Pope Benedict XVI and the New Evangelization

He is laying the deepest foundation for it.

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 our time.”

“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 Pope Benedict:

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.

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