Institutional Evangelization Without the Individual? Not Happening

A lot of “New Evangelization” talk gravitates towards questions of how to re-evangelized those who may be baptized but not practicing, those in our neighborhoods who’ve never even heard the Christian Gospel proclaimed at all, or even those who are “active” in parish life without having a personal relationship with God. But what about Catholic institutions–like hospitals, schools, social service providers, and more?

In a recent Catholic News Agency column, Msgr. Francis Mannion proposes that, “Catholic evangelization means, in great part, a practical renewal of the institutions by which the Church has traditionally maintained a saving presence in society.” This is undoubtedly true. We do have a great number of institutions.

From a parish food pantry, to a clothing collection drive for homeless shelters, to an annual Christmas “giving tree”–these can be thought of of the micro-institutions at parish-level that extend the saving presence of Jesus Christ into society. And of course there are larger institutions as well–diocesan schools, universities, and even large health care systems.

So what does a “practical renewal” of institutions look like?

First off, the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness (Evangelii Nuntianti §21). The witness of authentic Christian love creates the conditions for questions from genuinely curious onlookers who wonder what is it that motivates these Christians to act in such a way. It also provides a fundamental experience of a taste of God’s love to those who may have never experienced fellowship and communion with others. And I’m confident Msgr. Mannion agrees with all this.

The problem, however, arises when our renewal of Catholic institutions stops here. To renew institutions for evangelization means we must move beyond the starting point of witness to the fullness of Catholic evangelization as proclaimed by the Church.

What comes next?

Flowing from Christian witness comes the essential, clear, and unequivocal proclamation that “in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, who died and rose from the dead, salvation is offered to all men, as a gift of God’s grace and mercy” (Evangelii Nuntiandi §27).

The Church explains that this proclamation is “indispensable,” “verbal,” and “necessary”–in short, “the word remains ever relevant” (Evangelii Nuntiandi §42). In contrast to Msgr. Mannion’s assertions, truly Catholic evangelization includes proclamation of Jesus Christ as “the foundation, center…and summit of its dynamism” (Evangelii Nuntiandi §27).

The popular, yet erroneously quoted (see here and here), St. Francis of Assisi maxim, “preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary” is basically the opposite of how our Church understands the process of evangelization.

How can Catholic institutions take this next step?

Maybe in a parish soup kitchen, it’s as simply as talking openly about answered prayers of servers and guests, praying fervently for donations to meet needs in difficult times, and speaking enthusiastically about the saving power of Jesus Christ–rather than shyly appearing to be no different than a local non-Christian food pantry.

Maybe in a hospital, it means regularly offering preaching and fellowship for employees to voluntarily attend, where the Gospel message is preached and concrete means of response are offered.

Maybe in a Catholic high school it means building a culture where helping students develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is more important than acceptance to a top university.

The possibilities are endless, and only limited by our vision as evangelists.

Yet, this is also the challenge of initiating a renewal. We can talk all we want to about renewing institutions.

At the core, it starts with individuals.

There’s no such thing as an evangelizing institution without the individual evangelists within it. If a person has not encountered God’s love in Jesus Christ and his saving power and responded with a decision that “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction,” then how are they to share this with others? (Deus Caritas Est §1).

Renewing institutions grows out of the conversion and transformation of individuals in the Holy Spirit. In this sense, there is no competition between evangelizing individuals or evangelizing institutions–these are merely different stages in the same dynamic process, driven by and oriented towards the Holy Spirit.

As Pope Paul VI explained, the most obscure individual act of evangelization is indeed “an ecclesial act…attached to the evangelizing activity of the whole Church” not only in an organizational sense, but in the “profound invisible links in the order of grace” (Evangelii Nuntiandi §60).

Word vs. Sacrament, Preaching vs. Deeds, Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ vs. Ecclesial Relationship–these are false dichotomies. Catholic evangelization is all of these–without exception. Let’s not weaken the vision as we evangelize both individuals and institutions.

This post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

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