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Making Disciples of “All Nations” (Part 1)

by Jeremy Hiers, OSA

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.

In the quote below, Saint Augustine links the proclamation of the Gospel with the dual commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor (Mark 12:30-31):

“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)

When one considers the Great Commission, Pope Francis’ concept of a “new chapter” of evangelization, the three goals of evangelization provided to us by the U.S. Bishops and the unique “front line” position of the laity, one cannot help but reflect on where such an expansion takes place in our world today.  Globalization and expansion of internet connectivity can lead one to ask if there are any “nations” which have not yet heard the Gospel?

For context, it is helpful to consider a little history and where the first major expansion of the Church’s evangelization took place almost 2,000 years ago.  In The Church According to the New Testament, theologian Daniel J. Harrington notes that while the Jesus movement was more of a renewal within Judaism, it was Paul who led the effort to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to non-Jews.[1]  With this expansion came the challenge of incorporating the Gentiles (and their culture) into what had been previously limited as a movement within Judaism.  The central issue was circumcision and whether or not to impose the traditional Jewish requirement for circumcision onto the non-Jewish (Gentile) population that Paul was trying to reach.  Was the traditional Jewish requirement for circumcision applicable and relevant to non-Jewish Christians?   Circumcision after all was deeply embedded in the Jewish culture and tradition. However, not so with the non-Jewish populations that the Christians were seeking to reach.  Ultimately what followed was a solution that accounted for both cultures, Jewish-Christians could retain circumcision as an important part of their tradition and identity without imposing such a burden on the Gentiles who did not see it as necessary for salvation.[2]

Thus, Harrington names Paul the “pioneering pastoral theologian.” I posit this “pioneering” pastoral approach can serve as a model for the church of today.[3]

What are the “circumcision” type questions of our day in our own backyards that might shed light on the “new paths” that Pope Francis calls for in the new chapter of evangelization?

This shift of mission from a renewal within Judaism to the expansion of Christianity to the Gentiles represents what the Second Vatican Council theologian Karl Rahner calls the “second epoch” of Church history.  This is when “the Church ceased to be the Church of the Jews and became the Church of the Gentiles” by crossing not only geographical boundaries, but also a major cultural boundary.  What followed was the expansion of Christianity to many lands that were previously considered outside the “Church of the Jews.”[4]  Yet, this expansion still retained a largely Hellenistic/European influence, which remains even today.  Two Thousand years later, the Second Vatican Council acknowledged it still has the same mandate to carry the Gospel “to the very ends of the earth” that “the entire world may become the People of God.”

Just as Paul discovered a new boundary to cross (i.e., the cultural gap between the Jews and the Hellenistic culture of the Gentiles), the Church of today has discovered a calling to cross new cultural boundaries. During the Second Vatican Council, the Church Bishops outside Europe had a significant voice in shaping the future of the Church for the first time in history. Consequently, the consciousness of the Church expanded beyond the “Eurocentric” culture it had promulgated since the early Church. The Second Vatican Council recognized the Church of Jesus Christ as a “world Church,” creating what Rahner labels as the “third” epoch of Church history.

Thus, through the Second Vatican Council, the Church has become expressly aware of its responsibility for the future history of all humankind, specifically in its acknowledgement of the Third Word as part of the Church, its positive appraisal of the great world-religions (see Nostra Aetate, 1965), and its affirmation of the universal salvific will of God. With the Second Vatican Council we see the Church recognize that “going to the ends of the earth” entails much more than crossing geographical boundaries with a purely Eurocentric influence, but also crossing additional boundaries to become a true “world church” rather than what Rahner calls a “European church with Christian exports.”[5]

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What might these additional boundaries look like? I propose that the first is an expansion of the first, an expansion of our faith into the numerous cultures in our own backyard. The second is related to psychological and personality. The third is spiritual. These will be discussed further in the upcoming posts. The Five Paths of Encounter discussed previously can provide windows into how to cross these three boundaries.

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, The Church: According to the New Testament (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2001) , 84.

[2] Rahner, Karl. Concern for the Church. Theological Investigations, volume 20. Trans. Edward Quinn. NY: Crossroad, 1981, 84-85.

[3] Harrington, The Church, 58.

[4] Rahner, Concern for the Church, 85.

[5] Rahner, Concern for the Church, 110-111.

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10 months ago

Wonderful. Thank you. Fr.Jeremy