One of Pope Benedict XVI’s distinctive contributions to what
successive popes have called the New Evangelization is to treat once-Christian
countries as mission territory. To that end, he has instituted the Pontifical
Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.
In May, he offered some reflections on the task before the
Pontifical Council as its members met in plenary session.
He noted that the “current crisis brings with it traces of
the exclusion of God from people’s lives, from a generalized indifference
towards the Christian faith to an attempt to marginalize it from public life.” He
said even the lingering effects of a “general Christian sensibility” have
disappeared, leaving only the “drama of fragmentation which no longer
acknowledges a unifying reference point.”
Consequently, the proclamation of the Good News is “more
complex” today “than in the past.” Nevertheless, Benedict stressed, the “task
remains identical to that at the dawn of our history,” as do the means of
achieving it. The same Holy Spirit which moved the early Church to spread the
faith now moves the Church to “a renewed proclamation of hope for the people of
“There is a dynamic continuity between the proclamation of
the first disciples and ours. Throughout the centuries, the Church has never
ceased to proclaim the salvific mystery of the death and Resurrection of Jesus
Christ, but today that same message needs renewed vigor to convince
contemporary man, who is often distracted and insensitive,” he said.
For this reason, the new
evangelization must try to find ways of making the proclamation of salvation
more effective; a proclamation without which personal existence remains
contradictory and deprived of what is essential. Even for those who remain tied
to their Christian roots, but who live the difficult relationship with
modernity, it is important to realize that being Christian is not a type of
clothing to wear in private or on special occasions, but is something living
and all-encompassing, able to contain all that is good in modern life.
To the question of how best to evangelize de-Christianized
countries, Benedict emphasized the need for a holier Church. Holiness is the
most powerful instrument of the New Evangelization: “If, on the one hand, the
entire community is called to reinvigorate its missionary spirit to proclaim
the Good News that the people of our time are waiting for, we cannot forget
that the lifestyle of believers needs to be genuinely credible and all the more
convincing for the dramatic conditions in which those who need to hear it live.”
In other words, dramatic doubt and sin in modern life can
only be countered by examples of dramatic faith and holiness. And with his
reforming pontificate, Benedict is cultivating those examples in the Church.
Indeed, by seeking to purify the priesthood and religious life, he is laying the
deepest foundation for the New Evangelization.
Around the time Pope Benedict was meeting with the
Pontifical Council, John Allen of the National
Catholic Reporter drew attention to “Benedict’s Quiet Revolution,” a
reference to his methodical but unheralded campaign to “clean house.” Benedict has
been quietly reforming clerical culture without fear or favor.
“Once upon a time, the working assumption in officialdom
often was that if someone is doing great good for the church, then allegations
of sexual or financial impropriety against them were likely bogus, and taking
them too seriously risked encouraging the enemies of the faith,” wrote Allen. “Without
great fanfare, Benedict XVI has made it clear that today a new rule applies. No
matter how accomplished a person or institution may be, if they’re also involved
in what the pontiff once memorably called the ‘filth’ in the church, they’re
not beyond reach.”
Allen gave the latest example of this: the suppression of
the Cistercian abbey at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, a
pilgrimage site in Rome. Benedict shut it down despite the abbey’s popularity
with the Italian social elite and celebrated status as the site of such events
as the “Bible Day and Night,” a six-day reading of the entire Bible carried
live on Italian state TV. The abbey’s worldliness and corruption triggered an
apostolic visitation that culminated in its suppression.
Allen sees this as part of an impressive record of reform by
The suppression is part of a
pattern under Benedict XVI, which began with crackdowns against high-profile
clerics such as Gino Burresi, founder of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart
of Mary, and Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
More recently, in September 2008 Benedict laicized a well-known priest in Florence, Lelio Cantini,
whose Queen of Peace parish was regarded as among the more dynamic in the
country. Earlier this year, Benedict permanently removed Fernando Karadima from
ministry, a legendary priest in Chile
known as a spiritual guide to a large swath of the clergy and episcopacy.
Charismatic but corrupt religious figures only imperil
the New Evangelization, as Pope Benedict can see. To dispel the “drama of
fragmentation,” the Church must recover the unity that comes from simple holiness,
and Pope Benedict, like his namesake, is replanting the seeds of it in the
mission territory of the West.