When we talk about a development
in church tradition or teaching, we are talking about a phenomenon that has taken place within Christianity from the very beginning. Even the varying articulations of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that we find in the four Gospels represent a development as such: the written narratives were built on the oral tradition of the first Christian communities that was built on the witness of the Apostles that was built on the experience and teachings of Jesus. (The 1964 instruction by the Pontifical Biblical Commission on The Historical Truth of the Gospels
is an excellent tool for understanding this three-stage development.)
More recently, since the election of Pope Francis, there has been much discussion about possible development in the areas of the church’s pastoral response to divorced and remarried Catholics and its teaching on the environment. The Pope’s forthcoming encyclical and the October general Synod of Bishops on the family will serve to clarify these heated discussions.
There is another area of the church’s teaching that may be less “juicy” then the above mentioned but still provokes this discussion of development. It is the church’s contemporary tagline, “the New Evangelization.” Everyone in the Catholic world has heard about it and a lot of great work is being done at the grassroots level to put it into action.
It is a decidedly modern initiative, based on the church’s experience of the realities of our present time. It can be traced back to Vatican Council II, but Pope John Paul II conceived of it, Pope Benedict XVI refined and promoted it—especially through the 2012 Synod—and now Pope Francis has effectively put it into action.
Interestingly, Pope Francis has not spoken much about “the New Evangelization,” though anyone who listened to what Pope Benedict said about it can see the obvious parallels between the words of one pope and the actions of another.
But last week Pope Francis met with the staff of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and shared his thoughts
on the subject:
“This is what people today expect from the Church: that she be able to walk with them offering the company of the witness of faith, which renders one in solidarity with all, in particular with those most alone and marginalized. How many poor—also poor in the faith—await the Gospel that liberates! How many men and women, in the existential peripheries generated by the consumer, atheist society, await our closeness and our solidarity! The Gospel is the proclamation of the love of God that, in Jesus Christ, calls us to participate in his life. Hence, the New Evangelization is this: to be aware of the merciful love of the Father so that we also become instruments of salvation for our brothers.”
This rich description of the New Evangelization represents a deepening of previously articulated magisterial teachings. We can clearly see the “Francis” accents: emphasis on the poor, on accompanying people and on the mercy of God. These are matters of emphasis, yes, but also of development. And taken together with the reflections of Pope Benedict and JPII, a clearer picture of this thing we call “the New Evangelization” takes shape.
It was JPII who recognized the need for a re-articulation of the fundamentals of the faith in a rapidly changing modern world. It was Benedict who explicitly linked the content of the New Evangelization with the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Now Francis has put his finger—as he often does—on the heart of the matter, namely, an experience of God’s mercy.
We can say that all the pieces seem to have come together. Back in 1962 Pope John XXIII opened the Vatican Council by shifting the emphasis from an attitude of condemnation to one of mercy, saying nowadays, “The Bride of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity.” Francis has said essentially the same thing.
In all of this we can see an organic development in the church’s teaching on evangelization in the world today. As pieces fall into place a more complete picture emerges. There is a pattern within this process of development that always considers these three variables: 1) how the truth of the Gospel can be 2) interpreted in light of the particular historical moment 3) over a period of time. This is the “equation” for development in the church and it is a fascinating thing to watch at this particular historical moment.
On Further Reflection
In the complex world of the 21st century there are more questions than answers. The challenge for the Church is to find new and effective ways of bringing the Gospel message into the conversation. For her part, the Church can act as a much needed voice of dialogue, reason and charity. On Further Reflection invites readers to go beyond the headlines to see the deeper realities affecting the church and society. Sebastian Gomes is a producer and correspondent for S+L TV.