Today we continue our look at Pope St. Paul VI’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelization in the Modern World). Since its release in 1975, this document has become one of the chief organizing principles of the Catholic approach to catechesis, and has been praised by popes, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, men and women religious, lay catechists, and catechetical leaders.
There are three questions the pope presents as framing the discussion to follow: 1) “In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on man’s conscience?” 2) “To what extent and in what way is that evangelical force capable of really transforming the people of this century?” 3) “What methods should be followed in order that the power of the Gospel may have its effect?”
This is really the crux of the whole matter. These questions present, in sum, the challenges of evangelization in the modern world, the challenges presented to the Church by modernity and secularism, and even examining the apparent lack of energy and enthusiasm in the evangelical pursuit which necessitated the synod in the first place.
Let’s briefly take a look at each of these questions in turn.
The first question is particularly interesting to me, because it displays an awareness of a certain lack of fervor in spreading the Good News. The Holy Father refers to the “hidden energy of the Good News,” and asked what has happened to it. Certainly, there were missionaries and evangelists and apologists who continued to spread the faith, within parish communities and without, in Christian cultures and non-Christian cultures. But the pope is here acknowledging that the enthusiasm and fervor with which the Gospel had been spread for so many centuries was lacking, and the Church needed to find out why and where it had gone. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that there is a problem to be solved.
The second question brings the modern context into the conversation, asking how the evangelical force can transform people of this century. We know that the faith does not change — Truth is immutable, unchanging, evergreen. The era of public revelation ended with the death of the last apostle. But in all times and in all places, the way the faith is presented can change, can be adapted to suit the greater context. The 20th century was a very different world from the 16th. When the Council of Trent was combating the errors of the Protestant Reformation, the most effective methods for evangelization were much different than they were in the 1970s, or in 2020. We need to always be asking ourselves how the power of the Good News can transform people in our own day, age, and culture.
The third question is the most practical, tackling the logistics of how to evangelize, asking about the methods that should be employed to give the Gospel message its full effect.
Pope Paul writes that these questions are another way of looking at the fundamental evangelical question facing the Church in the immediate aftermath of the Second Vatican Council: “after the Council and thanks to the Council, which was a time given her by God, at this turning-point in history, does the Church or does she not find herself better equipped to proclaim the Gospel and to put it into people’s hearts with conviction, freedom of spirit and effectiveness?” (4)
The purpose of this post-synodal apostolic exhortation is to help the universal Church to respond to these questions, and to form the Church’s mind and heart in the evangelical pursuit in the current day. “Such an exhortation seems to use to be of capital importance,” Paul writes, “for the presentation of the Gospel is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation.” (5)
The Holy Father continues by emphasizing once more how important the whole evangelical endeavor is, and how it should be pursued with every fiber of our being. “It brings with it a wisdom that is not of this world. It is able to stir up by itself faith — faith that rests on the power of God. It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life.” (5)
Next time we will continue our in-depth look at Evangelii Nuntiandi.