For four decades, the popes have been calling the Church to a “new evangelization” or “re-evangelization,” something that involves a mission not only to those who are not Catholic but to those who are baptized but for whatever reason have not been living according to their baptism, who have wandered from the practice of the faith, or who are just going through the motions.
Blessed Paul VI wrote on proclaiming the Gospel to the people of today in Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975. Pope John Paul I, in his 33-day papacy, immediately took to the task in his much-remembered catecheses. St. John Paul II wrote Redemptoris Missio in 1990, describing how all of us have a role in the ongoing mission Jesus entrusted to the Church. Pope Benedict XVI preached his first homily on the need to re-propose the faith to those who have stopped practicing and held a synod in 2012 with bishops and experts from around the world to study the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith. And Pope Francis published Evangelii Gaudium eight months into his papacy, announcing his desire for a “missionary transformation” of the Church, so that everyone and every part of the Church might cooperate in sharing with others the “Joy of the Gospel.”
All of them have been seeking to actualize the essential purpose of the Second Vatican Council, to help the Church better proclaim and live the Gospel today. The fact that they have felt the need to build on each other’s efforts, however, is a sign that, in many places, their words and summons have for the most part fallen on hardened, rocky and thorny soil rather on the good and fruitful soil that produces abundant fruit. Their words have been examined and echoed in various books and programs, but have not had the transformative impact the popes have intended. They have not become programmatic for the vast majority of Catholic lives, families, schools, parishes, and dioceses.
That’s why Archbishop Allen Vigneron’s pastoral letter “Unleash the Gospel,” published earlier this summer on the Vigil of Pentecost, is such a service not only to Catholics in southeastern Michigan but to the Church universal.
With the possible exception of the “Aparecida Document,” released a decade ago under the leadership of the future Pope Francis and published by the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, “Unleash the Gospel” is the most impressive synthesis of the Church’s understanding of evangelization, analysis of the challenges being faced, and step-by-step guide to put the Church’s hope into practice today that I have ever seen.
I could not recommend this 43-page missionary manifesto more highly to all clergy, religious, catechists, parish leaders, parents, and anyone who wants to strengthen the Church today and tomorrow. It can be easily downloaded at www.unleashthegospel.org.
Archbishop Vigneron is widely regarded by the bishops in the U.S. as one of their brightest minds and most effective pastors, and both attributes are conspicuously on display in “Unleash the Gospel.”
He describes the steady decline of the number of practicing Catholics, religious and priestly vocations over the last several decades, the mounting number of pastoral challenges, and the consequent influenza of pessimism that has infected many believers.
He defines the “false religions” — “scientific fundamentalism,” “moralistic therapeutic deism” and “secular messianism” — that have been gradually supplanting true faith.
He lists the “bad habits” to which many believers have succumbed: a worldly notion of the Church, spiritual weariness and defeatism, resistance to change, multiple fears and a general attitude of complaining.
And he forthrightly declares that our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, and even some of our homes have become missionary territories.
But then he provocatively asks, “Is it not in the most unlikely settings that the Lord loves to show forth his divine power?” He expresses his faith that “today no less than two millennia ago, there is no limit to what the Lord can do.” And he sketches how each of us can cooperate with God’s desire to do in us what he did in the first Christians.
For the Church to become a “band of joyful missionary disciples” begins, he says, with the good habits of docility to the Holy Spirit, apostolic courage, a spirit of cooperation rather than competition, trust in God, and gratitude for the blessing of our faith.
Then it involves a journey with 10 practical “guideposts” to keep us on the right path as God transforms our lives and institutions from maintenance to mission.
The first is openness to a “new Pentecost,” in which we repent from un-Christian ways of thought and behavior and live truly by faith, confident that God can do in our age what we read in the Acts of the Apostles.
Second is the determination to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, encountering him in prayer, speaking of him to others, witnessing to his mercy and charity in how we live.
Third is allowing the word to become flesh and dwell among us, through listening to God’s word in sacred Scripture, receiving the incarnate word in the Holy Eucharist, becoming one body in Christ in communion with other believers, and allowing the Lord regularly to restore us to communion through the sacrament of reconciliation whenever sin has divided us from Him or each other.
Fourth is to equip Catholics for the service of the Gospel by helping them learn and live the Gospel fully, develop the basic skills to share it, and to recognize and utilize the divine gifts God has given us precisely for that purpose.
Fifth, Archbishop Vigneron emphasizes that there can be “no bystanders,” that all Catholics — youth and young adults, laypeople, consecrated men and women, those in movements, deacons and priests — must be trained, inspired and assisted to fulfill the call of their Baptism and Confirmation to spread the faith.
Sixth is to focus on person-to-person engagement, going out to meet people, accompany them and seek to bring them to Christ for the healing they need, not failing to use all the means at our disposal, including media and social media, to do so.
Seventh is a specific ministry to families, helping them evangelize each other and together evangelize their extended families, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.
Eighth is to focus on allowing the full attraction of the faith to radiate through our joy, our care for every person especially those in need, and our loving welcome for newcomers and reverts to our parishes.
Ninth is to assist everyone in the continuous dynamic of encountering God, growing in faith and witnessing to it.
And 10th is to have a bold trust in the help of the Holy Spirit, the prayers of Mary and the saints, and the confidence that God and the supernatural means he provides are stronger than the obstacles we’ll face.
The final section of the document is a deeply considered, highly practical application of these good habits and guideposts to the concrete situation of families, parishes, and diocesan structures. It’s a detailed game plan so that the vision of the new evangelization might be implemented in the formation and flourishing apostolate of joyful missionary disciples in communion. It’s accountable, with challenging but realistic time lines, especially at the archdiocesan and parish levels, to build and maintain momentum over a gradual process.
Its immediate goal is “nothing less than a radical overhaul of the Church in Detroit, a complete reversal of our focus from an inward, maintenance-focused church, to an outward, mission-focused Church.”
Its ultimate goal is the formation of a “community of missionary disciples,” a “whole host of causes for beatification,” and, through a new Pentecost, making the archdiocese a “place of the manifest presence of God.”
It is an inspiring, concrete, pastoral program to “unleash the Gospel” anew in our age — and a long-awaited answer to an ever-increasing need.
Fr. Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass., who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations. He writes for many national Catholic publications.