Ideal Evangelization? Don’t Hold Your Breath

At first glance, what we find in Acts 17 (today’s daily Mass readings) seems pretty standard. A Christian guy sees that the people around him aren’t worshipping the true God. So he starts talking to people. Preaches Jesus and the Resurrection. They invite him to speak more and give him a microphone on one of the most prestigious stages in town.

He does all the right things—“meets them where they’re at,” and tells the story of God, proclaims the kerygma—he doesn’t get interrupted, doesn’t have to field any tough questions, doesn’t get any specific objections.

Some believe, some want to hear more, some are out the door. Sounds like a great event for the New Evangelization! Maybe I should volunteer to plan one of these in my parish…

At first glance, this episode of Paul in Athens does seem like the ideal evangelization, but really, there’s no such thing.

It’s all about our own attentiveness and response to the Holy Spirit, wherever we are and whatever we discern our mission to be.

In Chapter 17, we find Paul in Athens on his second missionary journey of Acts. This journey started out in Antioch of Syria with an experienced mission partner, Barnabas, and a pretty straightforward plan, as we read in Chapter 15, to “visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” To visit fellow believers in synagogues.

Not out to convert anyone or do evangelization—just some pastoral care and catechesis. A focus on maintaining the flock.

But right away, Paul discerns that the Holy Spirit does not want him to preach in Asia—and unlike many of us, when we are afraid to move outside the boundaries of our own plans—Paul responds, and heads to Greece.

Before he can visit any of the synagogues to check on fellow believers, he keeps getting interrupted—baptizing Lydia, a Gentile woman, and getting thrown in jail for healing a slave girl.

When he finally does get to preach in synagogues with believers, he ends up getting chased out of town by mobs, and only escapes by hopping on a boat headed to Athens 200 miles away.

Now Paul is stuck with barely any familiar synagogues to visit, and with nothing to do but wait for the rest of his missionary team to get on down to Athens—unless he was to step outside of his plan. We see the Holy Spirit is working on him and working through him, sending him beyond his preconceived notion of “his flock.” 

Paul is ready to evangelize wherever he is, willing to step outside his preconceived notions of mission and evangelization. This is one of our great challenges in the New Evangelization.

For decades, many of our habits and practices of parish life have tacitly assumed that sacramentalized Catholics are evangelized Catholics, that Catholic culture is enough to transmit the faith. In our setting today, this has proven to no longer be the case. Evangelization must also be directed at baptized Catholics, nominal Catholics, those hurt by the Church, and those who have gradually slipped away from belief.

At first, Paul is shocked by the idolatry he sees in Athens. But his response is deeper than just a surface emotion. The Greek text indicates an irritation of Paul’s spirit, a distressed state, a continuous pained reaction to what he is observing. It’s not an anger, an attempt to push values, or desire to be right that drives his actions, but sincere concern, a love and generosity for those who don’t know God the Creator, who don’t know Christ and the resurrection.

The Holy Spirit is cultivating a love for people Paul doesn’t even know. The Holy Spirit is stirring up the conviction that a bold witness to them is worth the risk, even if not part of the plan.

And so Paul expands his vision, dramatically. Having the confidence to take the message of Christ outside the boundaries of the synagogues he knows, to the unexpected people and places God is calling him.

What does this mean for me? Maybe it means helping my parish shift focus beyond initiatory catechesis through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and children’s religious education programs to a greater investment in evangelizing Catholic adults, who can go on to evangelize their children and others. Or maybe it means helping to push outside the physical boundaries of the parish, offering the critical initial proclamation of Jesus Christ where people are—in neighborhoods, cafes, and public spaces.

For some of us, it might mean looking a historically Catholic neighborhood that has undergone great demographic change, and devoting increased resources to the newer population of the parish area, rather than simply maintaining the flock of older parishioners in the pews.

The example of Paul in Chapter 17 of Acts encourages each of us to listen to the Holy Spirit and abide in the Spirit’s guidance and care. So many of our most well intentioned routines are designed with a focus on those who are in the pews each week. While this is certainly important, Paul’s missionary journey reminds us to look outward, to move beyond our self-imposed notions of who we are to evangelize.

Our New Evangelization won’t look exactly like Paul in Athens. We won’t get results by trying to simply replicate Paul’s speech at the Aeropagus.

What we can do is seek the Holy Spirit—and when the Spirit points us outward in the New Evangelization, we have to respond. Even if, like Paul we’re out of our comfort zone, working away from the familiar synagogues of believers, and beyond how we’ve previously envisioned pastoral care or catechesis. In the end, like Paul, we can respond with a fierce urgency, an urgency driven by love for those who are away from or do not know the love of Christ in His Church.

This post originally appeared at


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