Pilgrims fill St. Peter’s Square Oct. 7 as Pope Benedict XVI celebrates the opening Mass of the synod of bishops on the new evangelization. Hanging from the facade are tapestries of St. John of Avila and St. Hildegard of Bingen, whom the pope declared Doctors of the Church.
There is no experience like it in all the world! To stand in the vast expanse of St. Peter’s Square; to talk and laugh among the sojourners who have come to the Eternal City from every corner of the globe. They have diverse cultures and faith traditions, yet they are all waiting for an opportunity to enter this holy place, whose portals are ever welcoming. Then a hush falls upon the visitors as the massive doors open, and they are ushered into the beauty and sacredness of this great basilica.
Just as those pilgrims are drawn to Rome, all people are drawn to the divine. Even though the modern world espouses relativism, which Pope Benedict XVI has noted “does not recognize anything as definitive,” and secularism, which he says implores man “to build his life without God,” people are still searching for faith. In the words of Blessed John Paul II, “There remains a thirst for the absolute, a desire for goodness, a hunger for truth, the need for personal fulfillment.”
Such yearnings are our hope, yet the desire to see the face of God often remains unsatisfied amid the deafening clamor of those who “preach” complete autonomy. With Christ as its conductor, the work of the new evangelization seeks to restore harmony to the world and, by doing so, to address the desire for God that lies in the heart of each human being.
NEW DOORS, OPEN WIDE
In a 2008 pastoral letter, Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., succinctly defined evangelization as “bringing the Gospel to every person and to every situation.” This mission of evangelization has been Christ’s constant mandate to his Church (cf. Mt 28:19-20). In contemporary times, some people have suggested that the Church has only re-energized her essential mission of evangelization because of declining numbers and a growing apathy towards God. On the contrary, the Church evangelizes because Christ mandated that we do so, no matter the present situation.
There have been many epochs during which the Church has had to confront the cultural challenges that attempt to draw the faithful away from the truth. Thankfully, such efforts have succeeded in ushering people to Christ, who are willing to defend the deposit of faith.
In our own time, Pope John Paul II responded to Christ’s mandate by recognizing that the world was undergoing unprecedented changes by the end of the 20th century. Speaking to Latin American bishops in 1983, he said that we must commit not to a re-evangelization, but rather to undertake “a new evangelization; new in its ardor, methods and expression.”
This new evangelization must include “stirring into flame the gift of God” in the hearts of many people for whom the salt of the Gospel has become tasteless (2 Tm 1:6, cf. Mt 5:13). John Paul II ignited this spark during his 1978 inauguration homily in which he challenged each believer: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. … Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it.”
Pope Benedict XVI echoed these same words 27 years later in the homily for his own inauguration as pontiff. In that homily, he clearly announced that the work of the new evangelization — the opportunity to be like Christ and to lead others “toward the place of life, toward friendship with the Son of God” — would continue.
And continue it has. Most recently, the Holy Father promoted the new evangelization through the convocation of a synod of bishops titled “The Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” From Oct. 7-28, bishops representing every episcopal conference of the world and from the various departments of the Roman Curia met with Pope Benedict to suggest and pursue pastoral proposals. The focus of their discussion was a “new manner of proclaiming the Gospel, especially for those who live in the present day situation which is affected by the growing trend of secularization.”
A year ago, in order to incorporate the entire Church into this process of re-energizing the faithful, Pope Benedict published an apostolic letter titled Porta Fidei (Door of Faith), in which he announced that Oct. 11, 2012, to Nov. 24, 2013, would be observed as a special Year of Faith. The date opening the Year of Faith commemorated the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The pope’s apostolic letter began with these words: “The ‘door of faith’ (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church.”
But the questions remain: Who will usher others to the door of faith? How will they offer invitations to people, letting them know that they do not have to wait and suffer in line beneath the oppressive heat of relativism and secularism? It is in responding to these questions that we can discern our role as evangelists and come to appreciate the great opportunity offered by the Year of Faith.
USHERS OF CHRIST
Faith comes through grace and the Holy Spirit. However, believing is also a truly human act and, as such, it possesses personal and relational dimensions. Is it any wonder that Pope Benedict used the term “ushering” to announce the Year of Faith? To usher means to escort, lead, introduce and conduct. Each synonym implies a relationship, an interaction. Thus, as evangelists, we must walk with one another.
In his recent book, The New Evangelization: Responding to the Challenge of Indifference, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization and the organizing secretariat for the Year of Faith, wrote that believers are incapable of “travelling alone.” He said that “by nature we are Catholics — that is, open to all and wishing to be alongside each person to offer them the company of the faith. We want to speak to all, even if we know that not everyone wishes to have dialogue with us. We have all been invited to knock on every door, even though we know that many remain barred.”
Yet, as ushers we must never forget that we offer invitations to faith; testifying and proposing, not imposing. Here lies the important distinction between evangelizing and proselytizing.
The Year of Faith offers us both the encouragement and the structure through which to hone the art of being ushers to Christ, living invitations to faith. Central to this year is a renewed focus on the Profession of Faith, inviting individuals and families to make the Nicene Creed their daily prayer. Knights of Columbus can use this opportunity to pray the Creed together with their families each day and during council meetings, perhaps leaving time to discuss a part of the prayer and its meaning. Most importantly, we ought to pray the Creed at Mass with a renewed attentiveness to the truths being proclaimed, leaving time for God to give us the grace to live the faith authentically. Only then will our invitations to faith be accepted!
In the closing chapter of his book, Archbishop Fisichella shares a medieval story that captures the goal of the Year of Faith and, in fact, the very essence of what it means to be Catholic: “A poet passed by some work being conducted and saw three workers busy at their work; they were stone cutters. He turned to the first and said: ‘What are you doing, my friend?’ This man, quite indifferently, replied: ‘I am cutting a stone.’ He went a little further, saw the second and posed to him the same question, and this man replied, surprised: ‘I am involved in the building of a column.’ A bit further ahead, the pilgrim saw the third and to this man he put the same question; the response, full of enthusiasm, was: ‘I am building a cathedral.’ The old meaning is not changed by the new work we are called to construct. There are various workers called into the vineyard of the Lord to bring about the new evangelization; all of them will have some reason to offer to explain their commitment.”
It is through these explanations — spoken in words and actions — that each one of us lifts up our heads, opens up the ancient gates, opens up the ancient doors, and ushers people to the King of Glory (cf. Ps 24:9). There is nothing like it in all the world!
FATHER GENO SYLVA is an official for the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and a member of Msgr. Joseph R. Brestel Council 5920 in Hawthorne, N.J.