What is evangelization, who is called to be part of it, and what wisdom does Saint Augustine offer us? This series reflects on the New Evangelization and Augustinian Spirituality.
Some Sobering Statistics
According to Brandon Vogt, author of the book Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church, for every one person who enters the Catholic Church, approximately 6.5 people leave.. Vogt quotes research which indicates the majority (68%) left because their spiritual needs were not met.. However, Vogt offers hope. He goes on to claim almost 70% of those currently unaffiliated with the Church still believe in “God or a universal spirit.”.
So with all these people likely to leave the Church this year, why are we still here? Is there something we have found or experienced that others haven’t?
Is there a way to help the unaffiliated find what WE have found?
This is the question I posit we should all be asking each and every day of our journey as disciples, for we have all been given the call to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20).
At the Ascension, Jesus instructed his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and to teach them to observe all that he had “commanded them” (Mt. 28:19-20). With this commission the early Church began to spread through the missionary activity of Christians traveling throughout the Mediterranean region. Nearly two thousand years later, in 1965 the Church issued Ad Gentes in which affirmed that she still has a “gigantic missionary task” to accomplish.
In 2013, Pope Francis issued Evangelii Gaudium through which he encourages all Christians to embark upon a “new chapter” of evangelization. A “new chapter” that points out “new paths” for the Church’s journey to come. Pope Francis names this missionary task “paradigmatic” of all Church activity in that this missionary impulse must pervade all aspects of Church life and ministry (emphasis added).
Pope Francis emphasizes that every Christian is a “missionary disciple” to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus. Every Christian is therefore called to find ways to communicate Jesus wherever they are. The Pope asks us to consider the first disciples who immediately went forth to proclaim they have found the Messiah after encountering the gaze of Jesus (Jn 1:41). Similarly, the Samarian woman became a missionary immediately after speaking with Jesus as many Samaritans came to believe in Him (Jn. 4:39). The essential foundation of evangelization is therefore the “unceasing interplay” of the Gospel and concrete life, both personal and social. It encompasses all dimensions, all individuals, all areas of community life, and all people. As the Pope says, “nothing is alien to it.”
Thus, the Second Vatican Council and current Code of Canon Law affirms all Christians are called to share in the three-fold office of Christ as Priest, Prophet, and King. Those incorporated in Christ through Baptism are called to exercise their priestly, prophetic, and royal calling in “accord with the condition proper to each.” How any one Christian shares in the Priestly, Prophetic, and Royal office of Christ is unique by virtue of the specific gifts, talents, and state of life they find themselves in.
Saint Augustine offers an additional perspective for us to consider:
“What you procure for yourself you must also obtain for your neighbor, so that he may also love God with a perfect love. You do not love your neighbor as yourself unless you try to lead him to the same good towards which you are striving. It is a question of a good which does not grow smaller because everybody is searching for it with you.”Saint Augustine (On the Customs of the Catholic Church, 49)
In other words, whatever hope we have that draws us to our faith, we should be eager to share with others. For at the end of the day, we are all (whether we are aware of it or not), searching for God.
“You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”Saint Augustine (The Confessions, I, 1).
In 1965, the Church would later affirm this principle in Nostra Aetate which provides teaching on the Church’s relationship with non-Christian religions:
One is the community of all peoples, one their origin, for God made the whole human race to live over the face of the earth. One also is their final goal, God. His providence, His manifestations of goodness, His saving design extend to all men, until that time when the elect will be united in the Holy City, the city ablaze with the glory of God, where the nations will walk in His light.Nostra Aetate, no. 1.
Saint Augustine has a lot to teach us about how to discern and live our calling to respond to our calling to be priests, prophets, and kings in the modern world. He lived in a time not unlike our own. The Christian message was often rejected and there were many injustices very sillier to today: systemic poverty, mistreatment of immigrants, and unjust incarceration practices to name a few.
Before his conversion to Christianity, Augustine was a rhetorician, teacher, and widely respected public speaker and these skills became part of his journey following his conversion to Catholicism at the age of 30, especially as he later became a preacher when he was ordained a Priest and then Bishop. Consequently, Augustine became one of the most prolific writers in Christian history, known for his excellence in communicating complex theological truths in a way that was understandable and relatable to the questions and issues of his time. He has inspired countless others, including several Augustinian Saints and Blesseds to share their gifts in the work of evangelization as well.
From Augustine and the Church of today (e.g., Ad Gentes and Evangelii Gaudium) we are challenged to discern how God wants to use our own gifts for the great task of evangelization that we are all called to.