Denver Newsroom, Apr 27, 2023 / 11:30 am (CNA).
Pope Francis’ new appointments to the Dicastery for Evangelization include several prominent American Catholics. CNA spoke with a few of them about their views on how Catholics can best “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).
Monsignor Eugene Sylva, serving an immigrant community
Monsignor Eugene (Geno) Sylva of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, is among the 19 members the pope appointed to the dicastery’s Section for Fundamental Questions Regarding Evangelization in the World.
Sylva told CNA he was “very surprised” by the April 25 appointment but noted his efforts in the diocese as vicar for special projects and rector of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
“We’ve been working here over the last five years implementing Pope Francis’ vision of the New Evangelization and how we encounter, accompany, and invite people to a more active sacramental life in the Church,” he said. Catholics in his diocese do this through “our social outreach, our family- based formation, and serving an immigrant community.”
The New Evangelization is a term used since Vatican II that refers to the call to all the baptized to use every tool and strategy at their disposal to re-evangelize the world.
“If we can just tell the story of what our team is doing. Here in Paterson, that’s what we have to offer,” Sylva said.
Pope Francis established the Dicastery for Evangelization in the 2022 apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium, saying that it “serves the work of evangelization, so that Christ, the light of the nations, may be known and witnessed to by word and deed, and the Church, his mystical Body, may be built up.”
The Section for Fundamental Questions about Evangelization is tasked with considering how to effectively proclaim the Gospel and looking at the history of evangelization and mission, and the “signs of the times” — namely the socioeconomic and environmental conditions of those who receive the preaching of the Gospel.
Sylva said the Church in Paterson focuses on the “human needs” of immigrants like those in the Hispanic community, such as immigration and health issues and education.
“Once people know that the Church is there to love them and care for their human needs, it opens them to faith and understanding a God who is merciful and loving. And then that faith supports the love. So it’s kind of a circular approach,” he said.
Many nonpracticing Catholic families are in need of “pre-evangelization” and need to be engaged “creatively,” the priest said. Families have reconnected with the cathedral through its Advent outreach. In one of the diocese’s initiatives, children are given a two-part ticket for a jacket or a toy, redeemable at the cathedral, on the condition they split the ticket with a classmate or neighbor. The other child then brings his or her family, and they all visit the Nativity scene.
“It’s amazing how many families have reconnected with us just through that simple invitation and accompanying of another child,” Sylva said. He previously served on the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization. He has also been a teacher, chaplain, and high school principal.
Bishop Kevin Sweeney of Paterson said in a statement that Sylva “brings not only boundless energy and enthusiasm to any role but is imbued with Pope Francis’ constant teaching on accompaniment and mercy.”
Joining Sylva as members of the Dicastery for Evangelization’s section on fundamental questions are Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and the Ireland-born Cardinal Kevin Farrell, a former bishop of Dallas, Texas, and naturalized U.S. citizen who now serves as prefect of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family, and Life. CNA sought comment from the Archdiocese of New York and Farrell’s office but did not receive a response by publication.
FOCUS founder Curtis Martin: Friendship is a key first step
Pope Francis appointed 14 consultors to advise the members of the dicastery. American layman Curtis Martin, founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), was named to this advisory group.
Since FOCUS was founded in 1998, it has grown to have hundreds of full-time student missionaries who serve tens of thousands of college students on campuses around the U.S. and at several overseas locations.
“I’m thrilled to be invited to serve in this capacity and serve the Church in an even broader way,” Martin told CNA Wednesday. He said the dicastery helps serve the pope and other Vatican leaders and is an opportunity “to listen to others and to give feedback and share best practices.”
“I hope to learn the amazing scope that the Church has for evangelization,” he said.
Martin, a father of nine and grandfather of six, lives in Colorado with his wife, Michaelann. He has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of several books on missionary work and discipleship. He previously served as consultor to the Pontifical Council of the New Evangelization under Pope Benedict XVI.
As an American on the pontifical council, Martin told CNA, he at first saw the New Evangelization as “awakening people from a spiritual coma” to help them practice their faith.
The situation is much different for Catholics elsewhere, he learned. Some areas have many coming to the faith but don’t have any resources to build churches and support the faithful. Others evangelize in hostile situations where the reaction to evangelization can be church burnings or even killings of Christians.
“We need to be praying for the universal needs of the Church, including the very specific ones that we’re being asked to address, on a day-to-day basis,” Martin said.
He saw the appointment to the dicastery as “a vote of confidence” for FOCUS’ work on campuses and in parishes. The role is “much more a reflection of the confidence and efforts of the people I work with, as opposed to me personally,” he said. “We have a great mission of great people; I’m just one.”
In Martin’s view, there are some ways to measure the success of evangelization, like weekly Mass attendance, annual collection numbers, and parish growth.
“But I would say it’s actually much more personal than that. Because, really, none of it is about the numbers,” he added. “It’s really about the stories. What has moved me for 25 years is the story of one changed life after another. For that, you need to sit down and talk to people.”
“It’s truly extraordinary to watch people say, ‘Hey, I was living life for myself or stuck in the world. And I had a powerful encounter with Jesus Christ within the Catholic Church and now I’m living for God and I’m living for others and my life is filled with joy.’ That’s the real success,” Martin said.
For Martin, friendship is the key first step.
“Even while people disagree with us, we still want to talk with them. My goal is not to get you to become a Christian or get you to become a Catholic. It is to love you where you are. And if in the midst of that, God inspires you to become a Christian, inspires you to join the Church, I’ll help in any way I can. But I love you for who you are, regardless of that.”
“When Catholics lead with love, the polarization that’s so exemplified in much of our culture actually begins to evaporate. Everybody may not agree, but everybody does want to be loved and respected.”
Franciscan University’s Petroc Willey: catechizing the faithful
Another new consultor for the dicastery is Petroc Willey, a theology professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Willey previously was a consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. He served for 20 years as the editor of The Sower, a U.K.-based journal for catechetical leaders. He hosted the EWTN catechetical series “Handing on the Faith” and has authored many study texts on philosophy and theology.
With his wife, Katherine, he co-authored the book “Become What You Are: The Call and Gift of Marriage.” Willey holds a doctorate in moral philosophy from the University of Liverpool, another doctorate from the Pontifical Lateran University, and an S.T.L. from the Pontifical University at Maynooth, Ireland.
Stephen Hildebrand, Franciscan University of Steubenville’s dean of the School of Theology and Philosophy, congratulated Willey on his appointment in a Wednesday statement.
Hildebrand, who is the university’s newly named vice president for academic affairs, said Willey’s appointment is “a testament to his decades of ministry and faithful service to the Church’s mission to evangelize and catechize the faithful and to form those responsible for the faith formation of future generations.”
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