The Synod for the New Evangelization can be thought of as “a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52, ESV). Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the net is a useful starting point to come to terms with what happened at the Synod that just ended (7-28 October 2012). After weeks of intensive discussions, its final act was the drafting of a list of 58 propositions (i.e. points worthy of attention) that were presented to the Pope for his consideration in the future promulgation of a papal document (Apostolic Exhortation) that will become part of the Magisterium of the Church. The shape of the New Evangelization (NE) is becoming more and more clear, at least on paper, while it remains to be seen what practical outcomes will result from it. The achievements of the Synod as reflected by these propositions are a mixture of new and old things that call for discernment in order to not concentrate on a few selected items alone.
1. The Trinitarian Overture and the Marian Finale
“The Church and her evangelizing mission have their origin and source in the Most Holy Trinity according to the plan of the Father, the work of the Son, which culminated in his death and glorious Resurrection, and the mission of the Holy Spirit. The Church continues this mission of God’s love in our world” (n. 4). There can be no clearer Biblical foundation for the NE, although how the Church continues the mission of God is not spelt out. Is it by way of prolonging the Son’s incarnation and therefore having received His prophetic (magisterial authority), priestly (sacramental system) and kingly (hierarchical structure) offices?
This is only one side of the coin, however. As is standard practice in Catholic documents, the final thought goes to Mary. The Trinitarian opening is only introductory, but is not conclusive for the NE. It is part of a wider picture that is not complete unless the Mariological dimension comes to the fore. Here it what the Synod says in the last proposition: “As Mother and Queen she is a sign of hope for suffering and needy peoples. Today she is the ‘Missionary’ who will aid us in the difficulties of our time and with her nearness open the hearts of men and women to the faith. We fix our gaze on Mary. She will help us to proclaim the message of salvation to all men and women, so that they too may become agents of Evangelization. Mary is the Mother of the Church. Through her presence, may the Church become a home for many and Mother of all peoples” (n. 58). On the one hand there is a welcomed Trinitarian framework for mission, yet on the other hand we also find the reinstatement of a comprehensive Marian vision for the NE.
2. The Emphasis on the Study of the Scriptures Together with the Growth of Popular Piety
Another encouraging element of the propositions is the stress given to the role of the Bible. “In the context of the NE every opportunity for the study of Sacred Scripture should be made available. The Scripture should permeate homilies, catechesis and every effort to pass on the faith” (n. 11). This openness reiterates the attitude of Vatican II with regards to the Bible, although the Synod later makes it clear that “The Catechism of the Catholic Church and its Compendium are, above all, a resource for teaching the faith and supporting adults in the Church in their evangelizing and catechizing mission” (n. 29). According to the Synod, then, the Scriptures need to be read always in the light of the Catechism.
What is more striking, however, is the parallel encouragement to the various forms of popular piety without suggesting their need to be corrected by Scripture. “Popular piety is a true place to encounter Christ, and also expresses the faith of the Christian people in the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Saints. The NE recognizes the value of these faith experiences and encourages them as ways to grow in Christian virtue … Popular piety is an especially promising opportunity for conversion and the growth of faith” (n. 39). So the NE is implemented by the study of the Bible and the popular devotions. How the two can be reconciled is difficult to understand apart from the Catholic dialectics between what is new and what is old.
3. The Importance of Conversion within the Sacramental System of the Church
The Synod comes very close to a kind of “Evangelical” language when it speaks about conversion. “The ‘first proclamation’ (i.e. an explicit announcement of salvation) is where the kerygma, the message of salvation of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ, is proclaimed with great spiritual power to the point of bringing about repentance of sin, conversion of hearts and a decision of faith” (n. 9). This is straightforward language that any evangelist would use in his preaching (apart from the reference to the “paschal mystery” which is the typical Roman Catholic way of condensing and conflating the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist).
Conversion, however, is seen as a step within the wider sacramental path of a person. It is not the transition from being lost to being saved, but one move forward towards the fullness of an already given grace by and through the sacramental system of the Church (nn. 4, 33, 35, 37). This is not to say that conversion has to be pitted against the sacraments, but that the Roman Catholic meaning of conversion has far more ecclesiological weight and overtones than the simple turning to Christ and being saved by His grace alone.
4. A Self-Encouraging Tone with Little Self-Criticism
The overall tone of the propositions and the final Message of the Synod is aimed at providing a picture of a living and lively Church that responds to the challenges of the secularizing tendencies of the West by way of launching the NE and calling the baptized who have gone astray back to the Church. The propositions have little if nothing to say about the responsibilities of the Church in the erosion of Christian practice in the West and the lack of credibility that Christian institutions have in the public’s opinion. There is only one instance where “the scandals affecting priestly life and ministry” are mentioned (n. 49), but that is all. The general message is that many people left the Church because of the nasty effects of secularization. It seems that Church has little to repent for from past practices and much to commend itself for for its on-going activities. We will see if and how Pope Ratzinger will be bolder than the propositions are in recognizing the faults of the Church, especially in the West.
A selective reading of the propositions may suggest that the Synod has clearly pushed the Roman Catholic Church into a more “Evangelical” mood. A more careful and broader reading, however, indicates that the “new” that is put forward is always accompanied by the “old” that remains.
Leonardo De Chirico
Rome, 31st October 2012