The new evangelization

By  Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, Catholic Register Special
  • March 23, 2009
{mosimage}It is a truism among ecumenists that the pressing importance of Christian unity derives from the mission entrusted by Christ to the Church: to bring the Gospel to all people. Unity, in short, is our mission, but our divisions generally get in the way of effectively working together.

Our present challenges, however, present us with new opportunities for collaboration. This was brought home when I was in Geneva, Switzerland, in early March among my Swiss ecumenical colleagues, most of whom are Protestant and who have been heavily involved in church work.
Family updates over meals revealed that in one extended family alone, four of the children, now young adults, are living with a boyfriend or girlfriend. The church, acknowledged their parents with consternation, is marginal to their lives, if that.

What is worse, they reported, is that there is no easy, apparent solution at hand. Their church communities are grey and shrinking and do not offer programs that would interest today’s young adults. Many North America parents could relate.

One parent provided an opportunity to share a meal with a daughter and her boyfriend, both in their late 20s, she Protestant by upbringing and he Catholic. She brought up the subject of how they might ritualize a commitment to one another, and invited my reflections on the value of such.

As long as I talked of the dynamics of relationship or how little of lasting value is accomplished without commitment, both listened with interest. But as soon as I introduced the church’s understanding of marriage and sacrament, her boyfriend interjected, “I need to tell you that I’m an atheist, so talk of God means nothing to me.”

A three-hour conversation touched upon themes of spirituality and/versus religion, individualism and/versus community, belief and unbelief, God’s relationship in Christian understanding to the world in general and to us humans in particular.

At the end, the boyfriend wondered what conclusions might be drawn from the conversation. The conclusion I proposed was that they stay in dialogue with the questions raised and care enough to continue to pursue satisfying answers to them. The boyfriend said he had heard enough to warrant re-examination of some of his “prejudices.”

Young adults today are seeking meaning for their lives. That is one very good reason why it makes sense for us to be working together to meet the challenge of the “new evangelization.”

Twenty and 30 somethings are seeking some form of community to provide  comfort and challenge. Their growing up years have roughly paralleled the incremental rise of divorce rates. Technological developments like computers and iPods often separate them from family and neighbours.

They are searching for a narrative that speaks to the underlying nature of things and to ultimate causes, and to a set of fundamental beliefs that would help shape their relationships and inform the ways they raise their children.

They grew up in a church that lacked the formative power of earlier generations. In many cases, their exposure has been too superficial to the biblical stories, prayer forms and rituals that shaped our view of the world. They do not feel compelled to go to church as previous generations did.

For the church today, this presents a rich opportunity. As the experience of many parents can confirm, force and fear will not work as pedagogical methods with today’s young adults. They will either willingly choose membership in the community of the church for the meaning they find there or they will continue their search for purpose and fulfilment in other ways.

We must meet them where they are and engage them in a dialogue about the larger questions of their lives. It is up to us to open the treasure chest of Christian faith and to invite them to discover for themselves the richness of the Protestant emphasis on the ministry of every believer, and the Catholic sacramental lens through which the grace of God is seen pervading every aspect of our lives.

We definitely have gifts to offer, but they will need to be both better packaged and unwrapped.

(Ryan directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C.)

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