Opening address at the new evangelisation symposium

As we all know, the previous pope was a true media man. He had a sensitivity for it. The current pope is more of a professor, who can formulate things very precisely. John Paul, on the other hand, had a lot of feeling for the form. He was sensitive to how a few words or a gesture can clarify a message for a broad audience. A reporter once asked him “Holy Father, can you summarise the mission statement of the Church in one sentence?” John Paul then said, “I can do so in one word: salvation.” It is both beautiful and mediagenic how he was able to reduce the mission of the entire Church to one word: salvation.

The most important task of the Church, our most important task, our most important message is: salvation! Everything else is derived from it or is done to convey that message of salvation. Evangelisation and new evangelisation – the topic we are discussing now – also have the goal to explain that the faith in Jesus Christ is the way towards salvation.

In the letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, written by John Paul in 1994* as a preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000, he has expressly explained that once more: “Christ, the Redeemer of the world, is the one Mediator between God and men, and there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved”.

Christ is the redeemer. He is our man! That is the message that we, as Church, must continue to bring into the spotlight. Of course that is a simplification. A complete theological basis should accompany it. And you can think of all sorts of question related to it. But totally reduced to the core, this is what it is about. So when we speak about evangelisation it is good to know from the start what message we want to communicate: that of salvation!

This can then be developed in all kinds of ways. You could mention the pillars of the Church: learning, celebrating, serving. You could name the tasks of the priest: shepherd, manager, teacher. You could discuss faith, hope and love. Or caritas, confidence, the relation between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or Mary. It is all part of it. But in the end it all comes down to that single word: salvation.

This  immediately brings us to the heart of the problem that the Church – and all great ideological systems for that matter – in the west has. For when our answer is salvation, the question that modern people from western Europe immediately ask is, “what is it that I should be saved from?” When you have everything: a house, a job, nice possessions, two holidays a year, a nice circle of family and friends, good health – and if not, good doctors to help you.

When you don’t need to starve, when you havent have to live through a war in the past 70 years, like we in western Europe; when totalitarian systems belong to the past, such as in eastern Europe: what is it you need saving from? What’s more, there is a significant group of people who think, through the developments in the 1960s and 70s, that they have been saved from the Church. They see the secularisation of society not as an impoverishment, but as a liberation.

And there are many reasons for that as well. The Church has indeed made mistakes in the past. In certain times of history the hold of the Church on society as a whole and on the personal lives of people was exceedingly great and for certain people oppressive. We can’t deny that.

I experienced some of that time. Although I personally never considered it negatively, I do understand that there are people who experienced that time as oppressive and binding. Form often superseded content.

It is good that the Second Vatican Council threw open the windows and let a fresh wind blow through the Church. Pope John XXIII’s aggiornamento set all sorts of thing into motion. That was something good.

But half a century has passed. I is good that, at the remembrance of 50 years of Vatican II we consider the question fo what happened to the good intentions and the spirit of the Council fathers? And how, in that context, we may understand and interpret the signs of our time in such a way that we can once again bring the message of salvation into the spotlight. Because that is what it is about and what it will continue to be about. For, as we have sung often in the Jubilee of 2000: Christ is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Our message as Church has been the same for 2,000 years. In his letter Novo Millennio Ineunte** from 2001 – so immediately at the start of the new millennium 0 ope John Paul II writes that we do not need to create a new program for the Church. It already exists, based on the Gospel and the living Tradition and focussed on Christ.

“This is a programme which does not change with shifts of times and cultures… This programme for all times is our programme for the Third Millennium,” John Paul writes in Novo Millennio Ineunte. But – as he continues –  “it must be translated into pastoral initiatives adapted to the circumstances of each community” [No. 29].

What we then should do, time and again, is to try and understand the signs of the times and interpret them in such that our Gospel message fits into it and connects with the people of that time. Novo Millennio Ineunte lists a number of important priorities for our new evangelisations. I will highlight some of them later. But first I want to emphasise something else.

The start of the third millennium is obviously not the first time that we as Church are confronted with the question of evangelisation. This need for evangelisation is as old as the Church herself. We can therefore look back to the start of the Church to find a format for a renewed proclamation of the Gospel.

That format exists and can be found in the Acts of the Apostles. It is an old text, but by no means outdated. Especially in our time, when many people have drifted away from God and the Church. Especially in a time in which the entire Christian life needs to be recalibrated, the Acts are enormously current. The Apostles who were gathered in the upper room and were there filled with the Holy Spirit and then went out full of fire to share te good news: that is, in fact, what we need to do as well.

I would therefore consider the book of Acts a road map for the future. A road map, not a blueprint. That is something else. A blueprint describes exactly what is to come, how something should go is already outlined. In the Church we don’t know that. We only know that we are underway with Christ. We are God’s people underway.

And there or more ways which can lead us to Him. Therefore not a blueprint, but a road map which indicates several ways to reach Christ. The book of Acts is a n important part of our road map for the next couple of years. It tells us how to start from nothing with proclaiming the message of salvation and slowly letting it grow.

The Apostles did not start in enormous cathedrals or basilicas, but in people’s homes, in small groups. They prayed together, broke the bread and shared everything together. From this small communities the Church grew and we have eventually become a worldwide faith community. Everywhere that the Church has been replanted in the centuries that followed – from Europe in Asia, in America, in Africa, in Oceania – everywhere it began in the same way: with missionaries who managed to enthuse small groups and let the new community grow from that.

If that is a tried and true recipe which has functioned well throughout the centuries, why would it not work like this today? For our agenda of evangelisation it means that we must also investigate how we can once more inspire small groups of enthusiastic and spirited faithful. Prayer groups, catechesis groups, youth groups, Bible study groups, you name it. There are such small Christian communities in all dioceses already. Some are officially managed and recognised by the Church and at international level. Others are very local or new. That does not matter. What is important is that this old tradition – of small groups of faithful who meet each other, pray together, encourage each other and share their faith – has not been lost en is even being reinvigorated.

What I think is very important in this, is that it does not become too clerical. I may sound odd to say that in a meeting with many seminarians. But I do mean it. We must take care that the new initiatives which develop in the basis, also grow in the basis. That we don’t clericise it too quickly. For if we want the faith to be broadly carried, to have a broader foundation, we must give the lay faithful the chance to take their responsibility. If a priest. deacon or someone else, formally on behalf of the Church, gets involved too quickly, there is the significant risk that people lean back and think that the Church will manage it herself, that we don’t have to do anything anymore. The consequence is often that the involvement decreased instead of grows.

I will give an example. A few years ago I travelled to Manado in Indonesia. This is a Catholic enclave in the country with the most Muslims in the world. And if there are Christian communities, these will often be Protestant. Not so Manado, which is predominantly Catholic. There is a surplus of priests there.

This may sound a little bit disrespectful, but there are so many priests that there really is no work for them. So what happens? Priests take on all sorts of tasks in the parishes and local communities which can very easily also be done by the laity. This is not a good development, because it smothers, as it were, every initiative which comes up from below.

Keeping the young Church in mind, we see that many new communities were founded by everyday people who united out of a personal inspiration around the Gospel. Sometimes a community was established by a man like Paul, but he would move on after some time and the faithful were the ones keeping the community going. Paul stayed in touch via his letters, but not with every community. Much was done by people on the spot. It takes root better that way.

We once had a situation as in Manado in the Netherlands as well. It would have been a bit less so in the north, but in the south – and certainly in this diocese – everything in the Church was done by priests, until some 40 or 50 years ago. Being church warden was an honour. Maybe there were a few volunteers taking care of the cemetery. But catechesis, preparation for Communion, marriage courses, even the caritas, health care and education, everything was managed by priests or religious.

What we have subsequently seen is that at the moment the priest is indisposed or called to attend to several parishes, many initiatives fall silent, since no one can take over. Finding volunteers for odd jobs around the church is not so difficult. But who is able to lead a prayer group? To do some catechesis? The parishioners are not to blame in this. As Church we have taken over so many things ourselves that no one spontaneously came with ideas.

Here in Limburg it was traditional for neighbours to gather in the house of a deceased person to pray the Rosary together. At some time we relocated this to the church and turned it into an evening wake. That became the new norm. Now that that is no longer feasible in every parish, no one suggests that you can also pray as neighbours together, without an official representative of the parish in attendance. This is a tradition which has to be reinvented. If that happens spontaneously somewhere, in God’s name, let it exist and grow. It may lead to something new altogether.

Now, I do know that a plea for more lay initiatives can also have a less than positive side. It can lead to strange excesses. Of course I do not want that. We are a sacramental Church and new experiments must be aimed at a regular reception of the sacraments. Clearly and unequivocally. There can be no misunderstanding about it. But that certainly does not mean that there is no room for new forms of – let’s call it – house churches, as they existed in the young Church.

Lay faithful have their own vocation and their own responsibility within the Church. Since the Second Vatican Council various documents have confirmed and supported this time and again. And if we want attempts at evangelisation to take root we must also give them the chance to grow and not weed out every plant that raises its head above ground. Of course sometimes something will raise up which is less fruitful. Bit if it doesn’t come from the Spirit, it will disappear by itself again. We should not be afraid of that at all.

In Novo Millennio Ineunte, John Paul spoke about “a true “springtime of the Spirit”” [No. 46]. We must not fear to let new shoots grow from the old stem of the Church. “Test everything and hold on to what is good,” Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:21).

The Acts of the Apostles are an important part of our road map for the future evangelisation. Other important element for our road map are found in the Apostolic Letter Novo Millenniu Ineunte, from which I have quoted several times already.

Why is that letter so important? Because the previous pope gives a very clear summation in it of the various areas upon which we as Church must focus in the coming years. We’re nt talking about the coming five or six years, but about a period of thirty or forty years. The letter Novo Millennio Ineunte is dated on 6 January 2001. The euphoria of the great Jubilee still resounded somewhat, but the pope nonetheless already clearly envisions that the Church must proceed in the third millennium and that this will not happen by itself.

That needs work. Concrete things need to be done. He provides a full list of those things. I won’t discuss them all, but you can read them for yourselves. But I do want to mention a few important ones, because they can also be of value for the new evangelisation.

In the first place there is the life of prayer. I started my discourse with the word salvation and the sense of many people today that they don’t need to be saved from anything. That sense is justified in a certain way. We don’t need to be saved. We have already been saved by Christ. Through His resurrection he defeated death, He showed that good is stronger than evil. He also said, “I am with you always; yes, to the end of time” (Matt. 28:20). For us that creates the possibility to enter into an intensely personal relationship with God, with Christ.

We maintain this contact – to call it that – through prayer. Personal prayer, silent prayer, standard prayer or prayer groups. “[O]ur Christian communities must become genuine “schools” of prayer,” Novo Millennio Ineunte says [No.33]. Exactly what the house churches were in the early Church.

There is a need for that too. You can see it in the many candles that are lit everywhere. Also by people who are rare churchgoers. On certain moments they do want to let that candle burn. They often no longer have words to pray and a candle is then their form of prayer. Small communities which pray together can help to rediscover those words or perhaps think of new words.

I once asked a bishop from Korea how the Church can survive in a totally secularised country like his. His answer was, “Because we didn’t have priests for 200 years. The faithful learnt to pray themselves.” The faith survived in prayer. New evangelisation therefore needs prayer. The high point of a life of prayer is, of course, the Eucharist. But the Liturgy of the Hours could also be given much more attention in parishes or small faith communities, as a way for people to get into contact with the ancient texts of the Psalms through the beauty of prayer.

In line with this we, as Catholic Church, have rediscovered, as it were, Holy Scripture since Vatican II. It s enormously exciting to read, dissect and interpret the stories. From this a lively form of catechesis, both for young people and adults, can grow. Our time is very visually minded. That may seem new, but it is in fact very old. The numerous paintings and stained glass windows depicting Biblical scenes in our churches were not only intended as decoration. They were also supposed to visualise the stories for people. Much of that art still exists and why not use them to bring the stories to life anew?

Another important area which is mentioned in Novo Millennio Ineunte – and certainly an important stop on our road map for the new evangelisation – is the pastoral care of families. What is expected of us is that we provide very basic handholds to parents and grandparents to communicate the faith to their children or grandchildren. I sometimes feel that we are sometimes think we are looking too far ahead in the pastoral care for families and immediately want to solve all problems that exist in relation with broken families and such. What if we just start at the beginning and give parents guidelines on how they can even speak about the faith with their children, how they can teach their children a prayer. By now, an entire generation of parents has grown up which may want to do that, but no longer can, because they no longer know the words. Sharing these anew is also evangelisation. Families in which the faith has a permanent place are in turn the best breeding grounds for new vocations.

As a final concrete point of attention for a new evangelisation I want to mention love and charity. Also in the young Church, caritas was one of the most important pillars under the new faith communities. Faith communication and concrete aid are often not even separate in mission countries. In our time, when there are many quiet forms of poverty, we can give hands and feet – literally – to the Gospel by giving concrete aid. That does not only need to be of a material nature. Attention and a listening ear sometimes means much more than material support for people. Loneliness, despair, addictions of all kinds, social discrimination are developments that we could call new poverty. The right pastoral or charitable care can here show how the Gospel can be put into practice. It also assures that the Gospel is not limited to words alone, but can be turned into actions.

I am wrapping up. For me, new evangelisation means to bring to attention what matters in our faith: the salvation through Christ. The Acts of the Apostles and the Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte are, as far as I am concerned important elements to draw the road map of the Church for the coming decades.

There is one aspect which I may not have mentioned enough: confidence in the Holy Spirit. At the first Pentecost Christ let the Holy Spirit come over the faith community of the time. That Spirit still works in us. We can have the confidence that all our efforts are not for nothing, but are supported, even guided, by the Spirit.

I am aware that priests in parishes at this time are in a balancing act. The balance between shepherding the old, often fatigued, flock which grows even older en more fatigued, and at the same time finding possibilities to create new enthusiasm. Sometimes these are even in each other’s way. But a bridge has supports on both banks, as modern politics tell us. Holding on to both banks in our parishes requires an enormous effort; the bank with the old and familiar popular Church and, on the other side, the new bank with new possibilities.

Do not let the bridge in between collapse! Both banks have  valuable elements on them. If the Spirit leads us, He will also give us the means to maintain the connection between both banks. That is why we certainly should not despair. Yes, there are many problems in our Church. And yes, we are not always very popular. But that does not relieve us from the obligation to keep proclaiming the message of salvation.

Adapted in form to the signs of the times, but in its heart no different than on the very first day of Pentecost, when Peter spoke and gave a powerful speech. When he was dine, people said, “What are we to do?” Peter’s answer was, “You must repent!” (Acts 2:38). This is often interpreted as very pious and good, but it means nothing less than “turn around”. Focus your life on Christ.

That is in fact what we should do in all our evangelisation: to urge  people to graft their lives on Christ. Sometimes you have to literally call it that. Sometimes you shouldn’t say anything about it, but just exemplify it. We have a beautiful message! We know where we want to go. We have a road map and we have the Holy Spirit for a GPS. We are ready to go!

+ Frans Wiertz
Bishop of Roermond

*The bishop apparently mixed up his dates and titles. Novo Millennio Ineunte was an Apostolic Letter released in 2001. The 1994 document is Tertio Millennio Adveniente. It is this latter document that Bishop Wiertz quotes from (No. 4).

** Here Bishop Wiertz does name the document correctly.

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