"What is new about the New Evangelization; much of
what I see seems the same," quipped a good friend in a
recent conversation. People in the parish where I serve
as well as some of my graduate students in theology
and ministry at Boston College have made similar
comments, although with different nuances. I usually
respond by noting that what is new is mainly the
socio-cultural context in which we live, the diversity
of voices in the Church engaged in creatively interpreting
the experience of God in our communities,
and an awareness that unless we pay serious attention
to these two realities we may discover ourselves as
obstacles to the work of the Holy Spirit today. Let us
put some more flesh on these ideas.
We can fairly say that Catholics are, by and large, familiar
with the term "evangelization." Most would associate it with the
work of missionaries, clergy and vowed religious, and increasingly,
the many forms of pastoral service among lay leaders. For
Spanish-speaking Catholics, evangelization immediately evokes
the word for Gospel, evangelio, likewise in the case of Portuguese-speaking
Catholics (evangelho) and French-speaking Catholics
(évangile). Yet, Church leaders are now talking about the "New
Evangelization," and this has caught the attention of many.
What are Catholics up to this time? What will signal the newness?
How do we know that there is something new? For whom
is this new? What will be the effects of this effort? That people
are asking about the meaning of the New Evangelization is an
excellent excuse to talk about evangelization in general.
The Synod on the New Evangelization for the Transmission
of the Christian Faith (October 7–28, 2012) was an excellent
opportunity to reflect upon who we are and what we do as disciples
of Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century. The meeting of
bishops gathered voices from the various corners of the planet
where the Church witnesses to her faith in Jesus Christ, shares
the Good News of salvation, and serves as an instrument of
God's reign in the here and now of history. The topic invites
reflecting on identity and mission.
This was not the first synod dedicated to evangelization. In
1974, just a few years after the Second Vatican Council
(1962–1965), Pope Paul VI gathered with bishops from around
the world to reflect about this same topic. A year later, in the
apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (On Evangelization in
the Modern World), he reminded all Catholics that the Church
"exists in order to evangelize" (14). Most recently, official documents,
popes, bishops, theologians, and many other pastoral
leaders have incessantly addressed the question of evangelization.
In fact, one could argue that hardly any topic in the Church
has received more attention in the last four or five decades than
evangelization. It was a constant theme of the writings and
pontificate of Pope John Paul II. Of particular interest are John
Paul II's post-synodal exhortations leading to the Great Jubilee
of the Year 2000. Some of the best documents from regional
conferences of Catholic bishops where the Church is steadily
growing (that is, Asia, Africa, and Latin America) are those that
focus on evangelization. Even the most discussed theological
works in ecclesial and academic circles creatively challenge us to
reflect on our evangelizing identity and mission. Of particular
interest are such works on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue,
faith and culture, and contemporary spirituality, to name a few.
A key category in the conversation about evangelization is culture:
culture matters when we evangelize. It is tempting to dismiss
the importance of this observation, arguing that "this is
something we already know and do" or that "evangelization cannot
be reduced to cultural anthropological concerns." Of course,
both are extreme positions, yet both can be judged as subtle
ways of dismissing the significance of reflecting on culture. On
the one hand, taking for granted the role of culture in our evangelizing
initiatives can lead to ineffectiveness and irrelevance
because we may do too little to carefully know our context. Isn't
this what sometimes occurs when Catholics venture into the
public square in the name of our faith, but soon realize that we
speak rather different languages and our arguments often then
fall onto "deaf ears," even among the baptized? This may also
apply to evangelizing initiatives in pastoral settings where we do
not seem to know how to engage youth, young adults, and the
immigrants transforming our faith communities. To assume
that the relationship between culture and evangelization is value
free (it is not!) or that it can afford to ignore the differences that
shape human experience (it should not!) risks creating undesirable
conditions of exclusion for the community that seeks to
evangelize and/or the community invited to receive the Gospel.
On the other hand, evangelizing efforts
that ignore the social, cultural, political, and
economic realities of the communities where
we hope the Good News grows roots run the
risk of reducing the praxis of the faith into a
disengaged pietism, concerned little or nothing
about how human existence unfolds in
the everyday. True, evangelization cannot be
reduced to mere political activism or social
interventions; but neither can it be determined
by what I would call "evangelistic
docetism," namely, the attitude of downplaying
or dismissing what is human in the
process of facilitating people's encounter
Why is this an appropriate moment for
Catholic pastoral leaders, educators, and
theologians to think about matters of culture
in the context of the New Evangelization?
The answer to this question is threefold. First,
much has been learned about culture since
the Second Vatican Council and Evangelii
Nuntiandi, placing us in a better position to understand its centrality
in the evangelizing process. Second, Catholics are
increasingly embracing cultural diversity as a gift to the Church
instead of a problem to be solved—a true sign of conversion
with still a long road ahead to be traveled. Third, in our globalized
world, we see a growing polyphony of voices, in an amazing
process of cross-cultural fertilization, transforming the way we
do Catholic theology, how we celebrate and share our faith, and
how we build ecclesial communities. This growing awareness
about the value and potential of cultural diversity should be
interpreted as a kairos in the work of evangelization.
The 1974 Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of
Bishops gathered around the topic of evangelization in the modern
world and laid out a few key ideas about the relationship
between evangelization and culture. As indicated earlier,
Evangelii Nuntiandi builds on the insights and recommendations
from this gathering. Evangelization consists in "bringing
the Good News into all the strata of humanity, and through its
influence, transforming humanity from within and making it
new."1 But human experience does not unfold in the abstract.
We live in history. Persons and communities are deeply shaped
by the specific cultural circumstances in which they live. Thus, it
is important to hold an understanding of culture that is dynamic
enough to affirm human agency and expression, while guaranteeing
the appropriate conditions for spiritual growth, the development
of life-giving relationships, and openness to transcendence.
To this extent, the apostolic exhortation affirms the vision of
culture that the Second Vatican Council proposed in its pastoral
constitution Gaudium et Spes:
||The word "culture" in its general sense indicates everything
whereby man develops and perfects his many bodily
and spiritual qualities; he strives by his knowledge and
his labor, to bring the world itself under his control. He
renders social life more human both in the family and the
civic community, through improvement of customs and
institutions. Throughout the course of time he expresses,
communicates and conserves in his works, great spiritual
experiences and desires, that they might be of advantage to
the progress of many, even of the whole human family.2
Evangelization is an ecclesial experience that aims to
transform the depths of culture with the richness of Gospel values.
It is about facilitating an encounter between the Gospel and
culture(s). To do this, the Church must speak the language and
understand the symbols that give meaning to entire communities,
employing methodologies that are consistent with the particularity
of a given culture.3 While evangelization is not identical
with culture, it cannot happen without it.4 Furthermore, Evangelii Nuntiandi acknowledges the existence of a plurality of cultures
shaping the richness of the human experience, their potential to
receive the Gospel, and the need for the Church to remain aware
of this diversity.5
During the almost four decades between the 1974 and
2012 synods, the reflection on the role of culture in the Church's
evangelizing mission has significantly evolved and expanded.
New terms and theoretical frameworks have been introduced;
magisterial documents constantly refer to the need of engaging
culture(s) in all their expressions while addressing specific concerns
emerging in particular moments and places. In 1982, the
Pontifical Council for Culture was created to facilitate and
encourage conversations about the encounter between the
Gospel and culture(s); years later, the Pontifical Council for the
Promotion of the New Evangelization (created in 2010) would
make more explicit this commitment to conversation with culture
as part of the Church's mission. Rapid developments in the
worlds of media, technology, and transportation have made us
more aware of the globalizing forces that shape contemporary
cultures, and the Church has realized that it cannot afford to be
absent from these conversations. This period has also given rise
to new questions that increasingly challenge the
imagination of Catholic theologians and pastoral
leaders as we ponder the many ways in which culture
influences the ways in which we live our faith.
While the critical conversation with modernity
continues, today many speak of the challenges and
possibilities of post-modernity. The effects of secularism
in Western Europe and other first-world
nations have thrust Catholics into a serious soulsearching
journey. In the meantime, the same
dynamics of secularization are making significant
inroads in societies whose structures and institutions
have traditionally been shaped by Christianity,
thus forcing Catholic scholars and practitioners to
envision possibilities of dialogue with what philosopher
Charles Taylor has called the "secular age."6
Lastly, the ecumenical and interreligious efforts of
the last decades have created new and interesting
opportunities for Catholics to talk about identity
These are some of the most urgent conversations
and questions at the heart of our contemporary
culture(s), and Catholics must be aware of them
as we reflect on what it means to evangelize. Such
is precisely the context within which the 2012
Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops took place.
If something is "new" in the New Evangelization, I think it is a
more sophisticated understanding of the complexity of culture
and a sincere desire to engage in mutually critical dialogue with
the culture(s) of our day.
Three dynamics are important to reflection on cultural
diversity and evangelization.7 To illustrate, I will refer to them.
"Inculturation," a relatively new term in our vocabulary
(although what it conveys is as old as Christianity), has become
a common category in Church documents, theological works,
and pastoral initiatives to describe the relationship between faith
and culture. Evangelii Nuntiandi does not make reference to it.
Coined in the 1950s, it was introduced in official documents
in the late 1970s. Inculturation, mirroring the mystery of the
Incarnation, can be defined as "the intimate transformation of
authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity
and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures."
8 Inculturation rightly assumes that the conversation
between faith and culture is possible, thus dismissing the temptation
to conceive these two realities as radically incompatible or
naively reducing one into the other.9 The relationship mediated
by the process of inculturation is not value neutral. The Gospel
has the capacity "to value what is positive in every culture" and
to purify it "from elements that are contrary to the full realization
of the person according to the design of God revealed
Notwithstanding the contributions of inculturation to the
analysis of the relationship between faith and culture, the term,
when narrowly defined, may convey the idea that this relationship
is de facto unidirectional: faith culture. If that is the case,
inculturation may leave little room for evangelizers to reasonably
ask whether culture has anything to say about how Christian
communities receive and interpret revelation and how the complex
interaction among cultures shapes the way Christianity is
lived in history. The term also presents some limitations when
determining with clarity the difference between the Gospel message
and the means, institutional structures, practices, and constructs
that serve to communicate that message. The absence of
such differentiation can be greatly problematic. The emergence
of the term "interculturality" in contemporary theology as an
alternative category to read the faith-culture dynamic seems to
address some of the concerns,11 although no category may claim
to fully capture the complexity of such a dynamic. Interculturality,
like inculturation, also builds on the conviction that the relationship
between faith and culture is possible. It invites us to
contemplate—on a more even ground, yet acknowledging particular
differences—the complex interchange among cultures
and the several appropriations of God's revealing presence in
those cultures. Interculturality intentionally safeguards the
"legitimate autonomy of culture,"12 repeatedly highlighted in
Gaudium et Spes,13 without necessarily turning it into an absolute
autonomy. Interculturality facilitates a creative dialogue that
can significantly enhance the evangelizing process.
The widespread and growing influence of secularism in societies,
West and East, is perhaps the most challenging cultural phenomenon
that contemporary evangelizers face. Reflections about
culture in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century addressed
the militant character of secularism as a tendency to exclude
God and religion from the life of women and men in society,
particularly in contexts where historically Christianity had
grown deep roots. Evangelii Nuntiandi, echoing the language of
the Second Vatican Council, spoke of secularism largely as an
ideology, "a concept of the world according to which the latter is
self-explanatory, without any need for recourse to God, who
thus becomes superfluous and an encumbrance."14 For most of
the modern period, the Church spoke of secularism as a threat
with very serious consequences for not only believers but the
whole society. But the language has shifted, acknowledging that
secularism is not only a threat but a condition: "We are
Christians living in a secularized world,"15 concluded the bishops
gathered at the 2012 synod. Christians lament this situation
highlighting that the dichotomy between the human and the
sacred, also expressed as "the split between Gospel and culture,"
16 fails to capture the fullness of human experience: faith
and life are inseparable. Christians cannot forfeit our responsibility
of sharing the Good News and remain silent: "Woe to me
if I do not preach the Gospel" (1 Corinthians 9:16); neither can
we ignore the questions and the challenges of our secularized
societies, which constantly make claims on the lives of believers
(Christians and others) and non-believers alike.
The New Evangelization is ultimately an invitation to
renew the "ardor, methods and expression"17 that will allow the
Church to be faithful to her vocation and successful in her mission
in the context of the secular age. This requires that
Christians boldly enter the "new areopaghi"18 ( that is, new
media, new scientific discoveries) with our voices and message.
This requires that we understand the dynamics of the secularized
culture and respectfully, yet with critical minds and artful
skill, engage what Pope Benedict XVI has called the Courtyards
of the Gentiles, "places to initiate a mutually enriching and culturally
stimulating encounter between Christians and those who
do not profess any religion but wish to approach God, at least as
something unknown in their lives."19 The rigorous and scientific
study of theology, particularly in the context of the Catholic
university, is important to address the questions
and challenges of secularism: "Scientific theology
has its own proper place in the university where it
must carry out dialogue between faith and the
other disciplines and the secular world."20 It is
heartening that the synod affirmed the importance
of the work of professional theologians and our
contributions to the New Evangelization. We dedicate
our lives and energy to engage the difficult
questions that emerge in the context of the secular
society and to help fellow believers to better understand
and articulate the core convictions of the
Christian faith. Hence the renewal of the invitation
to advance our work thinking and feeling "with
the Church (sentire cum Ecclesia)."21
This is even more significant considering
that during the last half-century, Catholic theological
voices have become increasingly diverse:
many more lay theologians, more women advancing
theological scholarship and teaching theology,
and a growing body of theological scholars from
different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This
diversity places academic theology in a unique position to model
conversations about emerging and challenging questions formulated
in the context of our diverse and complex culture(s). Such
experience can only enrich the Church's evangelizing efforts.
From the beginning, Christianity has been a culturally diverse
experience: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations"
(Matthew 28:19). Responses to cultural diversity have varied
throughout the centuries. On occasion, cultural diversity has
been resisted, sometimes misunderstood or ignored, but more
often than not, it has been intentionally embraced. This we have
learned from centuries of missionary activity, locally and globally.
Regardless of how Christian evangelizers look at cultural
diversity, it is crucial to recognize that this is the de facto condition
within which the Christian community exists in history.
Contemporary reflections about global Catholicism have raised
a renewed awareness about this dynamic in the life of the
Church.22 Of particular attention are the special assemblies of
the Synods of Bishops of the various continents around the time
of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000 and the apostolic exhortations
emerging from these gatherings.23 These assemblies provided
Catholics with a unique opportunity to contemplate the
beauty of cultural diversity in the Church around the world.
Time spent studying these documents is worthwhile. Nearly half
of all Catholics in the world live in the American continents,
primarily in Latin America. The Church is growing at a very fast
pace in Asia and Africa. Cultural diversity has definitely been a
central characteristic of the Church in Oceania. The Catholic
experience in Europe and North America is increasingly being
sustained and transformed by immigrants from various parts of
the world—a breath of fresh air in largely secularized societies.
After reading the documents leading to the latest synod and the
propositions emerging from it, one wishes that they had been
more explicit and affirming regarding cultural diversity. This is
certainly an area that deserves further exploration. Cultural
diversity is both a reason to recognize that the Spirit continues
to engender the life of God among us and an opportunity to
embrace new ways of being Church.
As the Church strengthens her roots in the many cultural
contexts in which she proclaims the Gospel, we must expect new
questions, possibilities, and, of course, new challenges. This is
even more obvious as we witness rapid changes in our societies
and cultures, thanks to contemporary globalization. Cultural
diversity, then, impels evangelizers to engage these new realities
with creativity and renewed zeal. Even in those contexts in
which Catholicism has been present for centuries, contexts in
which it could be assumed that there is already a well-defined
way of being Church, it is important to pay attention to the various
dynamics of culture that shape lives and how people enter
into relationship with God. Whether those ways of being
Catholic are transformed by the regular development of local
cultures (keep in mind that culture is never a static reality) or
the influence of external forces and voices (for example, immigration,
literature, and media), one conviction remains true: culture
These thoughts together serve as an introduction to more
focused analyses about the New Evangelization in culturally
diverse contexts. For Catholics in the United States, it is clear
that this conversation is to take place acknowledging the major
demographic and cultural transformations amidst which we
welcomed the twenty-first century. Without a doubt, cultural
diversity is a major characteristic of the U.S. Catholic experience.
And it is in light of this diversity, that we welcome the invitation
to reflect on our identity and mission as evangelizers. The next
step is to explore how the various voices that constitute the
polyphony we call U.S. Catholicism challenge and advance the
idea of a New Evangelization.
- Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, On Evangelization in the Modern World (1975), 18.
- Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, On the Church in the
Modern World (1965), 53. Note: non-inclusive language is part of the
- See Evangelii Nuntiandi, 40.
- Ibid., 20.
- See ibid. This recognition is also an echo of Gaudium et Spes's
dynamic understanding of culture. See Gaudium et Spes, 53.
- See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Harvard University Press, 2007).
- At the time of writing this essay, the apostolic exhortation that customarily
follows ordinary synods has not been issued. However, Pope
Benedict XVI allowed that the fifty-eight propositions approved at the
last synod be shared before the writing of such document. They will
certainly inform his post-synodal exhortation and, as usual, will not
deviate significantly from what was approved by the participant bishops.
These propositions provide us with a good sense of the spirit of the
Synod on the New Evangelization and the reflections emerging from
this gathering. They build upon the various conversations among synod
participants and the more elaborate documents that helped to prepare
and guide the gathering. See Synod of Bishops, XIII Ordinary General
Assembly, The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian
Faith: Lineamenta (2011); Instrumentum Laboris (2012). The language
and insights in these documents, along with some that preceded them
on the same topic, will continue to shape major conversations about
evangelization in the near future.
- John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, On the Permanent Validity of the
Church's Missionary Mandate (1990), 52.
- For a classic typology of the relationship between faith and culture
see H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row,
- Bulletin of the Synod of Bishops, XIII Ordinary General Assembly,
The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith,
Proposition 5. All fifty-eight propositions approved at the end of the
synod are available online at www.vatican.va. The translation of these
propositions is not official.
- See Orlando Espín, "Intercultural Thought." In An Introductory
Dictionary of Theology and Religious Studies, edited by Orlando O.
Espín and James B. Nickoloff (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press,
- See Gaudium et Spes, 58; Evangelii Nuntiandi, 55.
- Gaudium et Spes suggests that the legitimacy of culture is intimately
related to its appropriate development. See 56–59.
- Evangelii Nuntiandi, 55.
- Propositions 8 and 13.
- Evangelii Nuntiandi, 20.
- See Instrumentum Laboris, 45.
- Ibid., 62.
- Lineamenta, 19; Instrumentum Laboris, 54; Proposition 55.
- Proposition 30.
- See for instance John L. Allen, The Future Church: How Ten Trends
Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday 2009).
- Ecclesia in Africa (1995), Ecclesia in America (1999), Ecclesia in Asia (1999), Ecclesia in Oceania (2001), Ecclesia in Europa (2003); all available
online at www.vatican.va.