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.
Five Paths of Encounter for Evangelization
In Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church, Brandon Vogt quotes research that says for every one person who enters the Roman Catholic Church, approximately 6.5 leave. Why are they leaving? 68% say they left because their spiritual needs were not met. This means almost 70% left not because they necessarily disagree with the existence of God or even the views of the Church. They left because they do not see the relevance of the Church to their life. They are not seeing how religion matters. They are therefore simply disengaging.
However, Vogt offers us some hope. 70% of those currently unaffiliated with the Church still believe in a higher power. In 2019, Bishop Robert Barron, who chairs the USCCB Committee on Evangelization, presented five pathways to encounter those who have left. These are credible since they based on not on hypothesis but conversations the committee has had with those who have left. These pathways are Justice, Beauty, Intellect, Mission, and New Media. Below I briefly expand on these five paths from an Augustinian perspective and invite dialogue on ways that Augustinian Spirituality may inform how to implement these five paths into our existing ministries.
In The Meaning Revolution, Fred Kofman references the work of the famous psychologist Abraham Maslow who claimed that once our basic needs for survival and security are met (such as food, water, shelter, etc), our highest desire is to feel that our lives matter and that we can make a difference by contributing to making the world a better place for those around us and those who will come after us. Catholic Social Teaching can therefore be a good starting point for demonstrating the relevance of the Catholic faith to the life of those away from the Church.
While many may not agree on all of the Church’s teachings on the topics and issues of our day, we can generally agree that issues such as systemic poverty or inequality are not something that society as a whole can settle on. We can therefore unite with those outside the Church on works of justice and peace. This could be an avenue for those who otherwise wouldn’t engage in any activity with “religious people.”
Are there opportunities to attract new audiences by adding “service” projects onto activities we are already doing, such as Adoration or Mass or non-denominational prayer services?
The Augustinians created a page dedicated to the many ways that Augustinians are devoted to works of Justice and Peace for this very purpose. To provide additional avenues through which people can discover how the Augustinians are engaged in the issues of our day which impact all of us and how the life witness of Saint Augustine influences that engagement.
One of the wonderful aspects of my ministry at the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia is the fact that it is filled with so much beauty. I myself am more of a “left brain” than a “right brain” oriented person and can draw little other than a stick figure. However, the Shrine is so beautiful it even attracts the eyes of someone like myself who is more likely to notice algorithms before colors. I never get tired of contemplating the beautiful aspects of our faith presented in the murals, paintings, stained glass windows, statues, and architecture of the Shrine. I could write a hundred homilies on one stained glass window alone because it reveals so many different aspects of our faith journey. I often tell people working at the Shrine is like working next to an ocean or mountain range, it never gets old to look at.
One day someone stopped into the Shrine as I was walking through the pews to collect old bulletins that had been left behind. Seeing me in my habit he approached. He said, “Man, I just want you to know I’m an atheist, but I love the artwork in this place. Can you take a few minutes and talk to me about some of the art here?” We ended up talking for over an hour simply because I both happened to be in the right place at the right time with something that caught his attention. I have no idea what impact that conversation had on him. However, if I was a gambler I would bet that if I had 10 encounters with 10 different atheist artists, at least one would respond in some fashion to the story of peacemaking and hope that I was able to tell that day through the life of Saint Rita illustrated throughout the Shrine.
How do we become more “available” to encounter atheists, agnostics, and the otherwise unaffiliated through the artwork and other aspects of beauty so prevalent in the many dimensions of our faith?
One of the characteristics of Generation Z is that their lifelong relationship with technology has enabled them to be highly inquisitive and to desire dialogue about the issues of our day. Any attempt to water down the faith would be a turn off and a potential end to the discussion/relationship. This has led me to believe that the worst thing we can do in our current age with respect to evangelization is to stop talking about the issues of our day. If we are not dialoguing about the issues that Generation Z is concerned with, they will not be engaged at all.
Generation Z is the first generation that has members who literally do not know what a Church is. One of my ministries at the Shrine is to spend time each week standing outside the main entrance in my habit to greet people as they walk by busy Broad Street. I have had lots of very good conversations, many of them that went very deep. One young person stopped and asked me what this building was. I told him it was a Church. He asked, “what is that?” (I am glad that I didn’t say a shrine because he probably would have been even more confused).
I had two ways I could have answered his question. I could have explained that it is a place where people who are older than him come to pray (since I’m yet to see a large group of Gen Z members consistently attend one of our Masses other than on a small occasion). Or I could have explained that it is a place where people come to pray for and talk about an end to the violence in our city or an end to poverty, or for more unity in our country. Perhaps the second would have incorporated at least the first path (Justice) if not also the second path (Beauty) that Bishop Barron identifies for us.
This is exactly what Augustine did. Any library that attempts to capture all his works is filled with letters he addressed to various people from individuals to government offices. In these letters he explains the relevance of our faith to the issues of his day, many of which are issues that still exist in our own time! One such issue is systemic poverty. I’m told one would be hard pressed to find a homily or letter where Augustine was not addressing in some way the Christian duty to care for the poor. Augustine never ran from the issues of his day. Through his intercession he can aid us in avoiding that same temptation today. He is especially powerful in helping us understand how to do this with sensitive issues in a way that attracts rather than repels.
Clearly, it is not by harshness or by severity, or by overbearing methods, that social evils are removed. It is by education rather than by formal commands, by persuasion rather than by threats. This is the way to deal with people in general. Severity, however, should be employed only against the sins of the few.Saint Augustine (Letter 22, 5).
Augustine clearly has a lot to teach us about how to relate the richness of our faith to the minds and hearts of people today.
Are there opportunities to “re-cultivate” a sense of mission among the members of the faithful to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19-20)? The first goal of evangelization created by the Bishops in 1995 is to first renew within. How is the world going to get to know us through the doors of justice, beauty, and the intellect if those who are aware of those things are not going out and sharing them with those who otherwise wouldn’t discover them?
This could be one way for the faithful to unite across various levels of involvement and spiritual maturity around the one need all people share in common: the need to create a better world around us. I am yet to meet an active member of the faithful who doesn’t desire for the now empty pews to be full again. Are those who are sitting in the pews willing to get up and go out and use the tools the Church has given us to invite others to fill the empty pews?
Saint Augustine linked this duty directly to the dual commandment to love God and neighbor:
We truly love our neighbor as ourselves when, according to our ability, we lead him to a similar love of God.Saint Augustine (Letter 130:14)
The faithful today might be more compelled to do so if we talk about mission throughout the year rather than just on the Feast of the Ascension. They might if it is built into the mission and vision statement of the Church. They might if the mission and vision statement of the Church is placed in a prominent location throughout the building, is frequently referenced in homilies, and promoted through social media. Otherwise the old adage applies, “out of sight, out of mind.”
The faithful might also become more engaged in evangelization if the Church gave them the training and catechesis needed to do so. This is the heart of the USCCB’s decision to make “renewal within” the first goal of evangelization.
Generation Z is a hyper-connected generation. The Internet they are continually plugged into is filled with so much bad and harmful content and it is directly linked to the mental health crisis. In an age where algorithms and “big money” determine which content we do and do not get to see as we conduct internet searches and scroll through social media feeds has left this generation skeptical of anyone who claims to have “truth.” How does the Church break through this skepticism as she proclaims the Truth of Jesus Christ?
I argue the Church can respond by filling the internet with good things.
Augustine, as one of the most prolific writers in Christian history, filled the media of his day (books, letters, etc) with content. Yet he did not just create a massive amount of content. As a rhetorician he continually used various methods of presenting the deep truths of our faith in ways that were relevant to the people he was addressing. He tailored his communication in a way that would reach not only the eyes, but also the mind and the heart of his audience.
As Augustine would say, we must not stop at simply teaching people. We must also delight them through the way we communicate those teachings. Then, and only then, do we have hope of moving them to action.
Now just as the listener needs to be delighted if you are to hold his attention and keep him listening, so he needs to be swayed, if you are to move him to act. And just as he is delighted if you speak agreeably, so in the same way he is swayed if he loves what you promise him …”De Doctrina Christiana, 12, 27.
How do we help the unaffiliated who will likely only discover us through social media come to “love” what our faith promises them?
Is the content we are producing about Augustine and his relevance for today “heady” or is it relatable to the real-life circumstances of people today? Are we taking the four other pathways of justice, beauty, intellect, and mission into account in our social media posts? Are we sharing samples of the beautiful artwork to attract the eyes of those who otherwise wouldn’t see it? Are we moving beyond the abstraction of the artwork to the mind by communicating how that artwork relates to the issues of our day? Are we moving to the heart by summoning people who understand the relevance of the Church to the issues of the day to join us in a mission of creating justice or sharing the good news with others? Does the signage in our Church building accomplish the same?
In A Time for Hope: Fundamentals for a Renewal of Augustinian Religious Life after the Coronavirus, the Institute of Augustinian Spirituality has this to say:
“From the so-called ‘digital generation’ we move on to the age of integration for all. From being an instrument used by a few, to widespread use. Obviously, we need to learn. In the same way that we learned how to use the internet, now it is necessary to take it a step further. This is a challenge for the immediate future. Failure to address the use of new technologies will mean being ‘disconnected,’ losing apostolic effectiveness.”Institute of Augustinian Spirituality, A Time for Hope: Fundamentals for a Renewal of Augustinian Religious Life after the Coronavirus (Rome: 2020), 2.4.1.
AugustinianSpirituality.org and many of the other sites listed on its resource page attempt to reach specific audiences and relate the richness of our faith in new ways.
 Brandon Vogt, 20
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 31.
 Fred Kofman, The Meaning Revolution: The Power of Transcendent Leadership (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 15.
 Institute of Augustinian Spirituality, A Time for Hope: Fundamentals for a Renewal of Augustinian Religious Life after the Coronavirus (Rome: 2020), 2.4.1.