Challenges to Evangelization in our Culture: Obstacles Can Be Opportunities and Open Doors

 Archbishop Wuerl issued a Pastoral Letter this past week entitled Disciples of the Lord: Sharing the Vision. A Pastoral Letter on the New Evangelization. You can get the Letter in PDF format by clicking on the title in the previous sentence.

The letter is an excellent reflection and exhortation to the Church on “Job 1,”  which is making disciples of all nations by bringing them to the obedience of faith and the sacramental life of the Church. We reflected on that last week as a prelude to the release of the Pastoral Letter. You can read that post here: It’s Time to Obey Christ and His Command that We Evangelize

In the Letter the Archbishop present a succinct and clear description of some of the central challenges we face in our culture when it comes to evangelization. These challenges affect evangelization not only outside the Church but inside as well. I’d like to present some excerpts of the Pastoral Letter in this regard and reflect on them is this post. The Archbishop’s words are in bold and italic black letters. My comments are indented and  blue normal text face.

 The Archbishop begins by describing the staccato quality of communication today:

[T]imes change. The contemporary culture has reached a point where it turns off what is not immediately accessible. Our society prefers to listen in sound bites, rather than in semesters. Slogans replace thoughtful explanations (Page 10).

Being a person of faith requires thoughtful reflection. Many of the truths of faith require more than a sentence to explain or understand. But attention spans are very brief today. We have remarked on this blog today that most Catholics want better and more meaty homilies. But most Catholics also want 7-10 minute homilies. But is 7-10 minutes a week really enough time for priests to teach thoughtfully? Can the deeper things of faith be compressed in this manner?

On television there is a “seven-second rule.”  That is to say, the picture or camera angle must change at least every seven seconds or the station risks loosing viewers. What has television done to our attention spans? This visual “seven second rule”  has bled over into a frantic pace of talking heads on TV who speak in a staccato-like manner about issues that really need more distinctions and greater time. But the rushed and hurried format of TV and radio  have influenced how we expect to communicate. As the Archbishop points out this approach to communicating is not well suited to the careful explanations of the Catholic faith.

The Catholic faith is a smart and thoughtful system. Two thousand years of reflection means that we speak very carefully and with balanced distinctions learned over millenia. The modern setting makes it difficult to set forth these nuances and distinctions. The faith often requires careful balance. So this first challenge mentioned by the Archbishop is a tough one since it often means the conversation is over almost before it starts.

We must work hard to engage modern listeners. One of the ways I try to attract reader to a blog I write is by a catchy title. This is not always easy. But it is like a sound-bite, or a “hook” that catches attention. I also try to give a bold line summary of many paragraphs to help the reader’s attention span and get the main point out. As the Church seeks to better evangelize we too have to do a better job of initiating the conversation and holding people’s attention along the way.

The broad advances of globalization over a relatively short span of time have had significant effects on daily life…..The significance of neighborhood and local relationships seem less important to a highly mobile society. Entire generations have become disassociated from the support systems that facilitated the transmission of faith (pg 10).

The Hub of the Community – Most older Catholics, especially those who grew up in ethnic communities in larger cities, remember how important the neighborhood parishes were. They were the true hub of the community. You didn’t just go to mass there. You went to school there. All your closest friends were there. There were social clubs, movie nights, bingo, credit unions, etc. Many of the parishes taught English to immigrants and other life skills. My local parish in Chicago even had a pool and a skating rink! Most Catholics in urban centers identified their neighborhood by the parish name. “Where do you live?” “I live in St Al’s…..I’m St. Mary’s….” Catholics huddled close to their parish in those days. This is what the Archbishop means by “support systems.”

Faith, culture and neighborhood were tied closely together in those days. As Catholics moved to the suburbs some of the closeness diminished. As an entire generation moved not only out of the neighborhood but out of the area entirely, the “ties that bind” broke down and the connection between faith and culture became more distant.

Overcoming the obstacle? – With such a high degree of mobility and spread out neighborhoods the Church faces a significant challenge is remaining a significant fixture in people’s lives. I’d be interested in your ideas of how to overcome this challenge and become a more vital and broad based community for Catholics. I know in my own parish we’ve tried to reconnect with our neighbors by sponsoring a wide variety of social activities such as concerts, neighborhood meetings, and socials. I think people thirst for some connection to others. The key is how to get the Church once again be the palce that quenches that thirst.

Two generations of secularization have fashioned this time when some do not even know the foundational prayers, or understand the most basic of Catholic devotions, including Marian devotions, and many have not been introduced to the lives of the Saints. Still others do not sense a value in Mass attendance, fail to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Penance, and have often lost a sense of mystery. (Pg 10).

Yes, we have a lot of rediscovery to do. Here I see some signs of hope as younger Catholics have rediscovered the beauty of many Catholic practices and traditions. They are a small percentage of youth over all, but a vital remnant. It is almost like they went into Grandma’s attic and found some old tarnished things and brought them down like a treasure only to have Grandma say, “Oh that old thing?!” But we ought to encourage the young in their rediscovery. They may tend to romanticize the past, but proper distinctions can come later. For now let’s encourage the rediscovery of the sacred and traditional we notice in many of the young.

The Archbishop then effectively summarizes recent Papal teaching by giving a litany of trends that also challenge the proclamation of the faith and make the world hostile:

  1. Consumerism suggests that our worth is  found in the things we accumulate.
  2. Individualism demands that we rely on no one but ourselves and our personal needs always take first place. 
  3. Skepticism pressures us to trust only what we can observe and measure, and purports to destroy the classical and time-tested relationship between faith and reason and threatens to reject the basic right to religious liberty and freedom of conscience.
  4. The attempt to recast human sexuality as casual and entirely recreational has led to an untold weakening of and continued assault on marriage and family life.
  5. Autonomy convinces us that fidelity to faith only restricts us. The popular absorption with constant activity leads us to believe that unless we are always busy and hectic we are behind schedule. (Pg  11)

Paradoxically, these trends not only challenge us but also open the door for us, since many have noted these trends are are, frankly, weary and wary of them. Here too, many young people say to me that it is things like these that have made the world seem untenable to them and the Church more reasonable. The tension of these trends incite a desire for change and open the door for us to provide a credible alternative.

Well, these are just morsels to whet your appetite. Please take time to read the whole letter. I will summarize more next week but don’t wait to get a copy or download the PDF.

This video depicts other problems and solutions to enhance evangelization:

8 Replies to “Challenges to Evangelization in our Culture: Obstacles Can Be Opportunities and Open Doors”

  1. Msgr. Pope, did you belong to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glenview? My dad took us to the Playdium regularly to skate or swim. Loved it!

    We were fortunate to grow up in that era with all the parish ties. I consider it a great blessing and it built a strong faith foundation for me. Do you suppose that investing in something like the Playdium would be a good draw for evangeliztion today?

  2. How much effort do you think we should put into evangelizing our Protestant brothers and sisters in comparison to non-Christians?

    I am a revert to Catholicism, but I reverted after leading my whole family to Protestantism. My wife is a convert to Catholicism, and her entire family is Protestant. In fact, her father is a Protestant minister. Nobody is antagonistic towards Catholicism or us as Catholics, and they all love Jesus. I have not made a huge effort to evangelize them because I think that there is enough work to be done in evangelizing and debating those who are completely outside the Church like atheists, agnostics, and other non-Christians.

    What do you think?

    1. Matt,

      This week on EWTNS’s The Journey Home program, Dr. Scott and Kimberly Hahn were interviewed by the host Marcus Grodi. I don’t know if it will help, but your story and question is eerily similar to some of the material that was discussed. I’m a lifelong Catholic, but I owe my reversion, years ago, partially to the Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home.

      I hope you watch, you can catch the interview here:

  3. @Matt,

    The Protestants are worse than the atheists or agnostics. Work on evangelizing them, they were lead astray from the true teachings of Christ and their Church.

    Protestants are hardly Christian.

    1. In my opinion, few have done more in recent years for the Catholic Church than Protestant converts. I’m extremely excited and hopeful regarding the fruits that could be wrought by Pope Benedict’s trip to the UK next week.

  4. Hi Johnis,

    I have to say that I have a hard time thinking that Protestants are worse than atheists or agnostics. I don’t see that taught anywhere in the Church. I actually find it taught in the Catechism that we are to regard Protestants as brothers and sisters in Christ.

    I should clarify that I do engage my family in conversation when they ask questions or express some deep-seated misunderstanding of Catholic Dogma. I even sent a long e-mail to my brother’s pastor who misinterpreted Catholic Mariology in a few sermons he gave. I certainly long for complete unity in my family, but we are already unified in Christ to a certain degree. That, at least, is how I understand the teaching of the Church.

    Msgr, what do you think?

  5. How much effort do you think we should put into evangelizing our Protestant brothers and sisters in comparison to non-Christians?

    Doesn’t it really depend upon who you are dealing with at the moment?

    It is true that the road to heaven is Catholic Road. It is also true that there are a lot of agnostics and atheists and non-Christians and other people off wandering in the weeds and the wilderness. And it is these folks who need the most help in finding the way, more so than many Protestants, whose streets often go in the same general direction as Catholic Road (at least in some neighborhoods), such that those that are on the Protestant streets might find there way onto Catholic Road on their own, or by following the Grace road signs.

    But even if one group in general needs more help than some other, should we really walk away from whom we are with at the moment to go deal with someone else?

    Isn’t the person you are with RIGHT NOW the right person to be a light of Christ to? And, later on in the day, when you come across someone else, are not they the right person for that moment in time?

    As for how hard to push, how hard to evangelize, how much to explicitly and expressly “debate” people on the finer points of theology — I have had to tell myself more than once to not try to do it all myself, to leave something for the Holy Spirit to do as well.

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