On October 7th the XIIIth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will open in Rome. It is dedicated to the crucial topic of “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of Christian Faith.”
The challenge before the Synod is treated at length by the “Instrumentum Laboris” that has been prepared as background to the deliberations and discussions of those attending. Here is a particularly pointed expression of that challenge
“In these times, people are yearning for a principle in life that inspires hope, a hope which will permit them to look to the future with eyes filled with faith and not the tears of despair. As a Church, we have this principle and source of hope — Jesus Christ, who was crucified and is risen, living among us through his Spirit, who allows us to experience God. Nevertheless, we oftentimes seem to be unable to make this hope concrete, or “make it our own”, or make it a life-giving word for ourselves and the people we encounter today, or make it the basis for life in the Church and our pastoral activity” (#166).
The challenge to make our hope concrete, to appropriate it more deeply, to find evocative words that will bring it to life for ourselves and others lies at the heart of the Church’s mission. It is the challenge faced not only by bishops, or preachers, or missionaries, but by the whole people of God.
Certainly, the need for ongoing personal conversion is paramount: a daily turning again to the Lord to be nourished by his Word and Sacrament. Such conversion is the indispensable condition for making the faith our own. We must continue to grow in our appreciation and understanding of the marvelous works of the Lord, of the height and breadth, and length, and depth of the love of Christ.
But the “Instrumentum Laboris” outlines a further challenge, when it suggests the need for forging a new language to communicate the Gospel to the world of today. This difficult task is intrinsic to the notion of a “new” evangelization: not a new content, but a new way of expressing the Good News of Christ within a new social and cultural context.
So the “Instrumentum Laboris” insists: “The Church feels the responsibility to devise new tools and new expressions to ensure that the word of faith, which has begotten the true life of God in us, be heard more and be better understood, even in the new deserts of this world” (#8). And it reiterates the exhortation of Paul VI, in “Evangelii nuntiandi,” that the Church's evangelizing activity “must constantly seek the proper means and language for presenting, or representing, to them God's revelation and faith in Jesus Christ” (#12).
The Canadian Catholic philosopher, Charles Taylor, has written a monumental study, A Secular Age that can serve as a valuable resource for the work of the Synod. In it he traces the emergence of secularity in the West to the point where neither belief nor unbelief can be taken for granted, but must be personally chosen. Both belief and unbelief are options for those living in the post-industrial societies of the twenty-first century. They are no longer simply “givens.”
Taylor not only describes in detail the stages leading to today’s secular age: from the Protestant Reformation, through the industrial revolution, to the emergence of the secular State. In addition, as a philosopher and believer, he assesses both the gains and the losses of the secular revolution. He celebrates the respect for human dignity and for religious freedom that it has brought to the fore (often as unacknowledged fruits of its religious heritage). He also laments the individualism and loss of a sense of transcendence that often come in its wake.
An important part of the Synod’s discernment will be whether this context of secularity is peculiar to Europe and North America or whether it has made inroads in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
In the last chapter of his book, aptly titled “Conversions,” Taylor offers some suggestions regarding the challenge facing the Church in a secular age that correspond to the passages from the “Instrumentum Laboris” I quoted above. He sees the need for a fresh, more creative language capable of communicating the Gospel. A language that is more affective and poetic than the prevailing prose of a one-dimensional technology. A language that taps the aesthetic dimension of experience, whether through music, art or literature.
Taylor cites, as examples of the ability to craft a more integral and evocative language, two great Catholic poets: the English priest, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the French layman, Charles Péguy. Hopkins rekindled a sacramental sense of a world “charged with the grandeur of God.” Péguy conveyed poetically a living sense of the communion of all the saints, uniting earth with heaven.
These exemplars can provide inspiration for the Synod’s challenge to appropriate the Gospel anew and to spur the renewal of a Christ-centered imagination, capable of guiding and sustaining Christians in the multi-faceted labors of the new evangelization.