Being Witnesses of Faith


Given at the Joint Committee Meeting CCEE/CEC on 9th March 2018

The topic of the Catholic understanding of evangelisation is vast, and I have only a little time in which to present some aspects of that understanding. 

I begin with two simple yet foundational statements. One comes from the document Evangelii Nuntiandi, written by Pope Paul VI and published in December 1975. It states ‘Evangelisation refers to the mission of the Church in its entirety – to bring the Good News into all areas of humanity and through its impact to transform that humanity from within, making it new.’ 

The second is a statement to me made by a Heathrow Airport worker recently: ‘Your Pope Francis takes on some difficult journeys’ he said, adding, ‘He teaches us all by what he does, by his actions!’ 

The first of these statements points to our classic understanding, almost timeless in its truth. The second refers to the current situation, the context in which we live out that truth today. 

Perhaps I should start by looking a little more closely at the cultural setting in which we strive to fulfil our mission. Obviously, my comments are shaped largely by my experience in the United Kingdom, but trends are shared across many democratic societies. 

Pope Francis describes those cultural trends in this way: ‘The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakening of the sense of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism. These have led to a general sense of disorientation, especially in the periods of adolescence and young adulthood, which are so vulnerable to change. As the Bishops of the United States of America have rightly pointed out, while the Church insists on the existence of objective moral norms, which are valid for everyone, “there are those in our culture who portray this teaching as unjust, that is, as opposed to basic human rights. Such claims usually follow from a form of moral relativism that is joined, not without inconsistency, to a belief in the absolute rights of individuals. In this view, the Church is perceived as promoting a particular prejudice and as interfering with individual freedom”. [59]. We are living in an information-driven society which bombards us indiscriminately with data – all treated as being of equal importance – and which leads to remarkable superficiality in the area of moral discernment. In response, we need to provide an education which teaches critical thinking and encourages the development of mature moral values.’ (Evangelii Gaudium  64). 

I am sure we can all offer examples of the effects of these factors on our attempts to present our faith and its teachings. One sharp example was given, in conversation, by the Archbishop of Canterbury on his participation in the debate, in the British House of Lords, on same-sex marriage. He said that he presented all the rational and logical arguments about the nature of marriage and of human sexuality. In that much exalted debating chamber they were completely ignored and, indeed, considered more or less irrelevant. There is, then, a kind of deafness to arguments based on a full understanding of reason, rather than the reductionist and positivist understanding of reasoning as always and only ‘evidence based’. In this way, the quest for truth is severely hampered in public debate. 

I could offer similar comments on the ways in which the practice of goodness has been detached from its origins in the goodness of the Creator and increasingly I notice that the same is happening to the notion of beauty. The current series of programmes on British television called ‘Civilisations’ lacks the confidence to offer any objective criteria or principles by which beauty is to be approached. Classical Greek portrayals of the human form are criticised for offending people who are fat. 

Where do we go? 

Evangelii Nuntiandi offers this starting point: ‘The first means of evangelisation is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and given to one’s neighbour with limitless zeal’ (EN 41). This is precisely confirmed by the worker at Heathrow Airport! Personal integrity and as much transparency as is possible are the characteristics that open the doors of the heart. They are the essential pre-requisites of evangelisation, which can no longer depend on social standing or patterns of authority. Cuius regio eius religio  has long had its day.                         

This same document of Pope Paul VI unfolds the richness of ways in which the Gospel is to be unfolded in our times. These aspects of evangelisation include the witness of life and the building of relationships, which help to establish the trust that is essential for a pathway of conversion to Christ to open up. They also include the first and explicit proclamation of the person of Jesus: in preaching, in social media, in personal discussion. They also open up, or indeed even begin with, the experience of community, in catechesis, the celebration of sacraments and in outreach to those most in need. Each of these dimensions, in a Catholic understanding, is a starting point, or a staging post, for the continual proclamation of the Gospel as the core mission of the Church. It is a ‘circular model’ of evangelisation, not a linear one. We have to engage with these inter-related facets of evangelisation with ‘all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind’ (cf Mt 22.37), using modern means and great imagination. 

There are two dimensions of this understanding of evangelisation that I would like to point to, again rather briefly. 

The first is its deepest motivation. The desire in the heart of the evangeliser must be as pure as possible. I commented recently that it is the Ascension of the Lord that is the powerhouse of evangelisation because in that moment we are given a sense of purpose and hope, not just for ourselves but for the whole of humanity. This is the vision and the power that motivates evangelisation. 

Pope Francis expresses the motivation of all evangelisation thus: ‘Faith does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time. Without a love, which is trustworthy, nothing could truly keep men and women united. Human unity would be conceivable only on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear, but not on the goodness of living together, not on the joy which the

mere presence of others can give. Faith makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes a service to the common good. Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope’ (Lumen Fidei 51). 

In another place he expresses the same point in this way: ‘An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family, which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters’ (EG 151). 

This love for humanity, for the unity of our human family, for the overcoming of fear, for the service of the common good is also to be found in the hearts of many people today, no matter their faith or approach to life. Indeed, in my experience, these desires are commonly found, especially among the young. People, if I may generalise, genuinely want to do good. They care for justice. They are concerned about the poor and the destitute. They are conscious of the threats to our environment and they are appalled at the consequences of war. The call of faith, in this respect, is not falling on stony ground. Rather it finds an echo in the hearts of many. What they do not readily grasp is the relationship between their natural instincts and desires and the world of faith. A gulf has opened up which has to be bridged. It is for us to demonstrate the continuity between their own natural goodness and the goodness that flows in the life of the disciple, which they admire. Here the announcement of the Gospel can indeed be good news for it can open for many the crucial axiom that ‘grace builds on nature’, that the Gospel is a call to the fullness of those instincts for goodness, peace and unity. The Gospel is our fulfilment. Only then, I sense, will there also be an understanding of the discontinuity between grace and fallen human nature: the call to conversion of life and the openness to the transforming power of grace, given in the person of Jesus. As Pope Benedict said ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’ (Deus Caritas Est  1). 

This, then, brings me to the second dimension of evangelisation, which I wish to consider: that of dialogue. 

The relationship between the secular world and the world of faith should always be that of dialogue. The context of our proclamation of the Word should lead us to, or grow out of, a dialogue with those to whom we reach out, or who stand beside us. Only in the context of such dialogue will the mission of the Church find its firm footing, the basis on which it can walk, a journey which will take us beyond dialogue, but which cannot be undertaken without this willingness. 

Here, too, the reflection of the Church is of richness and assistance. One of the richest documents of the Church in this area is called Dialogue and Proclamation. It was published in May 1991 and lays out not only the nature of proclamation but also the dimensions of dialogue. While it was written in the context of dialogue with other religions, it seems to me to have wider application in our secularised society. 

It states that proclamation is ‘the communication of the Gospel message, the mystery of salvation realised by God for all in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit’. It is ‘an invitation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ and to entry through baptism into the community of believers which is the Church’ (Dialogue and Proclamation 10). Then it goes on to relate this task of proclamation to the duties and demands of dialogue. First, the dialogue of life, in which we are called to a sharing of joys and sorrows, problems and challenges with those around us. Then there is the dialogue of action, all that we do together, and should do together, for the integral development and liberation of people. Thirdly, there is the dialogue of theological exchange, to which I add philosophical exchange, in which ‘the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief should not be afraid to enter into a profound and ongoing dialogue for the good of our civilisation’ (Pope Benedict, Westminster Hall, September 2010). Then, fourthly and crucially, there is the dialogue by which spiritual riches are shared, leading to a profound spiritual dialogue about how to live each day consciously in the presence of God. 

These then, I suggest, are some of the outlines of a Catholic approach to evangelisation in the world today. They are no more than a sketch. But there is one ‘tone’ or ‘colour’ that I believe should rinse through all these considerations and every aspect of evangelisation. It is this. 

Many attempts have been made by the Catholic Church to renew or reignite the appeal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. One has been outstanding in its impact. It was the Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis for the year 2015-2016. Somehow, this touched the hearts of millions of people, way beyond the Catholic community, beyond the communities of Christians. The priority given to the proclamation of the mercy of God, made visible in Jesus, became a powerful invitation to many to look again at their lives and to recognise their desire for mercy, for compassion, for forgiveness, for healing and for a new start. This, to me, is the open door. It discloses some of the most radical needs of people today. It is such a human and divine starting point. Yet there is one key element that cannot be ignored. At the very start of his ministry, Pope Francis put it like this: Only those who know the caress of the mercy of Jesus themselves are able to speak of it to others. He knows that we can proclaim the Lord only out of our weakness, never out of our human strength. Only then can we say that between the one true God and the various gods whom people seek out and submit to today there is no comparison. As the Prophet Micah said:  ‘What God can compare with you: taking faults away, pardoning crime, not cherishing anger for ever, but delighting in showing mercy’ (Micah 7.18). 

It is our joy to proclaim his love and his mercy in all we do and say.