Success requires creativity.
This month the world’s bishops will gather for a Synod dedicated to the new evangelization. The preparatory documents for the Synod refer to a promise of “renewed missionary activity” and some in the church are hoping that these efforts will help capture the spirit of the New Testament evangelization. Yet we have some worries about the pastoral implementation of this enterprise. We suspect that the recent emphasis on evangelization is merely an attempt to draw those who have left the church back to an institution of the past.
The U.S. bishops’ web page on new evangelization states that, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, “only 23% of U.S. Catholics regularly attend Mass once a week.” Focusing on this fact is a mistake. In our experience of helping parishes to implement evangelization plans, congregations too often narrow their focus to “getting people back into the building.” An evangelization effort must be broader than that.
The sole resource on the U.S. bishops’ web site for new evangelization (Disciples Called to Witness) devotes only six lines to works of charity and justice in four pages about methodology. The initiatives suggested by the bishops are directed to people already in the church: prayer and popular piety, Sunday Eucharist and effective preaching. The Catholics Come Home web site, an initiative endorsed by many dioceses in the United States, asserts, “It is our job … to invite our fellow brothers and sisters home to the Church.”
Are we pessimistic? No, but we are skeptical. Although the Spirit can surprise us with breakthroughs, the evidence of recent years offers little encouragement regarding the prospects for the new evangelization—at least as currently envisioned by church leaders.