Readers of Blessed John Paul II’s documents have noted his frequent references to a sentence in Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (no. 24).
Similarly, readers of Pope Francis’ writings have observed his frequent references to Evangelii Nuntiandi, Venerable Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation on evangelization. Pope Francis has cited it at least 31 times on at least 11 different occasions, including 13 times in his new apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium. Evangelii Nuntiandi is an important part of the soil from which the teaching of Evangelii Gaudium has sprung; to use another image, they are akin to two plates of a diptych.
On May 17, Pope Francis said that Evangelii Nuntiandi included words that “are as timely as if they had been written yesterday”; on June 13, he called it “a very full text that has lost nothing of its timeliness”; and on July 27, as he spoke about evangelization, he called the document “that basic point of reference which remains relevant.” On June 22, he went so far as to describe it as “to my mind the greatest pastoral document that has ever been written to this day” (“per me il documento pastorale più grande che è stato scritto fino a oggi”).
Popular culture and religious climate have changed much since Pope Paul wrote Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975; in the United States that year, Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together” was the most popular song, Jaws was the highest-grossing film, and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime was the bestselling novel. According to a Gallup poll taken that year, 44 percent of Americans had a “great deal” of confidence in “the church or organized religion”; 24 percent had “quite a lot” of confidence, 20 percent had “some,” 9 percent had “very little,” and only 1 percent had “none.” Fifty-four percent of Catholics and 40 percent of Protestants said they had attended church during the past seven days.
While much has changed since 1975, several Catholics recognized for their expertise in evangelization agree wholeheartedly with Pope Francis’s assessment of the importance and continued relevance of Evangelii Nuntiandi.
“Other than the Bible and the Catechism, Evangelii Nuntiandi has been the most fundamental source of formation as well as personal and organizational renewal,” says Curtis Martin, founder and president of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, and an auditor at the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization.
“Evangelii Nuntiandi has been and continues to be the impetus for getting out of my own comfort zone,” says Fr. John Hurley, CSP, executive director of the Office of Evangelization for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and a consultant to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. “It is one thing to read and reflect on the Gospels and how they impact your life. But what part of ‘go [and make disciples]’ did we not get?”
Father Jim Wehner, rector of Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans and also a USCCB evangelization committee consultant, recalls:
The document inspired my whole approach to theology and ecclesiology…. When understood correctly, evangelization will assure us, as I tell the seminarians, that we cannot be rectory or sacristy priests—evangelization moves us beyond the comfort zones that a priestly lifestyle might otherwise end looking like…I suppose the theology of evangelization challenges me to never allow apathy to keep me settled. There is an urgency in the way I live out my priesthood. Evangelization helps me better understand what “spiritual fatherhood” should look like in the priesthood and the nuptial relationship I have to the Church.
In 1965, Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops “to promote a closer union and greater cooperation between the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops of the whole world” and to allow for a “greater use of the bishops’ assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church.” In 1974, 209 Synod Fathers took part in the Third Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which was devoted to evangelization in the modern world. Evangelii Nuntiandi was the first papal document to flow from a synod.
“When you read through the interventions during the 1974 Synod of Bishops that was convened by Pope Paul VI to take up the topic of evangelization, bishops themselves had a wide range of meanings for the concept ‘evangelization,’” says Father Wehner. “In his closing address to the Synod, one can almost detect a sense of frustration from Paul VI because the synodal fathers were not united on what we mean [by] ‘to evangelize.’”
“Even though Vatican II was called to foster renewal in the Catholic Church so that a more effective evangelization could be carried out in the modern world, right after the Council almost the opposite happened,” says Ralph Martin, director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, and an expert at the 2012 synod.
“In the widespread confusion about what could change and what couldn’t change in the structures and teaching of the Church, missionary zeal collapsed,” he recounts. “Missionary orders began to wonder—out loud and in scholarly articles—whether they should primarily focus on human development and whether working for conversions to Christ and the Church was still needed, given that people can be saved without explicit knowledge of Christ and the Church. Liberation theology with its strong focus on changing the structures of society, and its reliance on Marxist analysis, added to the pressure and confusion.”
“Evangelii Nuntiandi was a carefully thought out response to the confusion engendered by both liberation theology and the conciliar recognition that ‘seeds of truth’ were found in the various non-Christian religions by clearly and eloquently reaffirming that the liberation that Christ brings is foundationally a liberation from sin and its consequences and from the devil, and that salvation is not just about changing the structures of society but is about eternal life,” he adds.
One of the four aims of the Second Vatican Council, according to the opening sentence of its first document, was “to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church.” Evangelii Nuntiandi was particularly significant because it led Catholics to turn their attention anew to this conciliar mandate.
“It seems to me that this apostolic exhortation, written 10 years after the close of Vatican II, was both the precursor for the new evangelization and trailblazer for how we ought to interpret the work of the Council,” says David Spesia, director of the Diocese of Joliet’s Newman Institute for Lay Formation and a USCCB evangelization committee consultant. “Evangelii Nuntiandi sees the work of the Council as ‘striving to proclaim the Gospel to all people’ (no. 2), and so Vatican II is not a rupture with the great tradition but is an essential extension of the Gospel revelation for modern or postmodern times. In many ways, Pope Paul VI was already working on a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’—as Pope Benedict would later describe it.”
Evangelii Nuntiandi was also significant “because it explains how the Council’s teaching on the vocation of the laity and the Church’s commitment to human promotion and social justice are incorporated into the overall task of evangelization,” says Sister Sara Butler, M.S.B.T., a member of the International Theological Commission, an expert at the 2012 synod, and a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. Evangelii Nuntiandi “defines ‘evangelization’ in a broad sense so that it includes not only the first proclamation of the Gospel that leads individuals to conversion and baptism, but also the task of inaugurating the Kingdom of God in concrete historical situations.”
“Pope Paul speaks of both the conversion of consciences and the conversion of cultures, and makes the point that verbal proclamation is incomplete without the witness of life, but that witness of life is also incomplete without the proclamation of ‘the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the Kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God’ (no. 22),” she adds.
In writing Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul also emphasized that evangelization is essence of the Church’s mission.
“Paul VI did three vitally important things in the document: he spoke clearly and unequivocally; he spoke as a pastor with sense of urgency; most importantly, he spoke of the most central reality,” says Curtis Martin.
Peter Murphy, executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Evangelization and Catechesis and a 2012 synod auditor, concurs: “Evangelii Nuntiandi focuses on what is essential in the life and mission of the Church. ‘Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be a channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners to God, and to perpetuate Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection’” (no. 2).
“I believe that Evangelii Nuntiandi is so significant because it was the impetus for Catholics to get their faith outside of themselves and to share it with others,” adds Father Hurley. “The Gospels and this document can recapture the vast imagination and creativity in our Church today. Unfortunately the document was ahead of its time in the Western world, yet in Africa and other parts of the world the Gospel was sown with great perseverance and cultivation, and we can see the results.”
Sister Butler notes that Evangelii Nuntiandi also
provides a succinct formulation of the Gospel: “In Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, who died and rose from the dead, salvation is offered to all people as a gift of God’s grace and mercy” (no. 27). It identifies the Lord Jesus himself as the first “Evangelizer,” and it suggests eight methods for bringing the Gospel message to our contemporaries: the witness of life, a living preaching, Liturgy of the Word, catechetics, mass media, personal contact, the sacraments, and popular piety.
Almost every one of the recommendations that came forth at the recent Synod on the New Evangelization is already made here; the challenge of the present situation is also anticipated, namely, the need to re-propose the Gospel to people who have been baptized but live far from Christ and from the Church. It refers to the threat atheistic secularism poses to Christians everywhere and challenges those who are reluctant to preach the Gospel and make excuses based on a faulty interpretation of the Council’s teaching.
Noted canon lawyer Edward Peters, the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and an expert at the 2012 synod, notes other ways in which the document is significant.
“Evangelii Nuntiandi demands that the Church herself, both hierarchy and laity, be constantly evangelized,” he observes. “Evangelii Nuntiandi alerts us to the huge implications of conversion, both social in the here and now, and eschatological in the hereafter. Put another way, Paul VI teaches that evangelization impacts the present and impacts eternity.”
“Among the key themes of Evangelii Nuntiandi are human liberation, the cooperative personal and ecclesial dimensions of evangelization, the leadership role of the Holy Spirit, and the role of prayer (both liturgical and devotional) in equipping evangelizers for their task,” he added. “A very important, but oft-overlooked, theme of Evangelii Nuntiandi is the role that the local Church plays in evangelization. In an age that simultaneously inclines toward excessively individualistic approaches to faith-sharing, and yet so often waits for headquarters (that is, the Vatican) to hand down marching orders, Pope Paul’s emphasis on the diocesan Church’s role in evangelization strikes a valuable center perspective.”
Julianne Stanz, director of new evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and a USCCB evangelization committee consultant, adds:
The prophetic words of Pope Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi written in 1975 are searingly accurate today as we face the challenges of being Christian in a world of rampant secularism, materialism, individualism, and atheistic scientism. The fundamental “burning” questions posed by Pope Paul VI have not lost their ability to penetrate our hearts for Christ and are as relevant today as when they were first posed.
It is clear that many Christians today do not prioritize their faith with the same level of commitment that they prioritize their gym schedule or their leisure time, and that many of our parishes are failing to address the real, heartfelt needs of our Christians. There are of course exceptions to this, but unfortunately, they are not normative. It is clear that unless the Catholic Church offers active opportunities for youth and adults to understand and dialogue with the teachings of the Church and [to learn] how to integrate the teachings of the Church into their lives, other voices and forces within the secular world will continue to influence them to believe and act outside of the faith. This is the genius of Evangelii Nuntiandi: the willingness to ask the difficult questions, to call each person to deeper conversion, and to call us to put Christ at the center of all that we say and do as a Church, as a society, and as individuals.
Nearly four decades after its publication, Evangelii Nuntiandi continues to challenge the Church in our own time. “The document challenges every Catholic to joyfully and boldly share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world,” says Murphy. “Today it challenges us to consider various ways to help a world to encounter Christ anew.”
“Many of the same issues continue to be unresolved,” observes Ralph Martin. “Many Catholics have not yet embraced as a part of their fundamental identity that they are to share in the mission of Christ ‘to seek and save those who are lost.’ Many Catholics are still in a fog of confusion about whether anything significant really rests on whether people believe and obey the revelation of Christ or not.”
“For some Catholics, the Council’s call to engage in the transformation of humanity by working for justice and peace seems to overshadow the importance of the direct proclamation of the Gospel with the intention of bringing people to Christ and to the Church,” says Sister Butler. “Evangelii Nuntiandi challenges them when it cautions that there is no evangelization without the proclamation of the name of Christ. Some other Catholics are dedicated to spreading the knowledge and love of Jesus and building up the Church, but seem indifferent to the cry of the poor and reluctant to challenge systemic injustices. Evangelii Nuntiandi challenges them when it teaches that human development is linked to the Good News in the anthropological, theological, and evangelical orders.”
“This apostolic letter also cautions against claiming to love and give allegiance to Christ while dismissing the Church, and even calling into question its fundamental constitution,” she adds. “It encourages the development of small Christian communities, as long as they do not adopt a mentality opposed to the ‘institutional Church.’ Today, some movements for Church reform seem in need of this message.”
“This document remains a wake-up call for all Christians to place Jesus Christ at the front and center of our own lives and challenges those ministering in the Church to reach out to all believers and non-believers with conviction, credibility, and relatability,” says Stanz. She adds:
We cannot call others to embrace Christ without embracing Christ ourselves, and we cannot challenge the culture for Christ without first allowing Christ to challenge, change, and transform us. … In order to do this we must endeavor to rediscover our own faith and to strengthen our commitment to the person of Jesus Christ, lest we fall into the pit of secularism.
Father Wehner concurs.
“Nearly four decades later, Evangelii Nuntiandi still has the same fresh, relevant boldness that brings challenge to all Catholics,” he says. “As Pope Paul VI states in the document, there can be no real evangelization unless the individual believer has been evangelized. This is the most challenging aspect of all because today people are looking for authenticity—in their political leaders, in the hierarchy of the Church, in people who are living the routine aspects of life.”
“Pope Paul VI points to ‘word’ and ‘deed’ as the hinges of evangelization,” Father Wehner adds. “I think Catholics can sometimes feel that speaking about their faith in public imposes something on those who are not Catholic. The lie of secular humanism is that faith is a private affair. Hence, many Catholics have turned inward on themselves—this includes clergy and laity alike.”
Ultimately, Evangelii Nuntiandi challenges Catholics to become missionary disciples—a phrase used often by Pope Francis. Evangelii Nuntiandi, says Father Hurley, “invites Catholics today to think of themselves as disciples of Jesus. This fundamentally is what I think the call to a new evangelization is all about. It requires a paradigm shift from thinking of ourselves as members of the Church to disciples in the Church. This includes bishops, priests, and deacons as well. So often people in ministry in the Church identify themselves by the task they are doing rather than their deepest identity. Identity as disciples calls us to the deepest identity we have with Jesus, this encounter that Blessed John Paul II spoke so much about along with Pope Benedict. Of course, Pope Francis is taking this culture of encounter to a whole new level.”
“Because Evangelii Nuntiandi speaks of the Church’s deepest identity, it is timeless,” says Curtis Martin. He explains:
The life of a Christian is a life of encounter with Jesus Christ…conversion, reconversion, and evangelization. It is only when I have encountered Jesus and live a transformed life that I can then invite others to encounter Christ. This is the great project of the Church. When we forget this central reality we fall into the danger of either moralism or social work. Jesus unites these two tendencies by elevating them. Our faith is a love story, where we strive to live rightly so that we can love and we strive to care for others because God first cares for us. We do not serve principles or causes; we serve a Person, who loved us first and has called us to imitate Him.