Waiting on the New Evangelization

If precedent is any guide, many good Catholic lay people are waiting to hear what their diocesan bishops and/or local pastors have to say about the new evangelization before they decide whether it’s something for them to get involved in. That’s the typical reaction of the clericalist mindset to something new in the Church: “What does Father want us to do?”

It was good enough to keep the Church running for a long time, but it doesn’t work so well anymore. If it persists, its internal inadequacies are likely to alienate more and more people in the years ahead. And there will be no new evangelization.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with lay-clergy cooperation — in relation to evangelization or anything else. On the contrary: Cooperation between lay people and their bishops and priests is very, very good.

But excessive dependence of the laity on the clergy — always waiting for them to do the thinking, give the orders, and take the lead — is something else again. It is, to repeat, an expression of clericalism, and it just isn’t helpful.

By now, surely, the problem that the new evangelization is supposed to address should be perfectly obvious to everyone, lay and cleric alike. It’s the serious shrinkage of faith in places where it used to be strong.

That is notably the case in much of Europe, in countries like France, Germany, Spain, Great Britain, and even parts of Ireland, where, to one degree or another, Christianity appears to have its back to the wall. Pope Benedict XVI says many of the inhabitants of such places have become “a people of unbelief and distance from God.”

That isn’t an issue only in Europe. The same problem, or set of problems, also exists in North America — that is to say, in the United States and Canada.

Quebec, once a bastion of Catholicism, has been experiencing radical secularization for years, and participation in the Church is way down. In both countries, mainstream Protestantism is weak and growing weaker. And in the United States, too, the Church has serious problems of retention, dramatized in the fact that one in three Americans who were raised as Catholics have quit the Church, with half joining mostly conservative Protestant bodies and the others becoming religiously unaffiliated.


Pope Benedict has spoken often about such matters, but he’s done more than talk. A while back he announced that the world Synod of Bishops in October next year would focus on new evangelization, and earlier this year he established as part of the Curia a Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization to organize the Holy See’s response to the issue.

While it hardly needs saying that meetings and structures have only limited value in and of themselves, they’re essential to developing and applying the new thinking that the new evangelization clearly demands.

That was the central point of Benedict’s important address to the new pontifical council last May, in which he declared “the need for a renewed method of proclamation” to counter the effects of secularization. A renewed approach is required, he insisted, because this crisis itself is new, finding expression as it does in things like “the exclusion of God from people’s lives” and “generalized indifference toward the Christian faith, to the point of attempting to marginalize it from public life.”

When the pope talks about “a renewed method,” many people probably assume that he means new projects and new technologies, especially the use of digital media. Undoubtedly he does — seeing Benedict using Twitter on TV strongly suggests as much. But he likely also means something else — something that’s a great deal more important.

Specifically, I believe Benedict was speaking of the need for a new mentality suited to the new evangelization. Above all, a mentality in which the clericalism of the past is no longer dominant in Catholic life.

So let me ask: Do Catholic lay people really have to wait for marching orders from the clerical hierarchy of the Church before getting involved in the new evangelization? The answer, of course, is no.

For skeptics, here’s a simple program for new evangelization that any lay Catholic can and should undertake right here and now, on his or her own, without waiting to receive instructions from the pope or the bishop or the pastor.

First, be exemplary in the practice of your religion. That doesn’t mean being a pious pain in the neck; it means living out the faith with conviction and commitment, and doing so not just at church on Sunday but in weekday secular life in the world — in the home, school, neighborhood, and workplace. People of faith who do that will attract attention, and although the attention won’t always be favorable, sometimes it will be. That’s evangelization.

Second, study the faith so that you can explain it intelligently and, when necessary, defend it. Slowly and carefully read the Catechism of the Catholic Church (or, if that’s too much, the Compendium of the Catechism) along with the American bishops’ adult catechism. Read other solid, orthodox religious literature (a man named Joseph Ratzinger has published a lot). Bone up on the history of the Church. “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for your hope” (1 Pet 3:15). That also is evangelization. If you’re not up to doing it now, the remedy rests with you.

Two other steps are worth mentioning, though they may not be available to everyone. One is to join a faithful apostolic group that provides formation for evangelization (if you can find one, that is). The other, for those with some special skill or aptitude — writing or music, for example — is to think of creative ways to put it to use in this great cause.

Whatever else you do, stop excusing inaction by saying you can’t do anything until Father tells you what to do. That’s clericalism, and it’s wrong. Here’s hoping you and Father have many opportunities to work together in the future on behalf of the new evangelization. But pending that, you’ve got lots to do right now.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

    In too many ways and too many ears this call rings hollow, the reason being that this did not start off a the “new evangelization” it started as opening the door of the Church to the world. Then it became the “spring time of Evangelization” now its the “new evangelization” soon enough it will morph in to “the prosecution of the Church” and later “the new martyrdom of the faithful.” All the meanwhile gleefully many Bishops will be sitting there behind their altars… I mean communion tables staring at their ever diminishing congregations congratulating them selves on how everything is now so much better now after “The Council.”

    In many ways this resembles a government program that was put in place to fix the problems the last government program left. So, the new Evangelization, is the project created to solve the problem that the last project left behind. That being of course the Second Vatican council.

    I am sorry but lay and clerics can do as much as they want and teach the orthodox Catholic Faith as well as they can and reach and convert many it will come to nothing as long as those Bishops sitting in their cathedras do not hold to the same orthodox view.

    To give you a recent example lets put it to a practical question, what growth or new evangelization can there be in a place like Rochester or Albany. What chance is there for the Faith to grow there? None, at least not the Catholic Faith, some sort of mutant heretical idea of what the Faith is may grow but not the True Faith.

    First the Church must learn again who she is, then we can talk about evangelizing the world again.

    • Dave P.


      Every time the Church is in a crisis, God raises up people to resolve it. But the battle does last decades. Arianism took a long time to die out. The Benedictines needed a few centuries to spread throughout Europe after Rome’s fall. The Counter-Reformation gave us St. Pius V, the Jesuits, and St Francis de Sales, but Europe still endured the chastisement of the Thirty Years’ War.

      Now we have EWTN, new and growing religious orders, the devotion of the Divine Mercy, and the return of Anglicans to the Church. We also have the Internet, so we can know things and respond to them much more quickly than before. But even with all this, it will still take time.

      I’ll give you a practical example. I live in Milwaukee. I had to endure Archbishop Weakland for 25 years. He left quite a mess. Things are notperfect here (we are enduring bankruptcy), but even so, they have gotten better. We have more seminarians; the younger priests are more traditional; and our new auxiliary bishop is one of the finest priests I know. If it can get better here, it can get better anywhere.

      • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

        You are right God does raise up people and apparently the Bishops have made it their jobs to smack them right back down.

        Here is a living example:


        Good luck getting through that brick wall with “the new evangelization.”

        It can drive any Catholics that cares about their faith to tears.

        • Dave P.

          You are right God does raise up people and apparently the Bishops have made it their jobs to smack them right back down.

          That’s nothing new. Most of the reform movements met with resistance from bishops and religious superiors. And as far as the example you present, I agree with Fr. Z. The young priest was a bit hasty. Prudence and being positive will help in the long run. Remember St. Francis de Sales’ quote about attracting flies.

          Lastly, Matthew Clark is retiring next year. Howard Hubbard will follow the year after. Their successors will be very, very different. And things will improve in the long run. Be patient, pray, use the resources given you, and remember that the Church has gotten through crises before. She’s getting through this one.

          • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

            I pray that does indeed happen in all parts.

  • Deacon Ed

    “Two other steps are worth mentioning, though they may not be available to everyone. One is to join a faithful apostolic group that provides formation for evangelization (if you can find one, that is).”

    My recommendations:
    1. Lay-established and run, episcopal-supported regional Schools of Evangelization which would prepare the faithful (esepcially the young) as missionaries to the culture.
    2. A signifcant presence on the USCCB website that would list approved apostolic groups that form the faithful in evangelization.

  • Yes, we need the laity to get involved, start things up, and not rely on our overworked priests to do it.

    Brief example: I am a lay apologist–no big whoop, just know a little about apologetics–and I offered to teach a class at the parish on defending the faith, Church history, Protestantism, Orthodoxy, etc. My parish priest and the staff were _thrilled_. They made an announcement, posted signs up around the parish. The deacon even told the congregation “you’ve been asking for some kind of faith formation classes for adults, well, we have one now!”

    So yesterday I taught the first class. We have a small parish, so I expected maybe a handful of people to come. Instead, 45 people showed up!

    I’m not intending to brag here on myself–all I did was show up and talk about defending the faith–my point is that there is such a need in every diocese (well, except maybe in Denver πŸ™‚ for this kind of thing. Step up and do it!

  • martin

    I pray, pay and obey. It turns out that if you actually do these things you are evangelizing. You know good Catholics have been doing those three things for centuries, back when the Church was in Her glory, the problem today is that Catholics *aren’t* doing those three things.

  • Mr. Marx

    As for your “…simple program for new evangelization that any lay Catholic can and should undertake right here and now…”, in my workplace, any, and I do mean ANY, christian evangelization will get you marched to HR in a heart beat. You will be told: shut up or be fired.
    Take down those crosses or you will be thrown out of work. Sue’em for this? You WILL lose.

    Corporate America today has its marching orders from Washington: Promote homosexuality and persecute christians.

    To which I add, good thing.. religion is for morons…

  • Nick

    I would just like to say thank you for writing this piece, as in my experience most of the Catholics who are still practicing their faith, aren’t living out their Baptismal promise and the command from Jesus to “evangelize”…aka, “Go make disciples of All Nations.” Catholics have been ignorant of our faith, apologizing to often for our beliefs, and hiding our faith, instead of following Christ to the Cross and spreading the Gospel! It is time to WAKE UP my fellow brothers and sisters! Christ is calling ALL to be His soldiers in the fight and JPII constantly called for a New Evangelization…a New Springtime.

    Well, I believe it is now and it has begun. Most are unaware of it, but there are movements amongst the laity stirred by the Holy Spirit to help bring this about….to fruition. Two groups to look into…
    1) FOCUS – Fellowship of Catholic University Students. They are a missionary group with great vision, formation, and fidelity to the Church. This group has done and is continuing to do incredible things in evangelizing college students and bringing souls to Christ. Check them out….everyone can get involved in reaching others for Christ through participating by learning about them, praying for the missionaries and their work, and by financially supporting a missionary and join in their mission. http://www.focus.org

    2) Renewal Ministries based in Ann Arbor, MI does incredible work in the New Evangelization. Check them out as well.

    God has great plans for each one of us and a role to play….what is your role? Ask Christ in prayer what He wants from you.

  • Thankyou Mr Shaw,

    You’re article was a breath of fresh air. Last evening I read this article to my husband and we agree with you. We must always be ready and become knowledgeable in our Faith. in order to become part of the New Springtime of Evangelization…….if we wait for someone else to pick up the ball we may be waiting a very along time.

    Thankyou again it was refreshing to read an article that gives us Hope.

  • Jim

    It is getting harder to evangelize in the workplace, but still not impossible. Jesus said: whoever saves his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, will gain it. Religion is not for morons, especially if you are blessed with the Truth.

    Thanks for the great article, Mr. Shaw!

    God Bless!

  • elleblue

    But excessive dependence of the laity on the clergy β€” always waiting for them to do the thinking, give the orders, and take the lead β€” is something else again. It is, to repeat, an expression of clericalism, and it just isn’t helpful.

    What isn’t helpful is the laity running with what ‘they think’ the Church teaches! This has led to at least two generations of Catholics who do not know what the church ACTUALLY teaches. Of course there are some laity who have taken the lead and educated themselves. But for the most part we have churchs full of people who think they know and they don’t. So I wouldn’t be too forceful in telling people to stop depending on the clergy. The clergy are their to teach and clairify and this is badly needed.

  • Kathryn

    Um…and when the clergy is just fine with contraception, abortion, divorce, remarriage? It has been my experience, albeit somewhat limited, that when the laity have stopped towing the Vatican line, they were supported by the clergy.

    If anything, the clergy (perhaps not the more recently ordained members) seem dependent on the laity to teach what the Church teaches about contraception, abortion, the Real Presence, etc.

  • Wi

    I got a kick out of the person who said, “The younger preists are more traditional.” That means they are supremely clerical and conscious of their power. That means they will be against the main point of this article: That lay people should wait on Father and not think for themselves.

    This is an amazingly radical article that contradicts the general trend of a John Paul II and Benedict XVI Church which mistrusts lay people who dare think for themselves.

  • IrishEddieOHara

    When 70% of Catholics no longer beieve that the Eucharist is truly Christ, then the “New Evangelization” really needs to start in the Church first.

    You can’t share what you don’t have.

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