Historical Considerations for Why Catholics Are Afraid to Evangelize

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The New Evangelization calls us to reclaim and attend to the traditions and language of Catholicism. But as I discussed in my previous post, many Catholics are afraid to use the word evangelization because they are not comfortable having a personal and lived relationship with Christ. But there are also three historical considerations that may explain why Catholics might be hesitant to use the word evangelization and why they are hesitant to witness to their Catholic faith. Of course, while it is impossible to give a thorough treatment of these historical considerations, this brief outline does shed some light on how Catholics have come to view evangelization.

The Post-Reformation Church in America

In the post-Reformation world, Catholicism became increasingly focused on children and youth, specifically youth catechesis. As a consequence, adult faith formation became neglected, which contributed to the collapse of small faith-sharing communities. It was in these small Christian communities that the faith had been shared and organically witnessed to in homes and parishes throughout the world. Over the last century, Catholics expected evangelization to be the work of social justice advocates and foreign missionaries. This absolved many Catholics of the need to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Most Catholics felt that missionary work was something that happened overseas, and the imperative to evangelize was confined to those who actually worked for the Church, not the average parishioner. The language of personal mission became more and more alien to Catholics, and faith was seen increasingly as a private affair.

The Immigrant Catholic Church

American Catholicism still carries the memory of being a foreign religion. The Catholic faith was seen as the religion of immigrants, and Catholics in America were set apart because of their beliefs and were often viewed with suspicion. Catholics lived together in small, tight-knit communities where faith was at the root of their lives―the Irish on the south side of Chicago or the Polish communities in New York for example. Hostility toward immigrants was often translated into a hostility toward Catholicism. During this time, there were many horror stories of how Catholic immigrants were treated. The signs in the stores that read “No Irish need to apply” are a grim reminder of the suspicion with which Catholics—specifically Irish Catholics—were viewed. Stories from ancestors fleeing their mother countries and looking for a better life also carried the message that it was far better to fit in and pledge allegiance to America than to remind people that we, as Catholics, also identified with the pope in Rome. This desire to “blend in,” a feature of immigrant Catholicism, has had serious consequences for Catholics in this country. Many Catholics bought into the belief that faith was something private and not something to be shared in the public square. For example, many people say that the Church should not comment on politics. Many believe that the Catholic Church should offer no public commentary on how to care for those who are poor, on the misuse of resources, on systems which oppress others, on advancement, or on matters of science. The list goes on and on. This dichotomy between faith and life was referenced by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes when they wrote: “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age” (no. 43 ).

Evangelization as Proselytizing

In the last 50 years, evangelization became synonymous with Evangelical Protestantism. Televangelists became common as Evangelicals took to the air to share their faith. Catholics still continue to understand evangelization as proselytizing. (The irony is that the Venerable Fulton Sheen was one of the first persons to use the medium of television to share the Good News.) I have often heard people say, “I don’t want to push my religion on anyone else.” Let me be clear: evangelization is not proselytizing! Evangelization is sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, who he is, and what he has done for us. It is inviting people to live out of that relationship. It is witnessing the saving love of a God who wants his people to live in cooperation and joy with him. Evangelization is a witness so compelling and authentic that others who see it ask themselves, “What does that person have? Why do they live like that?” Evangelization is about being able to give the reason for our hope. To evangelize is to witness to our story of faith! Evangelization is not about trying to impose your beliefs on other people.

Pope Paul VI declared in Evangelii Nuntiandi that the “Church exists in order to evangelize.” We are the Church. We exist to evangelize.

Which of the historical considerations above have had the greatest impact on you? What other historical considerations might explain why Catholics are afraid to evangelize?

About Julianne Stanz 26 Articles
Julianne Stanz is the Director of New Evangelization for the Diocese of Green Bay and a consultant to the USCCB Committee on Catechesis and Evangelization. Julianne infuses her talks, retreats, and seminars with humor, passion, and insights from her life in Ireland. A popular speaker, storyteller, and author, Julianne is married with three children and spends her time reading, writing, teaching, and collecting beach glass. She is the author of Developing Disciples of Christ and co-author, with Joe Paprocki, of The Catechist’s Backpack.

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