From the earliest days of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI has expressed his ardent desire to re-Christianize the West. To this end, he recently unveiled a new Vatican agency, the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization. Headed by Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the council is to present the Catholic faith anew to the world.
For many Christians the words ‘to Evangelise’ means “teach people about Jesus Christ as saviour.” This understanding is derived from the instructions issued by Jesus himself as contained in the Gospels. St. Luke (4:43) for example records Jesus saying: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose”. Jesus subsequently conferred the same mandate upon his apostles: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole of creation” (Mark 16:15). Evangelization is not only the responsibility of the bishops and the clergy, but of “every disciple of Christ, according to his or her ability” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 17)
Jesus evangelized in more than word. He cured the sick, fed the hungry, raised the dead, and gave hope to the poor, however conversion to a particular faith carrying his name is not mentioned anywhere in the four Gospels. Since Jesus was a Jew it would have been logical that he would have insisted that his listeners adopt his Jewish tradition. Not so. The conversion that Jesus spoke about, time and time again, was a conversion of the heart! Evangelization for Jesus meant adopting a new way of life. Jesus was talking about living a life with others where we would share kingdom values such as compassion, understanding, forgiveness, peace, acceptance, etc. This is how Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and said that we are already in the kingdom if we live according to these values. Furthermore, Jesus promised that we will live more completely in the kingdom after our death.
Almost from the beginning religious institutions sought to modify Evangelization to include the conversion to their particular branch of faith. Evangelization as interpreted by the early church meant that the convert was required to not only adopt the particular dogma and doctrine of the institution but also accept its traditions even if it meant completely denouncing their own culture and customs. Religious history is filled with many records of forced conversions as well as the destruction of many indigenous cultures which occurred well into the twentieth century. The pages of history are filled with stories of much cruelty and suffering at the hands of many well meaning missionaries. Surely, this was hardly the message of salvation that Jesus came to bring.
So let us once again return to the original meaning the Jesus clearly intended. Christian evangelization has nothing to do with a particular dogma or doctrine, Catholics, or Protestants. It has even less to do with church membership, its liturgy, rubrics, vestments, candles, or a hierarchy. It has everything to do with imitating the life of Jesus Christ and sharing God’s kingdom values here on earth.
Evangelism should really be a two way street. We enter the other’s world because we really believe we are enriched by the interaction and our horizons will be enlarged. We celebrate good and beauty where ever we find it. Jesus often found faith outside his religious tribe (Israel, God’s people) and praised it (Matthew 8:10; 15:28 to name a few instances). Actually, when we read the Gospels we often find Jesus saddened by the lack of faith among his own people and followers.
We don’t bring God to the other, but find God in the other.- Richard Rohr