How the Church Evangelizes Yesterday, Today and Always

Pope Paul VI leads the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum in Rome in 1977. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

Pope Paul VI leads the Way of the Cross at the Colosseum in Rome in 1977. (CNS photo/Giancarlo Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)

As the Church Universal celebrates World Mission Sunday this weekend, as well as the beatification on Sunday of Pope Paul VI, a modern missionary pope, let us consider how the Church spreads the Gospel. “This question of ‘how to evangelize’ is permanently relevant,” said this holy pastor, “because the methods of evangelizing vary according to the different circumstances of time, place and culture, and because they thereby present a certain challenge to our capacity for discovery and adaptation” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 40).

There are a whole range of activities to share the Good News, but some have shown themselves more fruitful than others.  In particular, Pope Paul said, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41).

We see this approach in Saint Luke’s inspired authorship of the Acts of the Apostles, in which he relates what he has personally seen and experienced in accompanying Saint Paul on some of his travels, and in his faithfully handing on what the Church has related to him.  This affirms how we as evangelizers turn to the Church and the continuous apostolic tradition in the Body of Christ to encounter, illuminate and assure us of the message of eternal life we share with others.

The word that describes the missionary activity of the early Church is “bold.”  After the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Saint Peter immediately and boldly goes out and gives personal testimony, “God raised this Jesus; of this we are all witnesses . . . Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:32, 38, see also, 3:12-26; 4:9-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43).  This Good News of salvation in the Risen Christ is what we proclaim.

The greater part of Acts follows Paul in his travels and he too relies abundantly on personal witness.  He was the great persecutor of the Church who, with the grace of God, became the great missionary apostle.

Multiple times Paul relates how, when he was on the road to Damascus, a bright light flashed as a voice from heaven said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  To which he replied, “Who are you, sir?” And the reply came, “I am Jesus the Nazorean, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 22:3-21).  He was struck blind for three days, and after he regained his sight, he never hesitated to profess the saving truth of Christ.

In applying the lessons of Acts to our efforts today, we realize, as did those early missionaries, that culture is the field in which we must work.  A superb model to follow is the approach of Paul in Athens, where he entered into dialogue with many philosophers and others in the public square.  In that city full of pagan idols, he discovered an altar inscribed, “To an Unknown God.”  He took that occasion to tell the people, “What you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you,” going on to speak of the living God and the Good News of the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:16-34).

Today, as with Paul, our challenge is to provide people with an awareness and familiarity with the true Lord in practical language in the midst of their daily lives and concrete situations.  Our duty is not just to announce, but to adapt our approach so as to attract and to urge a people much in need of him to find the uncomplicated, genuine and tangible treasure of friendship with Jesus (Redemptoris Missio, 44).

The Gospel once delivered by the first disciples still has the power to transform the world.  The mission given to them is now ours and the opportunities are everywhere.