This week marked the conclusion of the first meeting of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. On Monday, Pope Benedict XVI, who announced the formation of the council last summer, addressed the meeting's participants at the Vatican.
From the beginning of his ministry as the Successor of Peter, Pope Benedict has articulately described the situation the Church finds herself in today: standing against the "dictatorship of relativism," as he put it in his homily to the conclave of cardinals just before being elected pope.
That said, the actual theme of his remarks this week -- that there is a grave need of a "new evangelization" from the Church that can creatively approach the unique and specific challenges of secular modernity -- is not new to his pontificate, nor to John Paul II's before him. His insights into the problems posed by that culture -- and how the Church can effectively evangelize in such an environment -- are fascinating, though, and will truly be a hallmark of his legacy. In particular, two aspects of his address struck me:
The crisis being experienced bears in itself traces of the exclusion of God from people's lives, of a generalized indifference toward the Christian faith itself, to the point of attempting to marginalize it from public life. In past decades it was still possible to discover a general Christian sense that unified the common feeling of whole generations, growing up in the shadow of the faith that had molded the culture.
Today, unfortunately, we are witnessing the drama of a fragmentation that no longer consents to a unified point of reference; moreover, we often see the phenomenon of persons who wish to belong to the Church, but are strongly molded by a vision of life that opposes the faith.
That "phenomenom" reminds me of any poll or study of religiosity among young adults, specifically ones that show youths' clear preference for considering themselves "spiritual, but not religious." Young adults strongly believe in life after death, heaven, hell, even miracles -- but they balk at the concept of any one religion holding the fullness of truth about those very things. Last year, a Knights of Columbus-Marist poll dug deeper into the beliefs and motivations of Catholic Millennials in particular, and found that while a majority of them believe in God; value marriage, family and concern for the poor; stand with the Church's teachings on several moral issues (includng abortion); and even want to know more about their faith, in some ways they are even more relativistic than the rest of the culture. (Six in 10 think it's okay to practice more than one religion, nearly two in three consider themselves more "spiritual" than "religious," and a whopping 80% believe morals are relative). As an example of how this plays out in social issues, the same age cohort that names committment to marriage as being one of the most unappreciated values in society is also leading the pack among Americans who believe same-sex marriage should be legal. How do we reach them? How do we convince young adults that the faith they're looking for -- the fulfillment they long to grasp -- is offered by Christ in the Catholic Church?
The second line that struck me occurred toward the end of his address:
Even in one who remains linked to his Christian roots, but lives the difficult relationship with modernity, it is important to make it understood that being Christian is not a sort of uniform to wear in private or on particular occasions, but is something alive and all-encompassing, able to take up all that is good in modernity.
While acknowledging the Christian's "difficult relationship" with a secular, modern culture, Pope Benedict is not calling for a retreat into a Catholic ghetto, sequestered from the rest of the world; nor an all-out assailment of the world around us. The new evangelization is about dialogue, not angry or fear-filled defensiveness -- it's about the ability "to take up all that is good in modernity" and use it to point to the fullness of truth found in Christ, while staying grounded in the wisdom of the Church.
More than ever, we need "a concrete answer to the moment of crisis in Christian life." The Holy Father is reminding us that it is the task of all believers to participate in the new evangelization, living our lives so as to be credible witnesses of the Gospel.
-- Elizabeth Hansen