Evangelization: Paul VI’s definition

Pope Paul VI issued his exhortation on Evangelization in the Modern World, Evangelii nuntiandi, ten years to the day after the close of Vatican II.  Paul VI states that evangelization is at the heart of the very purpose of Vatican II, not the fabled and fictitious “spirit of Vatican II,” so dear to liberal narratives, but according to the earnest prayer and hope of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, his successor, taken up by Pope John Paul II.  Here it is: “We wish to do so on this tenth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council, the objectives of which are definitively summed up in this single one: to make the Church of the twentieth century ever better fitted for proclaiming the Gospel to the people of the twentieth century.” Not accommodation to the new, not abandonment of the ancient truth, but better fitted for proclaiming the gospel, i.e., evangelization. Pope Paul VI never tired of reminding his Church that Vatican II did not undo, nor redefine, nor encourage novelty, nor “throw open windows” for the modern air. To appreciate his shepherd’s heart concerned about the subversion of faith, read his letters on the Eucharist (Mysterium fidei) or on The Apostles Peter and Paul, not to speak of Humanae vitae. 

But to speak of his necessary correctives of progressive distortions and his affirmations of the ancient faith is to digress. His positive vision of the council as aimed at evangelization is our topic. He warns of the difficulty of defining evangelization because of the complexity of the phenomenon. But then he makes an attempt to do so. The definition is found in section 18, about which we will offer some comment line by line, reading carefully the scripture passages he selects in the footnotes (please get your Bible if you wish to continue reading).

“For the Church, evangelizing means bringing the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new: ‘Now I am making the whole of creation new.’ (Rev. 21:5; cf. 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15)

The Church must bring the good news into all strata of society — the latin term is “coetus” which means a coming together or association of people.  The message must go out to all — workers and managers, artists and writers, mothers and fathers, politicians and economists, young people and old people. You get the idea. It would require lay apostolate because like must minister to like, and the laity will belong naturally within each of these groups. And the goal is renewal, a deep renewal called “transformation” or being made new from within. There is nothing else like it. Perhaps true education opens up a possibility of renewal from within — but education always falls short of deep renewal of will for one, and the enlightenment of the mind through liberal arts stops short of the full mystery of human existence. There is a salutary modesty of Socratic wisdom (I know that I do not know), but the human heart must have more to nourish the parched landscape of the fallen world. And as Aquinas said so adroitly — ok, philosophers could come to a knowledge about God (being, the most important things) but this only by a very few, after a very long time, and admixed with many errors! (ST 1.1) So it is fitting that God revealed to us our true end. “I make all things new” is the breathtaking claim of the Redeemer of Man. (Rev. 21:5) And then there is ST Paul’s statement “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation.” (2 Cor 5:17) And he glories in the cross of Christ, because he is “a new creation.” It is good news. Too good for a weary pagan world that knew the weight of its own futility and endless cycles of becoming. But for the modern man, there are too many false promises of renewal — too many new fixes and patches and drugs and systems and technologies and gimmicks and personalities — the promises are endless and the confidence men continue to step up with a new product and a new way. But there is good news, an authentic transformation, interior renewal of mind and will. It is the old time gospel of Jesus Christ.

“But there is no new humanity if there are not first of all new persons renewed by Baptism (Rom 6:4) and by lives lived according to the Gospel. (Eph 4:24-25; Col 3:9-10) The purpose of evangelization is therefore precisely this interior change”

Do we need a confidence man to sell it? Is it complicated and capable of being oversold? No. It is simple. It requires baptism. And also a conversion of life, a life lived by the Gospel. St. Paul helps as usual — by baptism we are buried in his death, and we walk in newness by his resurrection. It is the Paschal mystery — the mystery of the death and resurrection. We encounter the mystery of Christ and baptism requires a response of faith. “What do you ask of the Church?” “Faith” Faith is a gift. But one may desire it, one may ask for it. One must thank God for it, if received, and nurture it. So again St Paul says “put off your old nature, be renewed in your mind, put on the new nature.” (Eph 4:23-25) This is something higher than liberal education; this provides a deeper basis for education in the transformation of mind and will. “Put off the old nature, put on the new nature — renewed in knowledge after the image of the  creator.” (Col. 3:9-10)

Now we come to the definition: “if it had to be expressed in one sentence the best way of stating it would be to say that the Church evangelizes when she seeks to convert, (Rom 1:16; 1 Cor 1:18, 2:4) solely through the divine power of the message she proclaims, both the personal and collective consciences of people, the activities in which they engage, and the lives and concrete milieu which are theirs.”

This section touches back to our previous posts on conscience. The Church does seek to convert people, to turn them around to or turn them toward, God. There is no hiding this word — conversion — “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” St Paul says at Rom. 1:16, “it is the power of God for salvation.” But it is “solely” through the message, not through force or subterfuge (confidence men not needed here), just sincere and honest messengers and witnesses. The power of the message will convert or transform “conscience” — that combination of reflective self-judgment according to a standard, and the remembering, as Benedict said, or the truth of our relationship to God and others. “The word of the cross is folly” admits St Paul (1 Cor 1:18), but it is the power of God. As John Paul II explains in Redeemer of Man, Christ, through the sacrifice on the cross, reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear. Love. The cross destroys the wisdom of the wise. John Paul calls the cross a “reef” or “barrier” at the deeps upon which reason may come to ruin or make a safe passage to the open seas. (see my very first post on “Swimming to the Reef”, the one post in March). If we come to know the wisdom of the cross we live anew.

It will follow from the renewal of conscience, the opening of the sanctuary deep in memory (Confessions X.25) that the activities in which we engage will be converted or changed. The beatitudes set a new course for being and action, soaring beyond the self-righteousness of keeping the commandments and breathing the new air beyond the stench of sunken sin. And then as friends of the cross come together and participate in the mystery of faith (Eucharist) and go out to all circles and groups of humanity — many more lives and the concrete milieu of society (culture) will be converted as well. The burden evangelization now seems too heavy, perhaps. But not if we keep returning to square one. Pick up the cross each day — it is the saving power of God.

It is all of one piece. Pope Paul VI selected just the right scripture passages. And the last he cites is Rom. 2:4; it takes one aback but leaves one in a decision mode: “Do you presume upon the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Paul is asking you..

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