New evangelization starts with witness, knowledge

Father James Wehner, the rector of Notre Dame Seminary, told a meeting of the New Evangelization Society Oct. 11 that Catholics must strive to know their faith better if they are going to be able to defend it and provide Christian witness in an increasingly secularized world.



“You hear from different surveys and from a group called CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) that the average catechetical knowledge of Catholics is in the sixth grade,” Father Wehner said. “How does one defend something that they don’t know? How does one share something that they might not have in the totality? We have two to three generations of Catholics who don’t really understand their own faith.”

Father Wehner’s presentation was timed to coincide with the opening of the Year of Faith, promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI, which will run through Nov. 24, 2013, said Todd Amick, president of the New Evangelization Society.

Monthly gatherings

Amick said the group plans to meet monthly during the next year, alternating the program between a live speaker on some aspect of evangelization and with presentations of “Catholicism,” the acclaimed, 10-part video series by Father Robert Barron. The Nov. 29 meeting will have Mass at 5:45 p.m., followed by dinner and a screening and guided discussion of one episode of “Catholicism.”

“We will look into the relationship between faith and reason,” Amick said.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans has added the family as another component of the Year of Faith, Amick said.

“The Year of Faith and Family will explore the answer to one question – when that child of yours looks to you and says, ‘Why should I be Catholic,’ you will have the right answer,” Amick said. “Maybe your child won’t even have to ask that question. The answer is that God is love and he is with us, and he has incorporated us into the life of his church.”

Father Wehner said the Second Vatican Council made it clear that Catholics are called “to dialogue with culture and not turn ourselves in.”

Defining terms

He said even the concept “evangelization” was challenging in the early 1970s because bishops and theologians could not agree on how exactly to define the term. Because of that, Pope Paul VI asked a synod of bishops in 1974 to discuss it, and the result was the apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (Evangelization in the Modern World), which was promulgated on Dec. 8, 1975, and “still is the foundational document for understanding evangelization.”

“It begins with the witness of the believer,” Father Wehner said. “Are we living in a way that is consistent with the Gospel, and if we are, that’s going to arouse curiosity. Why do we put black ashes on our foreheads? Why do we make the sign of the cross in McDonald’s? How do Catholics understand the role of Mary?”

Father Wehner said the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults “meets people right where they are.”

“Once people understand how faith and reason come together, there is a response,” he said. “Once folks are initiated into the community, they can’t wait. They want to be able to share their faith. Then the evangelized become the evangelizers.”

Pope John Paul II’s impetus

Pope John Paul II was credited with coining the term “new evangelization,” Father Wehner said, to target Catholics who had been drifting away from the practice of their faith or those who just had a rudimentary knowledge of the faith.

“For Pope Paul VI, the church existed in order to evangelize,” Father Wehner said. “John Paul starts from the other end – man exists in order to be evangelized. Secularism was redefining what it means to be human. There was supposed to be no such thing as universal truth. Pope John Paul II was using the concept of the new evangelization to promote authentic humanism.”

Evangelization is “always about the salvation of souls,” Father Wehner said. “If we lose sight of that, we reduce the Gospel to human sociological efforts. Eternal life is the goal.”

Confronting cultural lies

Since humans are created in the image and likeness of God, they are strong enough to withstand cultural pressure, Father Wehner said. “Today a lie is being told to teenagers – that they are so weak that I need to give them a condom; that they can’t control themselves,” he said. “Christ became man to perfect human nature, and we’ve been baptized into this perfection.”

Christ is central in evangelization because “only he conquered Satan and evil. Evangelization brings people to the kingdom of God. We don’t have to wait until we’re dead.”

Father Wehner said Pope Benedict’s decision to emphasize the new evangelization, which was a hallmark of Pope John Paul’s papacy, is a sign that he wants the church to “go deeper and deeper into the deep waters so that no matter where man is found, the church can be with him or her.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at





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