Paul VI evangelisation call 30 years old this year a passion for good news-ing

This December is the 30th anniversary of Paul VI’s groundbreaking encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi. Ruth Smithies takes a fresh look at this papal letter in today’s context.

A few months ago I visited the exhibition in Te Papa on New Zealand in the 1970s. It covered momentous events such as Bastion Point, the abortion debate, and the Springbok Tour. The exhibition brought home to me how much New Zealand has changed in the space of a mere 30 years.

The Church in the 1970s has had its momentous events too. They set the direction for the decades that followed. One such event was the publication of Pope Paul VI’s apostolic exhortation on evangelisation in the modern world (in Latin Evangelii Nuntiandi) in 1975. It became known as the ‘Catholic Charter on Evangelisation’. Though we celebrate its 30th anniversary this year its full impact is yet to be felt.

The document places evangelisation at the centre of what the Church is about. ‘The Church exists in order to evangelise’. In other words, to use the jargon of today, we should be passionate about evangelisation.

Why is it that the charter’s full impact is yet to be felt? One reason, I think, is that it is not easy to become passionate about a long, abstract word like evangelisation! It literally means good news-ing: passing on the good news of Jesus, his words, his promises, his life. It is used because most people would link the more common word, mission, with far away countries. The word evangelisation on the other hand, though quite a mouthful, refers to an activity that should take place always and everywhere.

What is special about this charter on evangelisation is that, for the first time in such a clear manner, it describes evangelisation in its full richness. It was written out of a seamless or holistic sense of salvation. Evangelisation aims at the renewal of humanity in all its dimensions, body and soul, private and public spheres and cultures. The charter made two other key points. The first one is that evangelisation is always and everywhere necessary, including that Christiansóand even the Churchóare in continuing need to be evangelised themselves. The second point is that each and every believer is called to evangelise, in other words: every Catholic is or should be a missionary.

How can the ordinary Catholic do this, without training or a degree in theology? That was also an insight of the document: evangelisation is a task not just for the individual believer but for the faith community together.

Five ways or methods of evangelising are spelled out. None of the five ways is the complete or most important method. All five are needed: silent witness, preaching, teaching, worship and transformation. We evangelise not only when we talk explicitly about Jesus Christ (preach). We also evangelise in the way we live our life (silent witness), in the way we catechise our children and young people (teach), in the way we publicly celebrate our faith as a community of believers (worship), and in the efforts we make to bring social justice to our society and its structures (transformation).

The Te Papa exhibition of the 1970s showed that events 30 years ago have had a profound impact and changed the face and feel of our country. I guess that the pace of change in the Church tends to be slower than in secular society√¢ÀÜ≈°√¢‚Ä∞¬•perhaps as the ad says ‘good things take time’ and the full impact of the charter on evangelisation is yet to be felt. But some good things have happened:

• Parishes are making an effort to be welcoming and caring.

• Parish evangelisation groups have been established, although experience has shown them to be short-lived.

• Some parishes do try to become youth-friendly.

• Parishes do offer RCIA programmes, though not all understand fully that the RCIA requires the evangelising efforts of the whole parish.

• Many parishes have children’s liturgies which can be strong evangelising experiences.

• In many parishes the relationship between parish and school has become closer over the last decade.

• More lay people join faith-sharing groups like Renew.

• The call to work for the transformation of society is heard, though it is still seen by some as an optional extra, if not a downright irritant.

• The Legion of Mary is active, especially in the Samoan communities.

• The ‘Catholics Returning Home’ programme, an effort to welcome inactive Catholics back into the Church, has been taken up by several parishes.

Today we can carry into society no assumptions that the good news will be welcomed, the Jesus story understood. Barely one-third of all New Zealanders believe in a personal God. What’s the Church to do? The charter on evangelisation, 30 years old this year, can guide us. Each one of us, as member of the community of believers, is asked to be passionate about ‘good news-ing’, in the different ways in which it can be done.