The ‘new evangelization’

When the Vatican proclaimed 2013 as the “Year of the Faith,” I wondered if this meant a rethinking of the ecumenism that has long characterized the Catholic Church’s respectful relationship with other faith communities. My interest as an observer of social institutions was heightened even more by the topic chosen for the Synod of Bishops recently convened in Rome: “the new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith.”

The word “evangelization,” which literally means “the bringing of the good news,” is burdened by many sad connotations, not the least of which is the violent subjugation of native peoples and the destruction of their cultures.  Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the ironic circumstances surrounding the martyrdom of the new Filipino saint, San Pedro Calungsod.

Pedro Calungsod, the young sacristan and catechist, was killed in 1672 together with the priest Fray Diego Luis de San Vitores, barely six years after the Spanish colonizers arrived in the islands we know today as Guam and Northern Marianas.  Clearly the two missionaries were viewed by the Chamorros, the indigenous inhabitants of the Marianas, as part of the foreign expedition that had come to enslave them.  And so, even as we hail the lives of two Catholic evangelists who gave their lives in the service of their faith, we cannot ignore the historical reality that at the time they were killed, they were counted as belonging to the party of a foreign aggressor.  Tens of thousands of native Chamorros perished in that war of conquest in the course of defending their homes and their way of life.

Today, it is of course unthinkable for any foreign group to go into another country under the auspices of an armed expedition to propagate its religion.  Indeed, so strong is the historical connection between religious conversion and colonial invasion that even where missionaries have come absolutely unarmed, their motives have always been suspect.

Outside of Europe and North America, perhaps only a few nations are left in the world—and the Philippines is one of them—that allow foreign missions to engage in religious work within their societies. It is to our credit as a nation that we do, and that we have been a warm welcoming host to religious congregations who have set up houses here to train missionaries for deployment to other parts of the world. Still, we cannot be dismissive of others that think that such missions pose a threat to their cultures, if not to their political systems.

Benedict XVI has such an acute understanding of the place of the Church in the modern world that it is hard to imagine him wanting to resurrect the ghost of colonialist proselytization and the cultural arrogance this implies.  It was thus with more than a touch of curiosity that I scanned Zenit, the daily dispatch that carries news from the Vatican, for the synod’s final message.  This is of special interest to us Filipinos because no less than the recently named cardinal, Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Tagle, was designated to be the secretary of the “commission for the message.”

Anyone who has been assigned the thankless task of synthesizing the proceedings of a conference would appreciate the complexity of the enterprise that has fallen on the shoulders of the young cardinal.  Not only is the message expected to capture the multiple voices heard at the synod, it must also be clear enough to serve as a guide for the faithful, and broad enough to be understood by the different regions in which a universal church must operate. The full text of the message has not yet been released, but here are some excerpts from the official summary:

“Looking specifically at the context of new evangelization, the Synod therefore reminds of the necessity to revive faith, which risks being made obscure in the context of today’s cultures, also faced with the weakening of the faith by many baptized persons…. However, the Church reasserts that to evangelize, one must be evangelized first of all, and sends out a plea—starting with herself—for conversion, because the weaknesses of Jesus’ disciples weigh upon the credibility of the mission…. [T]he bishops invite Christians to overcome fear with faith and to look at the world with serene courage because, while full of contradictions and challenges, this is still the world God loves. Therefore no pessimism: globalization, secularization, and the new scenarios of society, migration, even with the difficulties and suffering they entail—they must be seen as opportunities for evangelization.”

This is far from the unreflective and arrogant institution that colonized peoples associate with the Catholic Church.  Replying to questions at the Rome press conference where the message was presented, Cardinal “Chito” perhaps expressed it best:  “In the message, we find a humble church, admitting that it does not understand everything that’s happening in the world.  That it’s confused, that it has suffered, but it also admits its share in the wounds of society…. Humility for the Church is not a strategy; it is the way of Jesus.  It is how God manifested himself to us in Jesus, and loved us in the form of Christ crucified.”

These are reassuring statements.  They give us a clearer idea of what the “new evangelization” means: It has little to do with the conversion of pagans. This is, rather, the voice of the Church offering the Gospel as a cure to the rampant cynicism, materialism, and violence in the world.  To those who believe, a renewal of hope; to the baptized who have strayed, a return to the redemptive power of Jesus’ love. To the faithless, an invitation to believe.