May 1st, 2017
Evangelization seems to be a popular word. Being traditionally part of the vocabulary used by evangelicals (often referred to as “evangelism”), it has become increasingly used by Roman Catholics too. It was Paul VI with his 1975 exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi who introduced it in Catholic language. It was Benedict XVI who launched in 2010 a new Vatican department to support efforts towards the “new evangelization”. It is Pope Francis who regularly speaks about and practices forms of evangelization, making it a central task of the Church, as attested in his 2013 exhortation The Joy of the Gospel.
The word “evangelization” is therefore used across the spectrum of the Christian world. The question is: What is the meaning of it? How is it defined? What does it refer to? In his last motu proprio (i.e. a document signed by the Pope on his own initiative) on April 1st, 2017, Pope Francis opens a window on what he has in mind when he speaks about evangelization. The document is entitled Sanctuarium in Ecclesia (The Sanctuary in the Church) and transfers the competences on the sanctuaries to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Vatican department inaugurated by Benedict XVI. The basic idea is that sanctuaries and shrines are thought of as being primary places where evangelization takes place and must be encouraged.
Focus on Sanctuaries
What is a sanctuary? Fatima, Guadalupe, Aparecida, Lourdes … these are places where major sanctuaries attract millions of pilgrims and visitors every year. These are shrines dedicated to Mary or to a particular saint, at which special devotions are practiced and promoted in the form of rosaries, prayers, pilgrimages, contemplation of sacred images, etc. They are home to popular forms of spirituality that endure in spite of the steady decline of religious practice associated with the local parish.
Francis explains that sanctuaries are places “where popular piety has felt firsthand the mysterious presence of the Mother of God, the saints and the blessed”. In approaching and entering them, many people “deeply experience the closeness of God, the tenderness of the Virgin Mary and the company of the Saints: an experience of true spirituality that cannot be devalued”. God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints are all considered to be part of the same spiritual experience. Moreover, “many Shrines have been perceived as part of the lives of individuals, families and communities to the extent that they have shaped the identity of entire generations, even affecting the history of some nations”.
Therefore, given their inspirational and symbolic importance, “walking towards the Sanctuary and participating in the spirituality expressed by these places is already an act of evangelization that deserves to be valued for its intense pastoral value”. It follows that “the Shrines, in the variety of their forms, express an irreplaceable opportunity for evangelization in our time” and “a genuine place of evangelization”.
What Evangelization Are We Talking About?
We come back to the question previously asked. The word evangelization is used here; the practice of it is apparently endorsed. Evangelicals, for whom the word strikes deep spiritual chords, may celebrate the emphasis that the Roman Catholic Church is putting on evangelization. Yet a careful and honest reading of the document shows that the kind of “evangelization” the Pope is advocating for here is something utterly distant from the biblical meaning of the word.
According to the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, perhaps the most representative evangelical document of the 20th century, evangelism is “the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God” (n. 4). Notice the different elements of this neat and clear definition: “proclamation”, “historical and biblical Christ”, “persuasion”, “personal reconciliation to God”. None of these elements can be found in what happens in and around the shrines according to the Pope. There is no proclamation of the biblical gospel, but rather contemplation of sacred images and the practice of other forms of Catholic piety. There is little focus on the biblical Saviour and Lord, but rather devotion to Mary and the saints. There is no persuasion to abandon one’s own idols to turn to the living God, but rather encouragement to cultivate deeply entrenched forms of spurious spirituality. There is little or no talk of the necessity of being reconciled to God, but rather the reinforcement of the idea that pilgrims and nations already “belong” to God.
What evangelization are we talking about? The word is the same, but the meaning is far different. In its understanding and practice of evangelization, the Roman Catholic Church legitimately brings in the whole of its theological system, which is based on a combination of the Bible and traditions, Christ and the saints, faith and folk piety, and so on. Its evangelization promotes and commends this kind of blurred and erroneous gospel. Before celebrating the fact that the Catholic Church has become seriously engaged in evangelization, one needs to understand what kind of evangelization Rome stands for.