VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When Blessed John Paul II launched the project he called the new evangelization, he made it clear that it was aimed above all at reviving the ancient faith of an increasingly faithless West: “countries and nations where religion and the Christian life were formerly flourishing,” now menaced by a “constant spreading of religious indifference, secularism and atheism.”
Those words are commonly taken to refer to Christianity's traditional heartland, Europe. Yet Pope Benedict XVI, who has enthusiastically embraced his predecessor's initiative, has made it clear that the new evangelization extends to other secular Western societies, including the United States.
In a series of speeches to visiting U.S. bishops last fall and earlier this year, Pope Benedict reflected on the “spiritual and cultural challenges of the new evangelization,” giving special emphasis to a “radical secularism” that he said has worn away America's traditional moral consensus and threatened its religious freedom.
The world Synod of Bishops dedicated to the new evangelization, which meets at the Vatican Oct. 7-28, will include seven U.S. bishops as full members, and 10 other Americans as official experts or observers. Experts advise the bishops during the synod, and observers are allowed to address the entire assembly.
Looking ahead to that gathering, several of the U.S. participants spoke with Catholic News Service about the obstacles that the new evangelization faces in their country and some of the particular strengths that the church brings to the task.
“We seem to be approaching a tipping point in how we encounter an increasingly militant atheism and secularism in our society,” said Carl Anderson, supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, who will be attending the synod as an observer. “We have been able to avoid the downside of what has happened in Europe, but for how much longer is a continual question. This synod may be the best opportunity to answer that.”
Sister Sara Butler, a professor of theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Ill., who will serve as a synod expert, said a common American understanding of “tolerance” views “any attempt to share the faith … as a kind of 'imperialism,'” and the U.S. media celebrate an idea of freedom defined as “freedom from restraints of any kind.”
This leaves many Catholics “shy about revealing their faith, much less sharing it with others,” said Sister Butler, a member of the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity who sits on the Vatican's International Theological Commission. “They find the idea that they are commissioned to proclaim the Gospel to the world challenging and implausible.”
Changing that attitude will require more than improved instruction in the tenets of the faith, said synod expert Ralph Martin, president of Renewal Ministries in Ann Arbor, Mich., and director of graduate programs in the new evangelization at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit.
“Orthodoxy isn't enough; we really need an infusion of God and the Holy Spirit,” said Martin, who has been a leader in the charismatic renewal movement since the 1970s. “You can't have a new evangelization without a new Pentecost.”
Edward N. Peters, a canon lawyer who teaches at Sacred Heart Seminary and whowill serve as an expert during the synod, draws encouragement from what he calls the relatively “up-front” manner of American Catholics by comparison to their European counterparts.
“Conversations about the faith by rank-and-file Catholics, participation in the church's public rites and devotions, reading Catholic literature, and so on, all of these seem to me much more common on this side of the Atlantic,” said Peters, author of the blog “In the Light of the Law.”
Synod observer Peter Murphy, executive director of the Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said an American culture capable of generating a fashion for “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets is also a natural environment for traditional expressions of Catholic identity, such as religious medals. He said ordinary Catholics can turn even mundane occasions such as a child's soccer practice into opportunities for sharing their faith.
Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., said the church's charitable activities are some of its most effective vehicles for the new evangelization.
“Works of charity and justice are one of the most powerful ways to inspire people to see what the church is and think about why they might want to re-engage with it or … meet the Lord for the first time,” said Bishop Kicanas, chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, who will be attending the synod instead of Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, who is undergoing chemotherapy.
For Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, the synod's recording secretary, the primary mission field for the new evangelization in the U.S. will be its vast network of Catholic schools, colleges and universities, because the key to success lies in reviving faith among the young.
“The focus is truly on this generation that we're dealing with right now, because what we're looking to is the future of the church,” the cardinal told CNS earlier this year.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., is taking that principle to the ultimate level: the earliest stages of human life. In his presentation to the synod, the archbishop plans to highlight the rite of Blessing of a Child in the Womb, which he first proposed in 2008 and which the Vatican approved for use in the U.S. earlier this year.
“The blessing is a first evangelization of the child, and a re-evangelization or new evangelization of the family,” Archbishop Kurtz said. “It's also a positive and hope-filled way to announce to society our wonderful teaching on the great gift of human life.”
As a sacramental celebration that emphasizes a widely contested ethical teaching, the blessing reflects the “creative tension” that another synod father, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, has said is inherent in the new evangelization, which seeks to be “embracing, understanding (and) conciliatory” toward disaffected Catholics without compromising on “certain clear moral truths” that they may reject.
As the cardinal told CNS late last year, Blessed John Paul offered a “graceful” resolution of that tension in his maxim that the church should “preach the truth, always with love.”
“Love would require that we never soft-pedal the truth,” Cardinal Dolan said. “Truth would require that we never forget compassion and patience.”