Pope Benedict XVI has to parcel out his time in such small bits that even heads of state normally get no more than a brief 20 minutes’ audience. But after the Holy Father announced the creation of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization in June 2010, he conferred with his appointee for president for a full two-and-a-half hours. This fact alone in an indication of the importance the Holy Father attaches to this endeavor. The man called upon to shoulder this responsibility is Archbishop Salvatore “Rino” Fisichella, former president of the Pontifical Academy for Life and the prelate known to have been Pope John Paul II’s mainstay in drawing up the 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio.
CWR interviewed Archbishop Fisichella in his Rome office, located in a building that houses many different pontifical councils, on the broad street that leads from a bridge over the Tiber River all the way up to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Your Excellency, what has brought Western society to such an utter de-Christianization as to necessitate starting all over again with a “new evangelization”?
Archbishop Fisichella: The reasons are many, but one of the most important is—as Pope Benedict has often pointed out—secularization, combined with a lack of confidence in seeking out truth, and therefore with the ensuing relativistic vision of life.
Nihilism has seeped into society so quietly that, in the past, the Church did not perceive it as an actual challenge, focusing rather on Marxism. But while Marxism was building social structures, nihilism was permeating people’s behavior. This makes it much more difficult to get people to understand many things.
What, in your personal experience, prepared you to work for this Council for the New Evangelization?
Archbishop Fisichella: Well, my 20 years as a teacher of fundamental theology at the Gregorian University were good training. One of the subjects I taught was finding ways and words to present the Christian message to our contemporaries. In the past few months, as I was moving into my new office, I came across many useful notes and texts of lectures I have worked on in this regard.
What about your years as chaplain to Italy’s Parliament?
Archbishop Fisichella: The 15 years in which Parliament was my “parish,” so to speak, gave me an exceptional opportunity to deal, as a priest, with people who can make a difference in the life of a country. I had to work with them in their everyday life, meet their families, celebrate their weddings, baptize their children, and, of course, assist them in times of grief at the death of loved ones.
This experience provides insight into the importance that the Church must have in society: where they make laws, in a democracy, they must listen to the voice of all the people, including to those who represent religion, because laws do not only force behaviors but inevitably create a culture and a mentality that cannot be ignored.
Have you already started your activities in this new council?
Archbishop Fisichella: Actually, my first priority is not doing, but thinking and sharing—activities that are indispensible to providing a basis for creating. After all, it was only last October 12, with the publication of Benedict’s apostolic letter Ubicumque et Semper, that the Council was even founded. Nevertheless we have indeed taken a few steps, and we have our first seminar to show for it, which involved 30 or so experts from our sphere of action.
What do you mean by “sphere of action”? Can evangelization be limited to a certain sphere?
Archbishop Fisichella: Well, the sphere of action of the Church is, of course, the whole world. But in his apostolic letter, Pope Benedict directed our attention to the churches of ancient traditions, the ones that are in the lands that have experienced Christianity for centuries. In geographical terms this refers to the “first” and “second” world: Europe, North America, South America, Australia, the Philippines.
What about the Arab countries? Are they excluded?
Archbishop Fisichella: Not at all. At the Synod on the Middle East the bishops specifically asked for a new evangelization! I have received visits and requests from bishops of India and Africa.
Do you seek missionaries then?
Archbishop Fisichella: Evangelization is always done by missionaries. And they are already out there. Pope John Paul II promoted the new evangelization for 27 years. He first used the term on his very first visit to Poland after he became pope, and then again in Medellin, in Latin America, when he said, “It is not a matter of re-evangelizing but of a new evangelization.” This is why we are in the process of studying how to proceed. Our particular contribution is first and foremost to the bishops’ conferences, because the bishops are those who know these countries best.
Subsequently, of course, the new evangelization is supposed to become the ordinary modus of everyday pastoral work, capable of involving the entire life of the Church, with a view to challenging the missionary spirit of Christians.
Will you rely on the laity?
Archbishop Fisichella: First and foremost comes the bishop: he is the prime evangelizer. Then comes the entire body of the Church, in unity with him: deacons, laity, and consecrated people. We draw no distinction between laypeople and priests and nuns: all Christians must take part, because the call to evangelize derives from our very baptism.
What is the difference between the new and the old evangelizaton?
Archbishop Fisichella: Well, for starters, the new evangelization is not going to pass judgment on what has been done thus far. The Church has always evangelized, but in order to be effective we need to examine the context we find ourselves in. We assuredly won’t be doing the exact same things in Italy as in France or Germany, and we won’t be doing things in the same way in Europe as in North America and in South America, because ecclesial traditions vary, and the challenges even within the same type of situations can require different actions.
The content, of course, will always be the same: we announce Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and always; Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead, who gives hope and sense to life. But this announcement, which the Church has carried on for 2,000 years, must address the queries and expectations of women and men today, which aren’t what they were in the 19th century because of the challenges to human life with which we are confronted [today]. Abortion, genetic selection, laws that threaten innocent life and themselves make a difference in the culture…. The good news we announce must be consistent with a Christian lifestyle. It must be a challenge to those who think they’re Christian but don’t live a Christian life.
What, to you, are the primary obstacles that the new evangelization has to overcome?
Archbishop Fisichella: The first difficulty consists in the possibility of being misunderstood in our attempts to reinvigorate the spirit of Christians, in our efforts to enable them to truly be themselves and to understand that without a sense of belonging to the Church one can’t really build a true identity as a believer. The main focus, however, isn’t on the obstacles, which have always been part and parcel with announcing the Gospel for the past 2,000 years, but on giving our “reason for hope” and on maintaining a credible lifestyle in the eyes of those who approach us and ask for help in seeking out the meaning of their lives. It is a great challenge, but that is why the Pope has confronted the problem with great provident care.
Do you have anything specific in store for the United States?
Archbishop Fisichella: At this time, America is showing great pastoral dynamism, thanks above all to bishops who refuse to be cowed or silenced in public debates, particularly with regards to laws in the area of life. This means shouldering responsibility for young people and future generations. If we allow laws to be passed that trivialize life and death, it will be the future generations who will bear the consequences.
On the other hand, I also see that there are new challenges for the United States, which is undergoing momentous transformations. These are also brought about by the people from Latin America, who bring with them their religiosity, so that the North American tradition is mingling with the popular tradition of Latin America: two types of religiosity, creating a past and a present.
Are you counting on a particular profile or figure to be the torch bearers of the new evangelization, such as deacons, for example?
Archbishop Fisichella: We are not singling out particular figures but we are preparing a map of [groups] that have been involved for some time in the new evangelization. One that comes to mind, in the United States, is FOCUS, a foundation set up by a young married couple, who have attracted thousands and thousands of new members. They bring the new evangelization to campuses. Young people for young people.
Many bishops come to mind who are also active in the field. The latest is the archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl, who dedicated his pastoral letter last October to the subject. There are also many, many contexts; many…priests, deacons, and laypeople who already live out the new evangelization; many movements linked to bishops, many pro-life movements that are doing work in the field of an authentic promotion of life. And we are witnessing the fruit in the many conversions that are coming about.
Shouldn’t the Courtyard of the Gentiles [currently organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture with the goal of engaging non-believers] have been a part of this pontifical council?
Archbishop Fisichella: No, it has a different goal: that of allowing people who profess atheism to find some answers. The people we intend to address are lapsed Christians, the ones who have become distant and indifferent—the ones who think they know all about Christianity, while they actually don’t even know the ABCs. And as a matter of fact, one of our tasks is promoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and [demonstrating] how the Catechism has been used in the 20 years since it came out. So, we have different objectives, but our motivation is the same.