  participate in the works of evangelization; the second more specific to provide  the motivation for individuals to become personally involved in works and  ministries of evangelization. The two-year program envisioned the following  steps:

  1. make  evangelization a major theme at the May 1978 meeting of the bishops;
  2. instruct  the committees of the NCCB and USCC to make evangelization a focus of their  programs in 1978 and 1979;
  3. recommend  that archdioceses host provincial meetings on evangelization;
  4. request  that each ordinary appoint a diocesan director of evangelization who will  service the parishes and maintain liaison with the Ad Hoc Committee on  Evangelization.
There was also a note made  that recognized a critical role of laity in reaching the unchurched and stated  that consideration might be given to a layman for this post, or possibly the  post of assistant director.

At the outset, the thinking was that the Committee (as any ad hoc committee is  supposed to) would be temporary. The committee set a time schedule of two  years. In 1977-78, 101 dioceses had appointed liaison persons with the Ad Hoc  Committee on Evangelization. Twenty dioceses at that time were "wrestling"  quite seriously with the challenge of developing some type of diocesan office  or team to stimulate interest in the evangelization of alienated American  Catholics and the unchurched.

The Ad Hoc Committee in May 1978 recommended an agenda for regional meetings  built around five propositions: 1) "defining evangelization; 2)  identifying the audience, the unchurched; 3) emphasizing the understanding of  the thinking and mentality of the audience; 4) pinpointing the parish community  as the vehicle for evangelization; 5) calling for the personal spiritual  renewal of each evangelizer."

During the years 1979-1982, there was discussion back and forth about whether  the Ad Hoc Committee on Evangelization should be continued. Efforts were also  made at that time to coordinate the conference's project on parish renewal, its  family life project and the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on Evangelization.  Several considerations seemed to have been involved. There was significant  opinion that the work of evangelization should be centered in parishes and  therefore should be supported on the parish and diocesan level and not so much  at the conference level. Coupled with this was the concern of adding additional   expenses to the method of quota funding for any additional secretariat on  evangelization.

In 1980, however, a motion was approved that the Ad Hoc Committee on  Evangelization and its secretariat be continued until such time as a  comprehensive plan for the Conference could be developed. In the work of the  committee on research plans and programs, there was a recommended classification of evangelization secretariat as transferable "to diocesan  level". In 1981, the future status of evangelization secretariat was  recommended to be considered through the normal planning and budgetary  processes and the Secretariat for Evangelization was continued but without  significant funding or activities. Archbishop Edward O'Meara was asked to serve  as chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee and had requested a history of the  evangelization program in the conference. Archbishop Kelly, at that time  General Secretary, in his report of 1981 stated that "the present status  of the committee is that it will remain in existence until it recommends its  own dissolution or until the body of bishops mandates its dissolution.  Fortunately, that never happened, but it was a struggle.

Archbishop O'Meara had proposed and helped develop a professional association  of diocesan directors of evangelization. That was the beginning of the National  Council for Catholic Evangelization.

As Auxiliary Bishop from 1979-1984, I had the opportunity to serve on the  Committee on Laity and to have some contact with the Committee on the Parish  Project. I had, as a priest in the Diocese of Birmingham, been greatly  impressed with Father Alvin Illig when he gave a workshop for the priests of  the diocese in 1977. In June of 1984, I was installed as bishop of the Diocese  of Jackson. At that installation, the president of the conference at that time,  Bishop James Malone, asked me to serve as chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on  Evangelization. He said that he thought that being from a mission diocese like  Jackson, I would be a good person for that job. In my first contact with the  Conference Staff at that time, I was told something like "congratulations,  you are the chairman, but there is really not much to do. You can do as much or  as little as you want and just keep things going." Well, we tried to do  that.

The first task our Committee had was to develop a Vision Statement for the  Conference on what we meant by evangelization. We developed this flowing out of  Evangelii Nuntiandi; it was approved by the body of bishops in November 1985  and published in Origins. That served as our focus to continue to raise  awareness on the part of the Conference, our bishops and the Catholic Community  of the need for developing our Catholics as pilgrim people to become truly  evangelizing people.

In December 1985 I wrote to Bishop Malone, President of the Conference: "As you know, the bishops' approved the statement entitled 'A Vision of   Evangelization' at our recent general meeting. The unanimous vote in favor of  this document encourages us to believe that the bishops are becoming more aware  of the importance of evangelization for the Conference." I went on to say  that as the Conference was developing its plans and priorities and the  President served as the Chairperson of that Committee: "We wish to do all  in our power to support raising evangelization to the level of a primary  objective."

Bishop Malone responded by letter and gave us encouragement by saying: "I  look forward to your participation and take this opportunity to thank you for  your vigorous leadership in developing the Vision Statement on Evangelization  and this effort to organize resources to carry it out".

Dr. David Byers has done excellent work for many years before Father John  Hurley in the capacity of staff person for the Evangelization Committee. He  assisted our Committee in urging and challenging the Conference to raise  evangelization to a primary objective. During those years also, Father Alvin  Illig, as Director of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association,  was so extremely involved in all sorts of activities promoting evangelization.  One of his vigorous efforts was for some years his annual Pentecost – A  National Lay Celebration of Evangelization, which took place through closed  circuit television technology.

And of course, the National Council for Catholic Evangelization was very   active, first headed by Father Pat Brennan of Chicago. Marsha Whelan, Carol  Gura, Sister Susan Wolfe, Father Bruce Nieli and others later were forces in  helping lift the banner of Catholic Evangelization. And the Ad Hoc Committee on  Evangelization continued to collaborate with all these national Catholic  organizations engaged in evangelization.

As we reached the late eighties, concern was raised for the celebration of the  500th Anniversary of Catholicism Coming to America. At the bishops' meeting in  Seton Hall the decision was made, after much discussion, to build the theme for  our observance of the 500th Anniversary around evangelization. Archbishop  Edward McCarthy was such a leader in proposing evangelization as the theme for  that celebration. Many other bishops, archbishops and cardinals – ones whom we  sometimes call 'heavy hitters' – also spoke forthrightly and supported the  proposal of evangelization.

During that discussion, Archbishop Michael Sheehan in his comments proposed  that we ought to develop a National Plan and Strategy for Catholic  Evangelization. He made reference to other religious groups that had  well-developed strategies and plans, and as part of our concern for  evangelization such a plan and strategy should be pursued by the bishops. Our  Committee, realizing the support for evangelization, immediately began to  respond to Archbishop Sheehan's proposal.

All during these years we also continued to plant the seeds of having the  Evangelization Committee status changed from an ad hoc committee to a standing  committee. We felt very much that the work of evangelization as the essential  mission of the Church was not intended to be directed by a temporary or ad hoc  committee. The Committee should be a standing committee. The bishops approved  that in November 1990.

As we moved with plans for the 500th Anniversary of Evangelization in the  Americas, enthusiasm mounted and awareness on the part of more and more people  around the country and in our dioceses enhanced support for Catholic  evangelization. We wanted evangelization to become a household word and as  second nature to Catholics as love of the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood.  The preparation for the quincentennial celebration of evangelization of the  Americas was carried out over a three year period, culminating in a year-long celebration  during the year 1992.

This, along with the Evangelization Committee doing the beginning work for our  document, kept us all busy, but indeed gave us the satisfaction that we could  see the development of evangelization and its acceptance as the essential  mission of the Church, moving slowly but surely into a status of acceptance and  some growing enthusiasm among more and more people.

The Committee on Evangelization kept working to develop a National Plan and  Strategy for Catholic Evangelization. There was a lot of interest in using the  decade of the 90s as a full decade of preparation for the celebration of the  Jubilee Year 2000 and the Coming of the Third Christian Millennium. Pope John  Paul II's constant call for a New Evangelization gave vigor and encouragement  to our efforts and especially in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio in 1990,  paragraph #3 when he put it simply: "I sense that the moment has come to  commit all the Church's energies to a new evangelization and to the mission ad  gentes. No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid the  supreme duty to proclaim Christ to all peoples." And his document As the  Millennium Draws Near, gave a beautiful survey of how this thrust in  evangelization developed out of the council and moved us to where we were.

In the Conference at that time, in order to develop a document or pastoral  statement which is to be approved by the body of bishops, the Committee was  required to obtain approval from the Administrative Committee. We sought and received  that permission, but we were not given any financial support to achieve it. We  struggled at that time to raise finances and I must recognize and give deep  gratitude to Father Alvin Illig, Father Ken Boyack and the Paulist Fathers for  their leadership and commitment in helping us raise the funds and then  contributing significantly to the funds necessary to develop the National Plan  and Strategy. As you know "Go and Make Disciples" is dedicated to and  has a special tribute to Father Illig. We raised money from various religious  communities and from foundations and from Catholic organizations, men and women  in the country. (Letter sent without prior approval.) The Paulists made  available additional assistance staff-wise for the writing of the Document. Paulist  Father Frank DeSiano, was the principal writer and he, with Father Boyack, were   the guiding lights in putting this document together so beautifully for our  bishops' committee.

We had to keep our enthusiasm going in order to get the continuing approval and  to find the resources to get this job done. One of the key groups was the  committee of about fifteen people we gathered together for a three day meeting  to prayerfully put together the basic outline and thrust of the document. I  have always felt that meeting, and especially when we focused on developing the  three goals for "Go and Make Disciples", was a time when the Holy  Spirit, who is the real agent in evangelization, was prominently in operation.

A great deal of consultation was sought throughout the country in dioceses and  through Offices of Evangelization. We had the help of the National Council for  Catholic Evangelization and its many contacts. When we finally developed the  first draft of our document, and it was presented to the Administrative  Committee, there were a few questions and affirmations of what we were doing,  but there was also one member who felt at the time that the document was not  "episcopal" in its tone and language! I remember saying that we did  not want it to be that kind of document because we were writing it for all the  people of the Church, not just our bishops, and we wanted this document to be  popular in tone, genuine in substance and well organized as a plan and strategy   for developing our Catholic people to be evangelized themselves and to become  evangelizers in their parish life. We wanted to welcome inactive Catholics to  return and invite everyone to consider the fullness of the Catholic faith and  life. We also were intent on bringing the Gospel values of Jesus Christ into  every sphere of life as Pope Paul VI had so strongly taught.

We had extensive consultation in all dioceses. We were able also to hold group  consultation with diocesan directors of evangelization with the help from NCCE  for a weekend conference to evaluate, edit and amend the draft as the document  was being developed. So all in all we had input from many people. The document  then went to our bishops for their consultation and amending. Finally at the  bishops' meeting in November 1992, our document was approved overwhelmingly by  the bishops and has been a source of encouragement for us to see the growing  enthusiasm of so many of our Catholic people for the importance of Catholic  evangelization.

Of course, the continuing emphasis which Pope John Paul II placed on the New  Evangelization was a help to our Committee and continues today as we struggle  to convince more and more people of the importance and the centrality of  evangelization.