“Go…to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” –Matthew 10:6-7
Just under ten years ago, I heard from a friend I had met during my second parish assignment, Steve Dawson. Steve and his wife Maria had moved to Portland so that Steve could study for a degree in finance as they began their marriage and family life.
I knew both Steve and Maria to be young, devout Catholics who hungered for holiness. But I was still pleasantly surprised when Steve told me that they had begun leading a young adult group from their parish in a new effort to evangelize.
The method they used was as simple and as bold as the evangelization of the first apostles. They simply went to downtown Portland, set themselves up in an area with heavy foot traffic, and they engaged in conversation with anyone who wanted to talk about the Catholic Faith and their own faith journey.
Over the years, this practice would be repeated countless times, bearing the fruit of repentance, conversions, and miracles. The techniques used to evangelize would become more sophisticated and refined. And the efforts of a few zealous young Catholics in one city would grow into the international apostolate known today as St. Paul Street Evangelization, which celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. But I want to return to what I believe is the divine genius of those first efforts.
In order to think about this genius, I want to call to mind the image of an infomercial. I am a big fan of infomercials. I admire their structure and I am entertained by their spirit.
The structure of every infomercial is the same: Problem–Solution–Offer. And the spirit of every infomercial is the same: exaggeration, over-the-topness, testing the elasticity of the truth in order to push a product.
“Are you tired of (insert fatiguing problem)?” It can be extremely entertaining to see how infomercials exaggerate the problems we face in the status quo of daily life. And then we are supposed to marvel at the incredible solution our friends at XYZ Company have invented. Finally, our minds are supposed to be utterly blown by how affordable this miracle product is, how easy the payment plan will be, and the bonus gift we will receive if we order right now!
When I first heard Steve describe his street evangelization efforts in Portland, I had a much deeper and more genuine version of the thrill an infomercial aims to provoke. I say “more genuine,” because there was no exaggeration in what I felt.
I already knew there was a real problem. I had studied evangelization for years at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. I knew a lot about the problems the Church was facing when it comes to evangelization: the apathy of so many people, ignorance about how to evangelize, and fear about witnessing to our faith in an increasingly secularized and even hostile world.
To borrow an expression from the typical infomercial script, many Catholics were tired of wanting to evangelize but were feeling held back by fear and uncertainty about how to do it.
Here was a powerful solution to the problem of evangelization. There are myriad ways to evangelize, but the solution Steve, Maria, and their companions rediscovered was an ingenious one. Before Pope Francis ever challenged the Church to ‘go out into the margins,’ these intrepid Catholics were going out. Seeking the lost sheep of the human family. Seeking those God wants to belong to His own family, the new Israel, the Church. Proclaiming the Kingdom of God to those who had either renounced their citizenship or were not even aware that there was such a kingdom, the life of which they were invited to share.
Like all brilliant ideas, it seems obvious now, but I can assure you that it was not obvious to most Catholics at the time. God has blessed the work of St. Paul Street Evangelization richly over the years, but He blessed it and the Church most of all simply by inspiring those first evangelizers to go out into the streets in the first place.
It is easy to become bewildered at the chaos we see in the world around us. But the fundamental reality is heavenly order, not worldly chaos. To proclaim the Kingdom of God is to proclaim that God’s love and grace, His order, His life are breaking into this world–that He Himself has come into this world. To proclaim God’s Kingdom is to proclaim God’s Kingship. It is to proclaim Christ as King and Lord of all.
Evangelization proclaims the solution to the great problem of sin in this world. Here we are dealing with the opposite of an infomercial, which seeks to make us overestimate the problems we face and the power of its solution.
Fallen humanity tends to underestimate the threat of sin and the power of the Gospel to save us. One of the key insights of St. Paul Street Evangelization has been to speak clearly, with love about the threat of sin, death and damnation. The Gospel is the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, but in order to appreciate the greatness of the Good News we need to understand the horror of the bad news.
The preaching of the Kingdom of God speaks directly to hearts filled with this horror, who “dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). People who know they are in the thrall of sin stop looking to this world for definitive answers. They are ready to turn to God, if someone will just introduce Him to them.
The proclamation of the Kingdom is not just an invitation. Some people speak of God as inviting us into a relationship with Him. But Scripture reveals to us that God is issuing something stronger, much more like a marriage proposal, to all of us and to each of us. It is a world-changing offer of new life in Christ.
Every time a St. Paul Street Evangelization evangelist hands out a rosary, asks a person whether he goes to Mass, invites a person to consider returning to confession, or offers to pray with a troubled soul, God is making a proposal to another one of His beloved. Often, evangelists have been blessed to witness the positive response of those they evangelize. Yet much goes unknown. Seeds have been planted, and it will be the work of others to bring about the growth, and the fruit, and the harvest.
Pope St. Paul VI, one of the true fathers of the New Evangelization, wrote of the Spirit that drives everyone at St. Paul Street Evangelization:
Not to preach the Gospel would be my undoing, for Christ himself sent me as his apostle and witness. The more remote, the more difficult the assignment, the more my love of God spurs me on. I am bound to proclaim that Jesus is Christ, the Son of the living God. Because of him we come to know the God we cannot see. He is the firstborn of all creation; in him all things find their being. Man’s teacher and redeemer, he was born for us, died for us, and for us he rose from the dead.
…I can never cease to speak of Christ for he is our truth and our light; he is the way, the truth and the life. He is our bread, our source of living water who allays our hunger and satisfies our thirst. He is our shepherd, our leader, our ideal, our comforter and our brother.
…Remember: [it] is Jesus Christ I preach day in and day out. His name I would see echo and re-echo for all time even to the ends of the earth.
We face many and terrible challenges in today’s world. We cannot help but see the problems around us, but it is also essential for disciples of Jesus Christ to thank God for the grace and strength He gives us to meet today’s challenges and triumph over them. The apostolic labors of St. Paul Street Evangelization have been a divine solution to the ancient and timely problem of sin and unbelief. Animated by the Holy Spirit, evangelizers across the nation and even the world are proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is truly at hand, and that God’s Kingdom is our true home.
Lord Jesus Christ, Our King, Have mercy on us.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pray for us.
St. Paul, Pray for us.
(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on July 7, 2022, at the tenth anniversary Mass for St. Paul Street Evangelization. For more information about St. Paul Street Evangelization, please see the apostolate’s website. SPSE is also active on social media.)
• Related at CWR: “Catholic street evangelization and getting ‘back to basics’” (July 29, 2016) by Paul Senz
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!