What Is Evangelization?

Evangelization is, in its very essence, bringing the Good News to all people (see Evangelii nuntiandi, 2).  Therefore, evangelization necessarily belongs to the very essence of the Church because it is almost everything the Church does.  Pope Paul VI proclaims that the Church exists to evangelize (Evangelii nuntiandi, 14); she is linked to it in her inmost being (Evangelii nuntiandi, 15).  At this point the average Catholic who has been involved in evangelization might be a bit confused, as most of us have a much narrower view of it.  Evangelii nuntiandi recognizes this problem, admitting that the term is often equated with certain of its central aspects, for example the initial proclamation of the Gospel (the kerygma) or preaching.  However, Paul VI warns that evangelization must be properly understood if it is “to be complete and include all of “its richness, complexity and dynamism” or else we risk diminishing if not distorting it (Evangelii nuntiandi, 17). 

The elements of evangelization are expansive; they include: “the renewal of humanity, witness, explicit proclamation, inner adherence, entry into community, acceptance of signs, and apostolic initiative” (Evangelii nuntiandi, 24).  In other words, the Church serves the Lord’s mandate to evangelize not only in what we traditionally assign to the kerygma or to mission, but also in most aspects of the pastoral care of the faithful as well.  Let us look briefly at each of these elements.

Renewal of humanity: Evangelization includes infusing the Gospel and all of its implications for living into every culture and society, and into every possible aspect of each.  Transforming society such that it conforms to the Gospel is a foundational element of evangelization.  This transformation promotes the flourishing of faith and social harmony by replacing destructive evils with authentic human living.  Simultaneously, this transformation aids pre-evangelization, the preparing of non-believers to hear the Gospel (Evangelii nuntiandi, 51). 

Witness: The transformation of society requires authentic witnesses.  Witnesses are not first teachers of the faith or proclaimers of the Good News.  Witnesses are first disciples who make their Master visible in all aspects of their lives.  To make Jesus Christ visible to others requires the radical transformation of believers so that they live authentic lives of joy, self-mastery and solicitude for others.  Only in this way do we become the first witnesses, authentic witnesses, of Jesus Christ to unbelievers, or to the lukewarm.  Without adequate, authentic witness, initial proclamation will fail to yield abundant fruit.  Paul VI said that people today are apt to listen much more readily to witnesses than to teachers; consequently, if one wants to be a teacher, he must first be a witness (Evangelii nuntiandi, 41).  Evangelization necessarily includes the transformation of each believer into an authentic disciple. An authentic disciple is one who conforms himself to the Teacher in word and action, one who genuinely “puts on Christ.” Paul VI declares that authentic evangelization always requires witness and explicit proclamation of the Gospel (Evangelii nuntiandi, 22).

Explicit Proclamation: Explicit proclamation includes explanation and justification for beliefs, and it is done in a gradual process.  For the evangelization of unbelievers, the elements of evangelization would generally be carried out within the Catechumenate which itself is an essential aspect of evangelization (Evangelii nuntiandi, 43; also see Redemptoris missio 47, General Directory for Catechesis 59, and Lumen fidei 42).  However, explicit proclamation is also the responsibility of every Christian, always.

Inner adherence: Inner adherence refers to those aspects of pastoral care that nourish the life of faith of the Christian, but it also refers to the initial conversion experienced by nonbelievers.  This initial conversion is meant to be accomplished in the Catechumenate.  The Catechumenate was restored in 1972 as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).  The phase of the pre-catechumenate has the goal of bringing about the inner adherence of unbelievers to the full truth of the Gospel as taught by the Catholic Church.  Indeed, all Christians are called to such inner adherence.  Without full, inner adherence (in Greek, metanoia), discipleship does not come about and as a result, catechesis will usually be fruitless.  The almost universal practice of moving inquirers on to the stage of catechumen before ensuring they have experienced an authentic conversion is the primary reason we continue to see such grim results from RCIA in the United States.

Entry into community: When the inquirer has manifested an initial faith, he moves into the order of catechumens and is, already by this act, a member of the faith.  This entry of the catechumen into the community of faith is an important aspect of the Catechumenate, but it is not a complete incorporation until he receives the Sacraments of Initiation.

Acceptance of signs: When inner adherence to the fullness of truth is manifested after a complete and systematic program of catechesis, the catechumen is now ready to be received fully into the community through the reception of the Sacraments of Initiation (the acceptance of signs).  Authentic inner adherence now demands the disciple do as his Master; that is, he must go out and make other disciples. 

Apostolic initiative: Discipleship requires taking upon oneself apostolic initiative according to one’s state in life.  By accepting Baptism, each disciple commits himself to proclaming the Gospel.  A lack of commitment in this area contradicts the very meaning of being disciple.  

The purpose of evangelization is to make and mature disciples.  For this reason, the goal of evangelization mustn’t be reduced to increasing numbers of people at Mass or those coming through RCIA.  In fact, authentic evangelization could conceivably result in a reduction in the size of the Church.  The numbers are not large of those who understand the radical nature of Christianity for the way we live our lives.  Fewer still are those who are prepared to embrace such a life.  This inner conversion, which is the purpose of evangelization, is not solely personal; it also entails societal and cultural conversion.  The goal of evangelization is the transformation of persons and societies, in every aspect of their activities, and in their lives and environments (see Evangelii nuntiandi, 18).

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