It seems that many believers approach the modern world somewhere along a spectrum of two mindsets. One might lament the present day and its many problems, and look to the Church as a bastion of good sense and virtue, holding back the flood waters of evil. The other can look for vigor and goodness and potential in the world, and work from the assumption that the time and place is right for bringing the Gospel out from behind shuttered gates.
Pope Paul VI had it hard in some ways. John XXIII called a council and gets the glory. But his successor was left to oversee three-fourths of its sessions, plus weather the inevitable joys, storms, and resistance that followed. Plus, he is remembered for Humanae Vitae. I suspect the fruit of his time as Bishop of Rome is a bit richer than that.
Over the next few months, I’d like to look at his document Evangelii Nuntiandi. In this “apostolic exhortation,” Paul VI summarizes the 1974 Synod of Bishops on the topic of spreading the Gospel. As we break open the first paragraphs of this document, let’s keep in mind some important aspects of language. Pre-conciliar Catholicism spoke most often of the mission apostolate, of “professionals” going to non-Christian lands and “converting” non-believers.
Paul VI begins to speak more of “evangelism” here. I think the perspective here is a bit wider. The Church is not interested only in lassoing members into the official fold. The evangelism here includes a kerygmatic element–the basic preaching/presentation of Christ in the Word of God. And then we await God’s grace to move people curious about Jesus Christ from there.
Without jumping too far ahead of ourselves, suffice it to say that this is an important document. Probably more important than many encyclical letters for the content, import, and consultation that went into its composition. Pope Paul addresses this letter “to the episcopate, to the clergy and to all the faithful of the entire world.” Consider this series a delivery of a very important letter addressed to you (if you consider yourself a believer). It may have been the result of bishops discussing and meeting way back in 1974. It may have been lost to most Catholics as the first edition of the Roman Missal was completed. But it’s still worth considering, discussing, and certainly implementing in our individual lives, in our parishes, and in the universal Church.
Venerable brothers and dear sons and daughters: health and the apostolic blessing.
1. There is no doubt that the effort to proclaim the Gospel to the people of today, who are buoyed up by hope but at the same time often oppressed by fear and distress, is a service rendered to the Christian community and also to the whole of humanity.
For this reason the duty of confirming the brethren – a duty which with the office of being the Successor of Peter[Cf. Lk 22:32] we have received from the Lord, and which is for us a “daily preoccupation,”[2 Cor 11:28] a program of life and action, and a fundamental commitment of our Pontificate – seems to us all the more noble and necessary when it is a matter of encouraging our brethren in their mission as evangelizers, in order that, in this time of uncertainty and confusion, they may accomplish this task with ever increasing love, zeal and joy.
I find the echo of Gaudium et Spes; do you? No doubt that the people of today, of 1975, and of 1965 suffered their “griefs and anxieties” (GS 1) as well as their “fear and distress.” Do Catholics today see non-believers or inactive Christians as bouncing between the hope of their lives and the “fear and distress” which is also an undeniable product of the times? Or perhaps as people to be preached “at”?
Not sure who Paul’s “brethren” are here. He didn’t write EN in English so he could mean his brother bishops. If he means all the baptized, as he addresses in his introduction, then of course, he means all his Catholic brothers and sisters. We will see the laity possess a vital role in the spreading of the Gospel. And these men and women, too, need encouragement to weather the circumstances of “uncertainty and confusion.” Don’t you think?