How serious is the need to evangelize others? Is the matter of salvation a pressing one? Society suggests it’s no big deal. Society teaches that all religions are basically created equal: perhaps each is best thought of as a nice means of helping people live healthier lives. But the reality of the situation is actually quite different.
By Daniel Sute
13 December 2018
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:19-20)
All who believe in Christ should feel, as an integral part of their faith, an apostolic concern to pass on to others its light and joy. This concern must become, as it were, a hunger and thirst to make the Lord known, given the vastness of the non-Christian world. – Saint John Paul II
Here in these words—the first spoken by the Blessed Lord Himself, and the second spoken by one of the Great Pontiffs of our time, do not introduce a foreign concept to the people of God, but rather articulate something that is implied to be a readily apparent fact. This fact is that the people of God, aware that they are being saved from hell by the superabundant grace of God, naturally have an eager desire to share the Good news of this salvation with each human person throughout the world. Yet, there is a disconnect between these words and the experience most Catholics feel in their interactions with others in the non-Christian world.
For the past few decades, John Paul II’s call for the New Evangelization has increasingly become a household term that more and more Catholics are beginning to understand as a necessary movement for the health of the Church. At the same time, as many lay Catholics gingerly make attempts to spread the good news with their families and friends, confusion and timidity can plague these conversations. What’s more, a fear of being perceived as a “proselytizer”—someone who tries to convert others to his or her religion in an impersonal, disrespectful way—prevents many from being willing to truly share the Good News taught by the Catholic Church.
It is possible that the timidity, confusion and fear that so many feel concerning the New Evangelization may be a symptom not simply of a lack of desire to evangelize, but a lack of understanding of what the Church truly is, and therefore why evangelization is so central to her identity. The theology which pertains to the Church, her mission, and her identity is called “ecclesiology,” and we faithful should do well to understand who our Mother Church is according to the theology of her own deposit of faith.
What is the Catholic Church? For far too many Catholics, the answer is very simply “a religion: a system of beliefs and moral practices.” Evidently, an ecclesiology that defines the Catholic Church as merely one of many “systems of beliefs and moral practices” is an incomplete ecclesiology. To be sure, Catholicism as a religion does include a system of beliefs and moral practices and both of these are essential to the life of the Church, but it would be inadvisable to attempt to understand the Church only within these measurable terms. When considering the question of “What is the Catholic Church,” we Catholics would do better to reflect upon the purpose for her divine institution by Jesus Christ, the God-Man himself, rather than be governed by the way a religiously pluralistic society observes her today. So we are right to ask: Lord God, why did you form the Catholic Church? What do you desire from her?
For this, we can take recourse in the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, the opening document published from the Second Vatican Council. The beginning part of paragraph 13 states:
All men are called to belong to the new People of God. Wherefore this People, while remaining one and unique, is to be spread throughout the whole world and must exist in all ages, so that the purpose of God’s will may be fulfilled. In the beginning God made human nature one. After His children were scattered, He decreed that the should at length be unified again (cf Jn. 11:52). It was for this reason that God sent His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things (cf. Heb. 1:2) that He might be Teacher, King, and Priest of all, the Head of the new and universal people of the sons of God.
These words illuminate in a few sentences the essence of salvation history, from the opening chapters of Genesis, to the Messianic hopes of the people of Israel, to the Incarnation of Christ, and to the Spirit-filled missionary fervor which fills the pages of the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Paul. As this paragraph explains, God intended for all of humankind to live in harmony with Himself and each other from the beginning of our race. The inherent purpose of humanity is to experience, as a family and as individuals, communion with the Father, in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. This is what we were made for, and only while living in step with this intrinsically ingrained purpose will we live lives that are healthy, at peace, and whole.
Adam and Eve, the common parents of all mankind, were created filled with the sanctifying grace that gave them a share in God’s own life and filled them with love for each other and all of creation. God in his great love intended for Adam and Eve to joyously pass down this sanctifying grace, this incredible gift of communion, to their children through natural generation. But instead, through their own completely free and lucid choice, our parents decided to forsake obedience to God and put their trust instead in Satan, eating from the tree from which they were commanded not to eat. By their own free choice, Adam and Eve surrendered the sanctifying grace that was their greatest treasure, and, thus without this gift, sanctifying grace was unable to be passed down to each of their descendants, all the way to ourselves.
Without sanctifying grace in our souls, the human family has now been marred and defaced by millennia of the tragic effects of sin. The story of the many nations of the human family has been one not of communion and brotherhood but of greed, violence, and hatred. Institutions from the national, regional and local levels—and even to our own families—are filled with pride, greed, and indifference towards the suffering of others. The most tragic of all, however, of the effects of a family of humans born without our originally intended sanctifying grace is that we are born with a natural estrangement from God, and, left to ourselves, would in this natural estrangement be completely incapable of knowing the Lord’s face either in this life or in the next.
Yet while this natural estrangement—known to Catholic Tradition as original sin—remains as an oppressive shackle that completely, effectively prevents us from soaring to the gates of beatific paradise—the call for communion has always remained in the heart of the souls God has created as a part of each of us. The world hungers for the same communion with God that was lost from each of us by Adam and Eve’s grievous sin, and so a plurality of religious expressions have developed as mankind has attempted to transcend to the spiritual realm. In our world today, we can see so many of our non-Christian brothers and sisters yearning for communion with the Divine through the tenets of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other diverse religious beliefs. We also notice individuals seeking to transcend themselves through single-hearted devotion to politics and social justice, which often takes on the character of religious zeal and fervor.
Each of our brothers and sisters seeking to fulfill the desire of their souls for communion with God and others through a false religion, politics, or a social justice crusade might end their lives still without the desire of their souls satisfied. This is because communion with God cannot be achieved apart from the free gift of sanctifying grace. No one can have communion with God, as we all are called to find, if the one true God—who is fully revealed in Jesus Christ—does not give that person the gift of sanctifying grace.
Sanctifying grace is given to the faithful through the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. This is why Jesus Christ instituted the Church: to dispense His Sacraments of grace to the entire world in order to restore each of the children of Adam and Eve to the communion with God and each other for which they were expressly made.
We are called as Catholic Christians to help all people find the end for which they were all designed: communion with Jesus Christ. Each person, no matter to what religious or areligious worldview they were born is called by design to become a member of the People of God. It is in this membership that all humans will be properly oriented towards God and each other.
We who have been blessed with the sublime bliss of communion with God through the Sacraments of His Church, and who understand their essentiality, have a duty to share what we have gained through these sacraments with the entire world.
If there were a family of some 30 birds each born and raised in miserable cages, and one of these birds should discover the means to escape, and himself began to enjoy the freedom of the skies—yet he was indifferent to share this freedom with his brothers and sisters who were still enslaved, would you say that this bird had any love for his brothers and sisters whatsoever?
May God give us the grace and the wisdom to share the Good News of Salvation—and Restoration to our original call—with all of our brothers and sisters who are outside of fruitful communion with the People of God, the Holy Church of Jesus Christ.
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Photo Credit: Statue of Jesus Christ by sculptor Lorenzo Ghiglieri (Semfield Memorial Study Garden, Main Campus of St. Thomas University, Houston, TX). Photo by Claudia Aracama. Used with permission.