Hearts, minds and souls
The new Vatican pontifical council will first focus on renewing the Church in Europe . . .
Ever since Pope John Paul II made the “New Evangelization” a defining theme of his papacy, the Catholic Church has been keenly aware of the need to reach previously evangelized areas where practice of the faith has lapsed of languished.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI continued building on the momentum his predecessor created by forming the Pontifical Council for promoting the New Evangelization.
Formally introduced in October, the council is significant because it’s the Holy See’s first new dicastery to be established since 1985. “Something like this doesn’t happen at the Vatican all that often,” said Vatican-watcher Rocco Palmo, founder of the Whispers in the Loggia blog.
Not only does the new council underscore the Pope’s commitment to the New Evangelization, Palmo said, but it provides a place for local churches to get the resources they need to engage the culture.
Unique to the council are the specific tasks it has been given in areas that previously would have been spread among several Vatican offices, Palmo added. These include examining in depth the theological and pastoral meaning of the New Evangelization, advancing new initiatives, studying and encouraging the use of modern forms of communication as instruments for the New Evangelization, and promoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“You have basically a one-stop shop in terms of the Catechism, new media and reaching out,” Palmo said. “If anything, that bodes well for the council’s success.”
Author and journalist Philip Lawler, director of CatholicCulture.org, expects the council’s initial geographic focus to be Europe, where he said the problems of secularism are far more advanced than in the United States.
“By comparison, the U.S. is still very much a church-going society,” he explained. “Also, I think Pope Benedict sees it as natural that any new impulse of the faith in Europe will have a ripple effect across the Atlantic.”
Inside the Vatican editor Robert Moynihan added that there is some justification for the council training its initial focus on Europe because of the Church’s deep roots in European soil. “We have centuries of a texture of memory,” he said. “So it makes sense to build on that texture and try to reconnect with that texture: the history of faith, commitment, and sanctity that has so much depth.”
Another reason the U.S. may be put on the back burner, at least at the outset, Palmo said, is that the current pontificate has yet to do its periodic examination of the American bishops. Their ad limina visits, in which bishops travel to Rome to meet with the Pope and report on the state of their dioceses, are scheduled to start at the end of 2011. It will likely take nine to 10 months to complete the visits.
“Depending on what Vatican officials find either for praise or concern in the bishops’ reports will determine the degree to which the council will focus attention on the U.S.,” Palmo said.
Light of the World
For now, the particulars of the council’s actual work have yet to be worked out. Little has been done apart from appointing Italian Archbishop Rino Fisichella as president.
“We’re really at the formative stages,” Lawler said. “Archbishop Fisichella revealed that his first concerns are quite mundane — arranging for phone lines and so forth to set up the new office. But, clearly, the Pope is looking for concrete action: initiatives that engage the culture and the people.”
One important early development related to the council’s work, however, has come in the form of Pope Benedict’s latest book — Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times. (click here for related story)
Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, who oversaw the book’s translation from German into English for Ignatius Press, sees the book as a charter and mandate for the new council. Although news reports on the book have focused on two pages dealing with condom use, the book has much to say about the New Evangelization.
“It’s clear the Pope sees what he did in this book as related very closely to the New Evangelization,” said Fr. Fessio. “The book is unusual in that it’s a sitting pope having an all-transparent, no-holds- barred conversation with a professional journalist who is aware of trends all over the world — but especially in the West. The Pope is not speaking magisterially through a document, through a spokesman, through a letter to the bishops. He’s actually speaking to a journalist who is asking questions about the world. He’s reaching out to everybody.”
The Pope defines the New Evangelization in the book not as proclaiming a new gospel, Fr. Fessio said, but “the same old gospel” presented to a rationalistic age that recognizes the limits of reason.
Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, is chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis. Having a pontifical council dedicated to the New Evangelization — combined with a synod of bishops in 2012 that will be devoted to the topic — will catch everyone’s attention in a new and compelling way, he said. “It will help us to evaluate what we’re doing, its effectiveness and spur us on to new commitment and new approaches.”
Already, Bishop Malone said, “Everywhere you go, the theme of the New Evangelization is very much in the minds of Church leaders.” He added that although the tendency is to think of the New Evangelization as being aimed at inactive Catholics, it’s a new approach to sharing the gospel in general — including the evangelization of the culture.
“Something has happened since John Paul II gave us this wonderful notion of the New Evangelization, building on Paul VI [and his 1975 apostolic exhortation On Evangelization in the Modern World]. I see more attention now to analysis of culture and how evangelization is meant to touch the hearts of people and, through people, to transform the culture in which we live.”
Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.