Pre-evangelization exists to remove barriers to belief and to awaken the desire for God and His Church in those who do not know or accept them. The specific approach taken in pre-evangelization is influenced by a variety of factors. The social context is one important consideration for determining the content and methods of this phase. Phenomena, such as the prevalence of atheism in a particular society, the level of religious indifference present due to materialism and other secularist ideologies, the extent to which a society has been influenced by the Gospel and its values, etc., all must be evaluated. Content and methods also must respond to how the Catholic Church is perceived in a particular social context and to the reasons for any negative views of the Church. Also necessary is understanding the particularities of the person being evangelized, including his intellectual formation, spiritual and emotional maturity, religious background, etc. Pre-evangelization requires developing strategies that take into account all of these concerns.
Among some of the most pervasive concerns for pre-evangelization is the influence of atheism and secularism. While a small minority in any society is atheist or secular humanist, their influence has come to predominate in academia, media and popular culture in the United States out of all proportion to the percentage of the population that holds these views. The problematic results of such ideologies on public policy, judicial decisions, educational policy and the thinking of the average person have been a long time coming. Popes, bishops and theologians have warned about the ill social fruits of these thought forms since the 19th century. In the last 50 years, Popes Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have addressed some common themes associated with the new circumstances brought about by atheistic and secularist ideologies. Paul VI points to several spheres of concern for modern man. The first of these is the spreading influence of unbelief in widespread society, making reference to Cardinal Henri de Lubac’s masterwork, The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (Evangelii nuntiandi, 55). This ideology, taken together with a mistaken sense of tolerance, has given rise to a view of secular society necessarily devoid of the presence of God. It has led to the presumption that to promote the interests of man, God must be denied. Abetting this vacuous secularism is a consumerist materialism by which the supreme value of man’s flourishing is claimed to be the pursuit of ease and pleasure. Not surprisingly, the affect of this, even among Christians, has been an increasing indifference, and even hostility, toward God and matters of faith, at least when lifestyle choices are challenged (see Evangelii nuntiandi, 56, Redemptoris missio [RM] 36). Non-believers (atheists and agnostics) and indifferent believers alike exposed to such thinking are proving to be increasingly resistant to evangelization. The former cannot consider the transcendent questions, the foundation of which lies in the divine absolute. As such, they share with the latter hostility toward the Gospel. The indifferent believers’ hostility, however, arises from the presumption that they know it all, have tried it and rejected it. John Paul II says that widespread indifferentism has been further exacerbated by a religious relativism by which one religion is as good as another, even among the People of God, such that fervor for evangelization, whether ad gentes or new, has waned (see RM 36).
The problem of the dictatorship of relativism was a major theme of Benedict XVI’s pontificate because he saw this as the final destructive result of the corrosive effects of Godless secularism (as opposed to a legitimate secularism which he said still keeps God at the center of public life). In his Apostolic letter establishing the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization (Ubicumque et semper [US]), Benedict warned that this and other deleterious affects of an unhealthy secularism on society have led to the urgent need to find new ways to propose again the Gospel to those who seem to have lost their ability to consider the Good News. Pope Francis continues this concern about modern man. In Lumen fidei (LF), he refers to the problem of contemporary man who considers faith as something that is in opposition to truth and freedom. Once abandoning faith, man’s experience eventually showed him that reason had not the ability to answer the ultimate questions, and so his search for the answers to transcendent questions was abandoned, rejected as inaccessible and, in fact, meaningless. The result was a loss of the ability to discern good from evil (LF 3). These are profound challenges, which must be a central concern for developing any new methods of evangelization or new means of expressing the Gospel.
The above difficulties suggest that one of the most challenging considerations in carrying out the new evangelization will be in the area of pre-evangelization. The changed circumstances in former Christian societies can best be characterized as the widespread abandonment of faith and ways of thinking that make faith appear to be a reasonable way of life. To evangelize effectively in these societies, we can no longer begin with the same premises as in the past (see US). Pre-evangelization must take into account what might be required to gain a hearing from those who think they have heard the message and rejected it as irrelevant and even contrary to their happiness. While Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis all expressed a marked concern for pre-evangelization, Pope Francis seems to have adopted this as a primary approach in his pontificate (see The New Evangelization and the Baptismal Catechumenate).
Two main points of reference seem to be of interest for Francis in pre-evangelization. In reaching men of good will, he has adopted a point of common concern of believers and non-believers alike, as pointed out in Gaudium et spes, and has made this the point of reference for his engagement with contemporary society. This passage declares that the same hopes, joys, grief and anguish are shared by the people of the world and the followers of Christ (GS 1).
When Francis met with the leadership of CELAM in Rio de Janeiro during World Youth Day 2013, he cited this passage (GS 1), implying that the plan for his entire pontificate could best be understood in terms of it: “Here we find the basis for our dialogue with the contemporary world.” In this Francis is greatly influenced by the approach of Msgr. Luigi Giussani (someone to whom Francis has said he owes much), the founder of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation. The first stage of Giussani’s approach begins with helping contemporary man to consider his inner longings, what he calls the religious sense common to all humanity. Giussani’s next step is to transfer one’s awareness of this innate religious sense, to helping him see that his inner longing can be satisfied only in Jesus Christ. To be effective, this transference is not taught in an explicit manner; it is more effectively accomplished by drawing the listener’s attention to the attractiveness of Jesus. Beauty intertwined with good and truth (found most perfectly in Jesus Himself) has not only the ability to attract men, but also the unique character of the power to bring them to commit themselves fully and faithfully to it. Given Francis’s emphasis on what appears to be Giussani’s program, one could argue that it now has significance for the universal Church as an important, if not preferred, method of pre-evangelization. In any case, Giussani’s method should be seriously studied by all involved in the new evangelization.
Francis’s approach also takes as a common point of reference those Gospel values that non-believers and indifferent Christians of good will, however unconsciously, accept. These values emphasize, though not exclusively, concern for the poor and oppressed. Concern for the poor brings out a natural religious sense because it conforms to the transcendent character of the human person. Yet this usually has such an effect when one encounters a poor person in concrete instances; abstract appeals to the poor are less likely to elicit such a self-transcendent experience. The consumerist-materialist habituation of so many, particularly in the West, has had the affect of turning people’s concerns inward and reducing the likelihood that an abstract appeal to concern for the poor and oppressed will be seen as a common concern. Regardless, this particular approach must be supplemented with others.
Particular considerations of the individual also are manifold. So many today, especially young people, have been profoundly affected by the manner in which they receive information. Contemporary means of communication are often intellectually truncated and superficial, leading to hyper-stimulated people with reduced attention spans and attenuated capacity to ponder new ideas and critically consider their presuppositions. Moreover, the endless variety of digital modes of entertainment such as on-demand movies, television shows, realistic games, always available in one’s pocket in ever growing numbers with the increasing availability of so-called smartphones, exacerbates the vice of disproportionate novelty seeking. These concerns provide ever-increasing challenges not simply to reaching this expanding sector of society, but to getting them to be able to consider the fundamental questions when they are so habitually distracted.
Other considerations for pre-evangelization are the need for increased attention to the various demographics and the different approach each group requires. Spanish-speaking Catholics; regular Mass-attending Catholics who have not understood the call to discipleship; Catholics who attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter; Catholics whose only contact with the Church are the major life events (baptism, marriage, funerals); disaffected Catholics who have completely abandoned the faith; Catholics who have joined a Protestant community; Christians who love Christ and might be open to Catholicism; Evangelical Christians who love Christ but who range from being wary to being hostile to Catholicism; Non-Christian believers of other religions who have grown up or lived in the United States for some time and have a cultural awareness of Christianity but who reject it; modern pagans who have some vague sense of the divine, reject Christianity and live as practical atheists; agnostics; the various strains of atheists, etc. All of these groups have their unique barriers to fruitful evangelization that must be addressed through pre-evangelization.