On September 21, Pope Francis held an audience for the members of an international meeting for Academic Centres, Movements and Associations of New Evangelization, promoted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization. The Holy Father laid out the simple, yet overlooked, principles of true and effective evangelization. Here are five key takeaways from the Pope's message...
Pope Francis began his address by calling to mind the two disciples who took their famous journey to Emmaus when Jesus appeared to them on the way (cf. Luke 24:13-35). Despite Jesus walking and talking with them, the disciples were unable to recognize the Lord because they were so discouraged by his death. Once they were able to truly see Jesus, they realized that the whole time he was speaking to them, their hearts were on fire.
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?”
Pope Francis related this to the condition of the people we seek to evangelize. Their hearts are hardened or blocked by what they've experienced and felt. Even if they hear the Good News, it doesn't sink in. This is why "enflaming hearts is our challenge."
We cannot simply catechize our neighbor and expect genuine conversion. We cannot engage in apologetics alone, thinking that we can convince people to believe in the Lord. Knowledge about God is not enough. The disciples on the road to Emmaus had a great deal of knowledge about Jesus. Our Lord had to set their hearts on fire first before they could truly recognize him. In our own evangelization efforts, we too must seek to set people's hearts on fire first by facilitating an encounter with the risen Lord.
Pope Francis goes on to caution the Church against losing Her missionary identity. We can easily begin to focus on those things that are not essential, failing to give primacy to the mission of evangelization. This can result in a Church that looks less like a hospital for sinners, and more like a museum filled with old artifacts of faith. The Holy Father tells us that:
"A Church worried about defending her good name, who struggles to renounce what is not essential, no longer feels the passion of bringing the Gospel into today’s world. And it ends up being a beautiful museum piece rather than the simple and joyful home of the Father."
When we discover the treasure of the Church, our first instinct is to savor it and protect it, often to the neglect of the mission. Yet our Holy Father reminds us that the Church "exists to proclaim not herself, but Jesus." Many times, a museum Church can be tempting, as it assures us that everything we love about the Church will remain safely preserved. We begin to view "the living tradition of the Church like a museum, to conserve things so that they are all in their place."
But our Lord did not commission the disciples to preserve the gospel, he commanded them to preach the gospel! This requires tearing down the museum walls, and bringing the precious treasure of the Good News to every person we meet. The beautiful irony is that the treasure of the Church is best preserved when it's shared.
Despite the range of beliefs and variety of religions in our culture, Pope Francis suggests that we are all looking for the same thing. We just don't all realize what we are looking for due to a "vortex of great frenzy." We fill our lives with distractions and worries that prevent us from acknowledging the great need inside us all. The Pope goes on to describe this need:
"What our brothers and sisters often ask of us, perhaps without being able to ask the question, corresponds to their deepest needs: to love and be loved, to be accepted for what one is, to find peace of heart and a joy that is more lasting than entertainment."
As we reach out to our friends and family to share our faith with them, even they themselves don't always know what they are looking for. But we do. Not only that, but we also know the answer and the one true way to fulfill their deepest desires. "We have experienced all this in one word, indeed in one person, Jesus." As we evangelize, we would do well to remember this common need, and to present Christ as the solution.
Evangelization is not about convincing people to become Catholic. That's proselytizing. We don't just want people to change religions, we want them to encounter the Lord. This often takes time, discussion, struggle, and patience. Pope Francis tells us we are to become "traveling companions," and likens our role to that of St. Philip as he journeyed with the Ethiopian (cf. Acts 8:26-40).
He goes on to clarify the true nature of evangelization. It's not about sharing immediate, pre-packaged answers to religious questions. It's not a cerebral exercise to prove that God exists. It's not as simple as intellectually satisfying the doubters. Evangelization is sharing our genuine experience of being loved by the Father with those who are seeking peace and joy in their lives.
"Transmitting God, then, is not talking about God, it is not justifying His existence: even the devil knows that God exists! To proclaim the Lord is to witness to the joy of knowing Him, it is to help live the beauty of encountering Him."
When we walk with others as their traveling companion, we open our lives and hearts to them. We let them see the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. We show them the way Jesus' love has transformed us. We tell them about the joy of knowing the Lord. In this way, we draw them into a place where they are ready to encounter Christ for themselves.
The kerygma is the proclamation of the gospel message. It's the simple, yet profound, Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ. Over the years we Catholics have preached many messages. We tell people to pray the rosary, to go to Mass, to pray for the intercession of saints, to recite our prayers, and more. But none of these can change a life like the kerygma can.
"In the light of this kerygma the life of faith develops, which is not a complicated construction made up of many bricks to be put together, but the ever new discovery of the 'fundamental nucleus', the beating 'heart of the Gospel... the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ Who died and rose from the dead.'"
Pope Francis goes on to explain that the kerygma comes first, before all the other messages we want to preach. The kerygma wasn't just chronologically the first proclamation of the gospel which was eventually replaced by more important aspects of our faith. No, the kerygma is also first in importance. It should always be the starting point and the principal proclamation of our own evangelization efforts. While we can change the means and methods by which we present the kerygma, it should always be there at the heart of our witness, defining how and why we share our faith.
Pope Francis is calling us to put first things first. Jesus is the center of our lives, and he should remain central in our evangelization efforts, too. A powerful experience of the love of God flooding into our broken lives should always be the who, what, and why of evangelization. Even more than catechesis, apologetics, and convincing arguments. When we keep the kerygma at the center of our efforts to share our faith, we will remain faithful to the mission of the Church, and we will help bring about the renewal the Church so desperately desires.