Talks by Msgr Keith Barltrop April 2013

Budapest Talks

1. The challenge of the past.

How the Church evangelised in the past and what is different today

2. The challenge of the present

Evangelising the New Age spirituality of today’s globalised world; what the Year of Faith can teach us.

3. The challenge of the future

What do 30 years of teaching on New Evangelisation, culminating in the last Synod, tell us about our task today?


TALK ONE

Thanks for invitation. My last ACCSE meeting was in Slovakia in May 2002. I had just been asked by the bishops of England and Wales to set up a national agency for Evangelisation, and was trying to develop a vision and working methods for such an agency. Eventually the bishops delegated one of their number to chair a small committee tasked with drawing up the mission statement and strategic plan for the agency, and naturally I was asked to present the first draft. In it I proposed that a principal task of the new agency would be to explain and promote the new evangelisation which Bl. JP2 had been calling for for several years.

It was something of a shock when the bishop politely but firmly informed me we could not use the phrase new evangelisation since it would signal to all those priests, catechists, teachers and social workers who thought they had been doing evangelisation that we undervalued their work!

Fortunately in the ten years since that time, we have come quite a long way. The phrase new evangelisation, which then was a source of puzzlement to many, has become common currency. But the question remains whether people really understand what it means and allow it to change their attitude and the way they work. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that for many people, new evangelisation has just become the latest catch phrase to enable them to carry on doing exactly the same thing but with a new façade, whereas for JP2 things were precisely the opposite: he meant us to look at everything we do in the Church and do it with a new ardour, using new means and methods.

An obvious question to begin with is, if we are talking of a new evangelisation, what was the old one which it is being contrasted with? This is not a history lesson, but it is important for anyone involved in evangelisation to be aware of some history, and of some of the excellent studies that are round. Fr. Cantalamessa, for example, given four excellent Advent sermons in 2011 on what he called the four waves of evangelisation in our history: you can find them easily on the internet.

Key to understanding what is new about new evangelisation is JP2’s prophetic awareness that we are living in a completely new, and very dramatic situation today, one which is neither pagan nor truly Christian, a kind of post-Christian, post modern state. I will say more about this shortly. For the moment let us try to imagine what evangelising a pagan society was like, why Christianity was so successful in doing that, and what there was about that evangelisation that we cannot do today, so need to look for a new one. You will forgive me, I am sure, if I take my first example from my own country of England.

There is a haunting speech recounted by St. Bede in connection with the first evangelisation of England, when he tells how King Edwin of Northumbria and his counsellors discussed whether to abandon their pagan religion in response to the preaching of St. Paulinus. The year is app. 600 AD. One of King Edwin’s counsellors said:

“Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a lone sparrow through the banqueting hall where you sit in the winter months to dine with your thanes and counsellors. Inside there is a comforting fire; outside, the wintry storms of snow and rain are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the darkness from which he came. Similarly, man appears on earth for a little while, but we know nothing of what went before this life and what follows. Therefore if this new teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it.”

That is a classic description of how a pagan society could be evangelised, by showing how Christianity offered more coherent answers to questions which pagans dimly realised their own religion failed to illuminate satisfactorily. Such experiences of coherence and fullness were repeated time again not only among the barbarian tribes of the emerging Europe, but in the world of Greek philosophy when the Fathers of the Church showed how Christ’s message fulfilled and brought into a meaningful whole all the incoherent insights and longings of Greek thought and religion.

In passing let us note how important it therefore is to believe, live and present the Catholic faith in all its coherence today, not to allow ourselves to become what has been called Cafeteria Catholics, picking and choosing what we like and leaving the rest. It’s rare that we have an experience of this coherence and totality today. Obviously the Sunday sermon only gives time for a short summary of one particular aspect of faith. Many people feel their knowledge of their faith is only fragmentary. There’s a great hunger for a convincing presentation of the faith in its entirety, as we can see, for example, among young people gathered at Y2000 festivals, at World Youth Day, and in the widespread enthusiasm for the CCC.

When this is lacking, we are vulnerable to a partial presentation of the faith that stresses one aspect of it while leaving out others: my faith is about Justice and Peace, or the Latin Mass, or equal rights for women, etc. – a kind of ideology or “ism” rather than the Catholic faith. This is very common when evangelisation is discussed: some will say it means knocking on doors, some working for justice and peace, some doing works of charity, but few have a picture of evangelisation in all its fullness. “Any partial and fragmentary definition which attempts to render the reality of evangelisation in all its richness, complexity and dynamism does so only at the risk of impoverishing it and even of distorting it.” (EN17)

Without the sense of the coherence of our faith, we may become lukewarm about a faith which has so many ifs and buts that it’s hard to see why anyone would either live or die for it. We may be unsure as to how relevant our faith is to the questions people ask in today’s society. A faith based on sentiment or enthusiastic feelings is like the house built on sand which will crumble when the storm comes. But if our convictions come from a deep knowledge of our faith as rooted in the loving design of God the Father revealed in Jesus and dispensed by the Holy Spirit through the Church, then we are indeed building on rock.

Going back to the story of King Edwin, one of the fascinating aspects of the story is that the evangeliser was a monk, St. Paulinus. Indeed all the early evangelisers of England were monks, coming over from Ireland or sent by Pope Gregory the Great, himself a monk, from Rome. From England and Ireland great missionary monks such as St. Boniface and St. Columbanus evangelised huge areas of Europe. Even the much loved St. Martin of Tours, a charismatic evangeliser from what is now Szombathely in W. Hungary, lived for a while as a hermit and probably founded the first monastery in Europe.

We may find it strange as we think of monks today as withdrawn from the world and not involved in works such as evangelisation, a kind of élite group of spiritual superheroes. But that is not how the monks saw themselves. Time and again in the monastic literature, we find reference to that passage in the Acts of the Apostles where the life of the early Christian community is described (2: 44-47):

All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

There are two things to note immediately about this passage. The first is the close connection between community and evangelisation: the life of the early Christian community was so attractive that there were daily additions to it. Of course there were individual evangelists, notably St. Paul and the other apostles. But it was above all the love of the early Christians for each other, expressed in the concrete ways that passage describes, especially care for the poor, which attracted people and sustained the work of charismatic individuals like St. Paul. Jesus himself had said at the Last Supper, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn. 13:35); and in his prayer in Jn. 17 (v. 21), “may they all be one… so that the world may believe.”

In fact the intimate connection between evangelisation and community goes back to the very beginning Jesus’ preaching; far from behaving as a lone operator, he immediately forms a community around himself, calling disciples who are not just to share in his work, but above all are to be with him. If that was true of Jesus, how much more so of us, so that Pope Paul can say in EN 60 that evangelisation is always an ecclesial act, that is, one done in the name of the Church and in communion with her pastors and other lay people, not at someone’s personal whim.

Secondly, the first monks saw that the early Church, built on the foundation of the apostles, led a way of life based on the very teaching of Jesus in all its simplicity, and it was this they aimed to revive as the normal way of Christian living. In the first three centuries of the Church, the persecution Christians met with, first from the Jews but increasingly from the Roman imperial authorities, confirmed them in the purity of this way of life. From the early 4th century onwards, however, Christianity became first accepted then dominant in the Roman Empire, and the principal shaping force of an emerging Europe, and for this freedom and power there was a price to pay: compromise between the world and the Church, the entering of worldly considerations into the Church, and the lowering of the high standards predominant in the early Church.

The monks were the first of a series of renewal movements in the Church, each of which is essentially a reaction against this state of affairs in one form or another. Evangelisation, in other words, always goes hand in hand with Church renewal. The great travelling evangelists of the first millennium, such as St. Boniface or St. Columbanus, were hacking down trees used in pagan worship one minute and reforming the life of the clergy and challenging worldly bishops the next. They clearly saw the ecclesial nature of evangelisation, that for communicating powerfully what I called the coherence, and one can add the attractiveness and beauty of the Christian faith, preaching, important as it is,  was not enough: the Christian community has to live what it is called to be as an expression of the love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit in this world.

There were many limitations to this approach, which brings us to what is new about the new evangelisation. After the focus of evangelisation switched from Jerusalem and Rome, where the Catechumenate – recently revived -  had developed for individual converts, to Europe, mass conversions were the order of the day. Evangelists aimed at the conversion of the king or equivalent, who then brought the whole society with him, whether they liked it or not. Pagan customs lingered on in the countryside for many generations, and the standard of Christian life among many could hardly be expected to be very high. Force continued to be used, as we know all too well, in the first evangelisation of the new world in Latin America.

All this helps set the stage for our task today in the new evangelisation, and I would highlight three salient points: One thing that is new in it must be a respect for personal freedom ,so much a watchword of today’s culture, and for a presentation of the Gospel as the fulfilment of the human search for meaning, not as an arbitrary set of teachings and rules for an exotic group. That is why Bl. JP2 continually called for people to open the doors to Christ, not to be afraid of him, and why a watchword of the new evangelisation, repeated over and over again in his speeches and those of Pope B16, is that famous phrase form GS 22 "Christ ... in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”

Secondly, what is new, even before the new means and methods, is a new ardour, and this is partly the fruit of contemplating Christ (in Jubilee Year), and partly contemplating contemporary culture – a new situation in which we face a world neither pagan, nor Christian, but one where the vestiges of Christianity survive, but often in deformed ways, or ways uprooted from their Christian context, and where the memory of what Christianity means is often so distorted that the Church can only be seen by our contemporaries as an enemy to their freedom, an oppressive, authoritarian institution whose days are thankfully past except for a few people who happen to like that sort of thing and are welcome to pursue it provided they keep it strictly private. “Sheep without a shepherd.”

Finally, new movements. NEMs essentially in continuity with monks. Progressive emergence into world of renewal movements, first with friars of Middle Ages, then Jesuits and modern orders, finally NEMs. Marthe Robin: She announced especially a new Pentecost of love that would be preceded by a profound renewal of the Church marked by a missionary zeal where numerous lay people would participate in the apostolate.


TALK TWO

Story of John Drane and angels… For every Dawkins (scientific rationalist approach to Christianity) there are probably three or four people who see angels, or do tarot, of believe in karma, or practice TM, etc. Self-help, Mind, Body Spirit section in bookshops very popular. Many of these are Christians whose beliefs and practices are a mixture of orthodox Christian belief and such things.

So two very important tasks emerge for us as evangelisers today, tasks that are interrelated as I tried to show in my last talk: to evangelise a world that is marked by the apparently contradictory trends of secularism on the one hand, and a fascination with spirituality in unorthodox and sometimes dangerous ways on the other; and also to be aware that both trends are alive and well in the Church, and probably among ourselves.

Globalisation (explain) only increases this: stories of Francis A-D and toilet in Ghana; and of Filipino couple getting involved in trance and magic here.

Some Christian approaches to New Age take a one-sidedly negative approach: such and such a practice is wrong; here is why it’s wrong; here is the correct line on such things… That is not the Catholic approach, which by contrast is to see what is missing from people’s spiritual life, whether they are Christians or not, that they feel drawn to such practices, and to attempt in the light of that to discern what is good from what is bad in the New Age, and for that matter, in secularism. It’s worth quoting the Vatican’s own official document on New Age, JCWL (2003), which says in its preamble:

This study invites readers to take account of the way that New Age religiosity addresses the spiritual hunger of contemporary men and women. It should be recognized that the attraction that New Age religiosity has for some Christians may be due in part to the lack of serious attention in their own communities for themes which are actually part of the Catholic synthesis such as the importance of man's spiritual dimension and its integration with the whole of life, the search for life's meaning, the link between human beings and the rest of creation, the desire for personal and social transformation, and the rejection of a rationalistic and materialistic view of humanity.

One of the ways we expressed that when I was working for CASE was participating in an ecumenical spirituality fair at Coventry Cathedral. Workshops wee offered on subjects ranging from angels to dreams, while I blessed pets…

These are examples of those new means and method JP2 spoke of, any of which one might question the validity of, while being aware of the need to do something, but as I said on the last talk, for JP2 the key thing was a new ardour, and one of things feeding that is an awareness of the unique cultural situation we are in. Surely one of the most important things about JP2’s papacy was this prophetic sense he had of the drama of the times we are in, and his own vocation, as one untainted by Western liberalism (his experience of Nazism, Communism), to draw attention to this dramatic situation in dramatic ways.

So one of the important challenges to be faced by any evangelist is an awareness of the cultural situation we live in today, and the ability to translate that into the concrete ways of evangelising using these new means and methods. If we were being sent off to Africa or Asia as missionaries, we would spend a lot of time preparing by analyzing their culture. Surely we should see our own culture as a similar challenge.

Before we go too far in this direction, an important point about discernment. We are familiar with the Ignatian method of discernment of spirits… Michael-Paul Gallagher to bishops of E and W – discern your response to culture of times. Many are angry… or depressed… or naively optimistic. These responses need to be purified…

…so that we are freed from being the victims of our own feelings and can end up seeing the various factors of contemporary culture as opportunities for evangelisation rather than as things to get furious nor depressed about. I’ll illustrate what I mean in a moment.

I’m going to take as one of many possible examples a method of evangelization that appear to be fruitful and ask what it is about it that appeals to people today: the method widely practised by, e.g., Emmanuel – describe Vienna experience. Similar to Nightfever, which comes from Germany and WYD in Koln. Let’s see what we can learn from it.

Firstly, it’s based on an invitation to have a cool experience – just come into the Church for a few minutes. Now the desire for cool experiences is precisely one of those aspects of contemporary life that we could indeed as Christians get angry or sad about, because it is so contrary to the essence of our faith. As someone has said, Christ hanging on the Cross for three hours is about as far as you can get from a cool moment. And in a thought=provoking scene, the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland notes in his novel Generation X, explaining why the narrator goes into the desert with two friends to tell each other stories…. ‘It’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. Either our lives become stories or there’s just no way to get through them.”

But we have been through our discernment process, and we want to take this aspect of today’s world as an opportunity, so we invite people to have a cool moment with God. Of course, it’s only a beginning…

Secondly it respects people’s freedom to have their own experience: you can write a prayer, chat to someone in the Church, but do it all at your own pace, discover your own aspect of Christian truth. Perhaps this appeals to me because of my own experience as a convert – somewhere here you will find your own place. Again this is something that could make us angry: the relativism of our times, which holds that there is no truth as such, only my truth or your truth. Indeed it is this which lies behind the New Age acceptance of spirituality and rejection of religion – making up your own spirituality by taking what you want from where you want, the ultimate Cafeteria. But Pope Paul VI had clearly done his discernment in the way I suggested when he gave us that wonderful teaching so often quoted in connection with evangelisation: (EN 21) Modern man listens more readily to witnesses than to teachers…

Finally there is something random about it: a lucky dip bible verse… Again this appeals to something in today’s culture which comes from our information overload. There is now just so much out there on the web and on my mobile, on my Facebook and Twitter page, that people are quite willing to accept what appears to be some chance encounter or YouTube clip or quote on a Facebook page as being somehow meant for them. How much more a verse from the Bible?

It is easy of course to pour scorn on such methods. They are light years away from the rigours of the Catechumenate in the fourth century Jerusalem or Rome, or the carefully thought out approach of Bl. John Henry Newman or Chesterton or Thomas Merton. They are examples of first evangelisation, not of the in depth catechesis that we all need. But that does not mean they do not have a value, and one that again takes us to a deeper understanding of what is new about the new evangelisation. Let us turn to Cardinal Ratzinger in a powerful speech given to catechists during the Jubilee Year in Rome:

“The Church always evangelises and has never interrupted the path of evangelisation. She celebrates the Eucharistic mystery every day, administers the sacraments, proclaims the word of life -- the Word of God, and commits herself to the causes of justice and charity. And this evangelisation bears fruit: It gives light and joy, it gives the path of life to many people; many others live, often unknowingly, of the light and the warmth that radiate from this permanent evangelisation.”

That is classic or permanent evangelisation, with which the new one is being contrasted. He goes on, “However, we can see a progressive process of de-Christianisation and a loss of the essential human values, which is worrisome. A large part of today's humanity does not find the Gospel in the permanent evangelisation of the Church: That is to say, the convincing response to the question: How to live? This is why we are searching for, along with permanent and uninterrupted and never to be interrupted evangelisation, a new evangelisation, capable of being heard by that world that does not find access to "classic" evangelisation.”

But when people begin to get the idea of the new evangelisation, he says, a temptation awaits them: “the temptation of impatience, the temptation of immediately finding the great success, in finding large numbers. But this is not God's way. For the Kingdom of God as well as for evangelisation, the instrument and vehicle of the Kingdom of God, the parable of the grain of mustard seed is always valid (see Mark 4:31-32).”

As I suggested, Pope John Paul II strode with visionary courage into our world and said, in effect, stop and look at the world around you. Take stock of what is happening; understand the culture you have created. But stop also in the sense of stop seeing this whole business as about somehow arresting decline. You have already given in to the enemy if your imagination presents it that way. Return rather in spirit to the early Church, as Cardinal Ratzinger suggests in that image: no Catholic schools to close, no adoption agencies to worry about, no big tree, just a mustard seed, a little flock. To this small band of disciples Jesus told the parables of the seed, and promised them that the Father wanted to give them the Kingdom. Put in brackets for yourselves all that has happened since, the growth of this great tree and indeed its apparent stunting in our time. Start again from small initiatives; bring him the five loaves and two fishes, an outreach here, a small initiative there to touch the local community. But above all do it in the spirit we have been speaking about, which believes the Gospel and the Church is for all, not just for religious people or the Catholic faithful, but for anyone and everyone in our land and beyond.

This is, of course, what the Year of Faith is all about. In continuity with his speech made over ten years ago, Pope Benedict in calling for a year of faith was calling for us to see the world around us as if with the eyes of the apostles themselves: we have no idea of how God’s grace is going to bring about the new evangelisation of Europe, but at least we have 2000 years of experience to tell us that God works in surprising ways.

Conclude by describing experience of relics and Plymouth quote. Again, what can we learn from it? Negatively, not to put obstacles in people’s way: time and again we see that in the Acts of the Apostles as the church grew, decisions were made not to saddle the new converts with Jewish rules, and we are told about the continual growth of the Church that took place as a result.

Secondly the combination of heart and head, devotion and catechesis. One without the other is sentimental=, or dry, but together they give us powerful tools for the new evangelisation and a kind of principle to check the soundness of any new method against.

TALK THREE

After all our reflections on the past and the challenges of the future, the question remains a burning one for us: what more do we need to be doing? Or put more simply, as on the day of Pentecost when the Gospel was first proclaimed by the apostles, what must we do? The preaching of the Gospel always arouses this question in us if it is authentic, and for us who are especially concerned for evangelisation it takes this form: we have been celebrating 50 years since the “new Pentecost” of the Council, nearly 40 years since EN; nearly 34 since, on his first visit as Pope to his native Poland on June 9, 1979, JP2 lifted up the Cross with a powerful gesture in Nowa Huta, a vast housing estate in Krakow which had been planned by the Communist authorities as a “godless city,”, and with deep emotion, proclaimed, “A New Evangelisation has begun!” - a summons he repeated over the years in his journeys to various parts of the world - Haiti, Benin, Nigeria and several countries of Europe and the Americas, for example. When he addressed the bishops of Latin America in 1983, he explained that evangelisation today needs to be “new in its ardour, new in its methods, and new in its means of expression.” So what must we do now?

Pope John Paul gives us the first clue as to an answer to this question in NMI where he insists that any pastoral plan for the new Millennium must begin from the basics of prayer, listening to God’s Word, and holiness. As is well-known, in NMI he uses the story of the miraculous catch of fish, with its call to put out into the deep – Duc in Altum – as a to teach us about the all-important difference between doing things our own way, like fishing all night, and waiting for God to speak as Jesus does to the apostles, and then acting on his instructions.

A very telling illustration of this difference is given by Fr. Bob Bedard… give me permission, become skilled at waiting for me…

Unfortunately Duc in Altum has become one of those slogans bishops and priests like to use but without grasping its profound implications, that we must do everything differently, being prepared to set aside our human plans and ways of doing things when God calls. Both Jesus and Mary are our great models in this: Mary at the Annunciation, of course, setting aside whatever plans she had for her life when God unveiled his plan, and Jesus throughout his ministry when he repeats in John’s Gospel time and time again: I can do nothing of myself, I only do what the Father tells me, I have not come of my own will…

One very practical way we can put this into practice in the work of evangelisation is to look at what God himself has been saying and doing in our time. Here we come up against an obstacle in others and perhaps ourselves, the picture many Christians seem to have of God as a kind of benevolent but not very engaged grandfather figure who sits back and lets us get on with things. The idea that God speaks and acts seems childish to some of our contemporaries, and this attitude can infect us also.

A good example of this is the message of Divine Mercy. It is not uncommon to meet priests and lay people who say, what is all this Divine Mercy about? I don’t need this, I’ve been telling people about God’s love for years. Surely this is putting things the wrong way round: surely we should say, if God has given a message, approved by the Church and evidently considered as highly important by many, including JP2, should I not take the time to study it, reflect on it, try it out? I may conclude it is not for me at this time, but at least I have respected the fact that God himself has spoken to us. And of course, it has enormous potential for evangelisation, both spiritually as a key aspect of an evangelising spirituality, and in practical terms: I can think of people whose entire evangelising work is based on giving out DM prayer cards.

Something similar could be said about the relics of St. Thérèse, of which I have already spoken. In England the whole idea of bringing her relics around aroused considerable doubts and opposition. But surely St. Thérèse, if anyone in modern times, was a word of God to the Church and the world? Surely if the Church approves the veneration of relics, and it is clear from experience that her relics bring many graces to people who would not otherwise be touched by them, this is more important than our own personal taste or likes?

Looking for other signs of God’s action in the world of today, we could immediately go on to list the various new ecclesial movements which the Spirit has raised up in our time. Of course we do not have to agree with everything they say and do, since there are human elements mixed in with the charisms from the Holy Spirit, and we obviously cannot personally get involved with all of them, since they are so many, but who with an open mind could doubt that these movements are a powerful way God speaks to us to renew the Church?

Leaving aside Marian apparitions, and other locutions or visions, which the Church always takes time to recognise, we could point to the recent papacies and all they have taught us about evangelisation. If we attempted to summarise what God has said to us through recent popes, it would go something like this: in Pope John XXIII he unleashed the new Pentecost of love he had promised through Marthe Robin and others; in Pope Paul (EN) he gave us the intellectual foundation to understand that evangelisation is a truly Catholic enterprise and that there is a specifically Catholic approach to evangelisation. In JP2 he called us to a new ardour to deal with a new situation, and through JP2’s personal example gave us hope and energy that the Gospel is for everyone and promotes all that people are looking for today, though often in the wrong ways or places.

More recently in B16 he warned us that the Church needs purification if it is going to be credible, and he gave us the beautiful teaching I have described about going back to the mentality of the apostles, a small, insignificant group who trusted in God’s inconceivable power to give them the kingdom. And Pope Francis…? Too soon to say, but certainly God has chosen him and will speak through him powerfully, perhaps to warn us that evangelisation will only be effective if we are free, humble and simple enough to risk confronting the worldliness in ourselves and others in the Church, just as monks such as Columbanus and Boniface confronted the worldly bishops of Europe in their own day and were able to do so precisely because they were monks and so immune to pressure brought to bear on them by threats to their wealth of family.

In passing, let me add that if we are focussing on the signs of God’s activity in the world of today, we must also look at the negative signs, which become obstacles to evangelisation. There is no doubt that the biggest of them is the presence and toleration of sexual abuse in the Church, and there seems little doubt that one factor in the election of Pope Francis was a perception that he would deal vigorously with this and other manifestations of corruption in the Church. The causes of sexual abuse may be complex and varied, but I cannot get out of my head the comment: would these men deny themselves anything? Simplicity and the spirit of sacrifice are surely being called for by the Holy Spirit to counter this terrible evil, and they must be part of the life style of any evangelist. Mention the word evangelism to many people and they immediately think of televangelists, rich, powerful and corrupt. If we are in any doubt as to how we should live and behave as evangelisers, a good test is to ask ourselves, what would St. Paul say about it…!

Returning to JP2’s teaching in NMI on the primacy of holiness, God’s Word and prayer, we can go on to say that one of the key things we should be focussing on in evangelisation is teaching people to pray, including the prayerful reading of Scripture, and to contemplate him in beauty and art. This has many aspects, and is related to all I have been saying about the New Age. At the end of a series of talks I gave recently in my parish about the New Age, there was quite  a lot of energy around and people were asking, what do we do next, rather like the question of this talk. One thing almost everyone present agreed on was that we need more teaching about prayer. To be honest, my parish is one where it is difficult to get people to come out in the evening for talks or events, but one thing that did attract many people a few years ago was a School of Prayer I ran with the help of members of Notre Dame de Vie. There is a great hunger for prayer, and also a great danger that where we do not teach about it in a living way, people will look elsewhere, including the New Age.

At the most basic level, it is a question of introducing them to Christian prayer as in the way of evangelising I described in the Emmanuel Community Mission. Note that hand in hand with this goes evangelisation through beauty – something many have drawn our attention to. At various times in the past, the Church has called for greater simplicity in music, or worried about people’s excessive devotion to icons or statues, but surely in our world we need in our evangelisation rather to be actively fostering an approach to the faith through beautiful music, art and poetry. One of the people who shares my house is a young lady who devotes herself to supporting and encouraging Christian musicians, poets and artists, putting on regular evenings where they can showcase their work. 

One of the theologians of our age who has written most profoundly about this is von Balthasar, especially in his series The Glory of the Lord. He writes tellingly about his own theological education which was dry, rationalistic and uninspiring, and gives examples of writers, whether professional theologians or not, who instead give us a vision of the beauty and glory of our faith, among them the English poet Hopkins whose best known poem begins with the line, The world is charged with the grandeur of God. Hopkins was a younger contemporary of Newman, who emphasised so much the role of the imagination in coming to faith. In the Grammar of Assent he says: “The heart is commonly reached not through the reason, but through the imagination.” Later using his own imagination superbly, he says “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.”

The implications for evangelisation are clear, especially in an image-obsessed age, the age of the internet, the YouTube clip and the advertisement hoarding, are obvious. Our contemporaries need the truth about Christ, his Church and human life, but they also need to see the form, the shape, the beauty of those things, and their power to heal us and move us to what we are called to be. The attractiveness of Christ’s personality shines from every page of the Gospels, especially in that first encounter with two of the apostles in John 1: 35-39 which ends with the invitation, Come and See – a model for evangelisers.

Another thinker whom von Balthasar holds up for us is Soloviev…. He even compares Soloviev to Thomas Aquinas for an unrivalled power of going into every thought form and spirituality of the age and sifting out the good for the bad, ransacking them for treasures with which to expound the Gospel. Some of Soloviev’s explorations were in what would be thought of as precursors of the New Age: the Jewish Cabbala, spiritualism, theosophy, etc., so he is a wonderful model for us in evangelizing the New Age.

It must be said that much Christian writing on the New Age is extremely superficial, not going beyond the obvious contrasts between Christian belief and, for example astrology or the Tarot. Of course, such warnings have their place, but if we are truly to evangelise in the world of today we have to grapple with why the novels of Paolo Coelho, for example, which blend orthodox Christian belief and ideas about reincarnation and visualization sell in their millions. Why do writers who tell people that the Universe will give them all they want if they think and feel about it the right way make a fortune from their books when the words of Jesus about asking in the knowledge that you have already received it are unknown and ignored. Why are millions reading their horoscope every day while the guidance God wishes to give us every day through Scripture and tradition is put aside?

I hope it is clear from these and other examples, that the work of evangelization is only beginning in our day and it is as always the most exciting challenge we can have. It is enormously encouraging that at the highest levels the Church is giving due weight to this challenge, by setting up a special department in the Vatican for the new evangelisation, and by the recent Synod on the New Evangelisation. However, the real work is done at the grass roots, where it is a question, as B16 reminds us, of sowing small seeds, leaving the result up to God. Everything significant in the Church today started from small beginnings, including the Church itself. We may never see the fruit of our labours: answer of Emmanuel Leader to question how effective their method is. But we have the assurance of our Lord himself that if we abide in him we will bear much fruit.

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