Does the New Evangelization Trump Ecumenism? Thoughts at the Conclusion of the Octave for Christian Unity

The New Evangelization seems new and exciting here in the United States. People talk about it a lot.

We plan lots of events and programs to support the New Evangelization. And sometimes, we even overuse the phrase.

But, ecumenism? Now that just seems old. Passé. Something that didn’t work and now the Church needs a different revitalizing and renewal. Basically, the New Evangelization is about getting people to be more Catholic, and ecumenism is having people sing Kumbayah and forget Church teachings.

This narrative gets it all wrong.

The New Evangelization is deeply ecumenical, because nothing is more fundamentally unifying than living relationship with Jesus Christ.

Our permanent missionary outlook as a Church has three dimensions: first, the announcement of the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ. Who are “those who do not know Jesus Christ?” It could be anyone. He might call himself Catholic, and yet not know Jesus Christ. She might tell you that she’s a devoted Presbyterian, yet not know Jesus Christ.

When it comes to answering the Church’s call to evangelize, to announce the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ and have not responded to His invitation to relationship, all of the divisions within and between Christians break down, as our labels conveying division–Roman Catholic, Methodist, Spiritual But Not Religious, Non-Denominational, etc.–are only secondary clues to each person’s individual story of belief and faith. The New Evangelization moves us beyond dividing and categorizing based on a label alone.

Secondly, being a missionary, evangelizing Church necessarily includes the continuing growth in faith and conversion of all who are believers. Both personal and communal conversion and renewed holiness are a part of this–a striking connection to the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 Decree on Ecumenism. Here the Church declared that the our “primary duty” to conform ourselves to God’s will “that all may be one” (John 17:21) is “to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that it’s life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles” (§4).

Did you catch the full force of that? Basically the Church is saying that one of the real problems in our quest for greater Christian unity is that we who are Catholic don’t bear witness clearly.

This lack of clear witness comes in many shapes and forms. It might be the co-worker who never misses a Sunday Mass or Holy Day with the attitude that he is earning his way to eternal life by following the rules. It might be the chapel with some great brochures explaining the kerygma simply and offering readers a way to prayerfully respond to Jesus’ offer of relationship on a rack in the back, but a sanctuary so crowded by artwork and devotional items that do not point to Christ (at least not to the untrained, unformed eye!) that it’s nearly impossible for the unevangelized to walk in and clearly take away the Gospel message.

The Council went on to explain that, “although the Catholic Church has been endowed with all divinely revealed truth and with all means of grace, yet its members fail to live by them with all the fervor that they should, so that the radiance of the Church’s image is less clear in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, and the growth of God’s kingdom is delayed” (§4).

Is this advice for the New Evangelization or for ecumenism? It’s hard to tell. And that’s the point. Far from trumping or taking the place of ecumenism, living out the New Evangelization furthers our journey as we conform ourselves to God’s will that all of His adopted sons and daughters in Jesus Christ be one.

Writing in the years before the Second Vatican Council, Fr. Louis Bouyer, C.O. explained that it is:

Essential for us to give a clear, positive witness to the truth that we chance, or rather have the undeserved grace, to possess. But this witness must be given to the whole truth and not merely to certain aspects of it to which we habitually restrict ourselves out of habit, facility, or mere indolence (The Word, Church, and Sacraments In Protestantism and Catholicism, p. 89-91).

Good advice for the New Evangelization or ecumenism? Yes.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity just ended yesterday. This week (or Octave, more precisely) stretches from Jan 18th (the old calendar’s celebration of the Chair of St. Peter) to Jan 25th (the feast of the conversion of St. Paul). There are usually a few events here and there in parishes and dioceses, but not usually anything that makes the national news. But that’s okay. In his 1995 statement expressing commitment to ecumenism, St. John Paul II noted, “the desire of every Christian Community for unity goes hand in hand with its fidelity to the Gospel” (Ut Unum Sint, §15). The New Evangelization calls us to live out our fidelity to the Gospel every single day of the year.

Both the New Evangelization and ecumenism are ultimately grounded in each person’s response to Jesus Christ’s gracious offer of friendship, communion, and lifelong relationship. Those who make the decision to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple open themselves to conversion in the Holy Spirit–conversion that moves us and empowers us to become more authentic, more credible witnesses to God’s love. Good for the New Evangelization. And, good for ecumenism.


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