We won’t live to see Europe’s Christian revival – but it will happen

Blessed John Henry Newman (CNS)

The phrase “new evangelisation” gets thrown around a great deal these days. And St John Paul II’s demand for an evangelisation that is “new in its ardour, methods and expression” is often quoted. But while much attention has been devoted to methods and expression, I think we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions about the new ardour. For what if the new methods and expression fail to bear the prayed-for fruit? Or fail to bear it quickly enough for those currently so impassioned? After 10 years, or 50, or 100, might not this enthusiasm give way to disillusion and despair? And if this first blush of love begins to fade – which, as any wise ex-teenager can tell us, it often does – what then for the new evangelisation?

Even if successful, this “new evangelisation” requires that we (and I mean all Christians, not just Catholics) are embarking on a centuries-long endeavour. And given this, we need to approach it in the right frame of mind, fortified with a spirituality of patience and perseverance. And on this particular subject, I believe that Blessed John Henry has a great deal to teach us.

In Redemptoris Missio, St John Paul II distinguished the “new evangelisation” from two other kinds of mission: first, proposing the Good News to people who have never heard it; second, the pastoral care of those who are already Christian. The “new evangelisation”, by contrast, is necessary when a culture starts to lose its once established Christianity: a situation in which a culture where the Church has been firmly established is in the process of lapsing back into a position where, for the most part, Christ is unknown. And this, of course, describes Western Europe in our own time.

Arguably, the primary challenge of the new evangelisation – and the root cause of why it is needed in the first place – is keeping those we already have. Addressing, and ultimately reversing, this will be a huge job in itself – not least because, at present, we’re not entirely sure what precisely it is that needs addressing. (Catechesis? Sacramental preparation? Youth ministry? Parish community life? Liturgical music? Some, all or none of the above?)

The research we do have, however, points very strongly at how critical the formative years of childhood and young adulthood are for “setting up” a person’s adult religiosity. Unfortunately, that means that, in terms of broad societal trends (individual souls are a different matter, of course), “decline” is almost certain to continue for several years to come. (That is to say, as the more practising older generations gradually die off, the resolutely non-practising baby boomer generation “behind them” will certainly not be replacing them in our churches.)

Since at least the 1960s – in different ways, and at different speeds – swathes of the Western world have witnessed unprecedented religious change and (for the most part) decline. We have simultaneously witnessed a series of social and cultural revolutions, most recently the technological and media revolution driven by the internet. That alone has profoundly changed the way people think and act, possibly for ever, and whatever potential it holds for evangelisation – and these are many and exciting – it perhaps holds vastly more so for halting or disrupting it.

There are questions here that we have scarcely begun to formulate, let alone attempt to answer. What is clear, though, is that it is not simply new methods that are required, but continually renewed ones, as the social worlds and cultures we inhabit, and where we are trying to bring (and keep!) the Gospel, persist in shifting. Evidently, this is not a task that can be accomplished once, however ardently, and remain so forever.

Lest the above paragraphs seem overly pessimistic, I should perhaps make plain my own enthusiasm for the new evangelisation – the ardour, indeed, of a fairly recent convert. Having been newly evangelised myself, I am the grateful and joyful recipient of the gift of faith, and of entry into the Church nine years ago. Far be it from me, then, to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. Yet if we are wanting to help others “to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2.4), we must begin by being truthful ourselves. And the truth is that the path on which we are embarking will be slow and gradual, sometimes painful, and marked by long periods of (real or imagined) failure or futility. Furthermore, while in no way diminishing the importance of what this generation can achieve, the likelihood of our seeing much to show for it is slim.

This realisation need not, however, discourage us. For the flipside of it is that the successes of the new evangelisation will – guided by the Holy Spirit – necessarily be built up of small, seemingly insignificant actions and lives. And, as recent research has suggested, the same was largely true of the successes of the first evangelisation wrought by the early Church.

While we tend to think of the initial Christianisation of the Roman world to have been accomplished near-miraculously swiftly, even this occurred over the course of centuries (and within a total population somewhat smaller than today’s Midwest). Furthermore, we all remember its great evangelising and miracle-working saints – Paul, Gregory the Wonderworker, Augustine of Canterbury – and rightly so. Recent research suggests, however, that the real “engine room” of the first evangelisation lay, instead, in the slow and simple passing on of the faith from (seemingly) ordinary believer to ordinary believer, and especially from parent to child. As Benedict XVI said, “The mission has not changed, just as the enthusiasm and courage that moved the Apostles and first disciples must not change.”

Now, it seems to me that our difficulty is for the Church, indeed for all Christians, to persevere; for us to retain our ardour, our motivation, at a time – almost certainly a long, long time – of small successes. And it is here that we return to Newman, and his sermon (preached in 1830, 15 years before he become a Catholic), “Jeremiah, a Lesson for the Disappointed”. According to Newman, the prophet “Jeremiah’s ministry may be summed up in three words: good hope, labour, disappointment.” He draws from this a universal lesson about the nature of human undertakings. This is especially true, though hardest to accept, when one is – like Jeremiah – doing God’s work, given the enthusiasm and expectation with which one begins. Newman tells us:

To expect great effects from our exertions for religious objects is natural indeed, and innocent, but it arises from inexperience of the kind of work we have to do – to change the heart and will of man. It is a far nobler frame of mind, to labour, not with the hope of seeing the fruit of our labour, but for conscience’s sake, as a matter of duty; and again, in faith, trusting good will be done, though we see it not.

Newman makes a point of commending Jeremiah’s “resignation” to his lot. But his point is not that we should learn to live with our ultimate failure. On the contrary, our ability to persevere is premised on our trust and confidence that our labours are not in vain, even though we might see few of their fruits for ourselves.

Look through the Bible, and you will find God’s servants, even though they began with success, end with disappointment; not that God’s purposes or His instruments fail, but that the time for reaping what we have sown is hereafter, not here; that here there is no great visible fruit in any one man’s lifetime.

This, too, requires a kind of ardour – one that may well feel very different now than when it was first “new”, but is no less real or ardent for all that.

Essentially, what I am arguing here is for us – for all Christians – to develop and cultivate “a little way of the new evangelisation”. My emphasis has been on patience and perseverance. This is certainly important, but applies equally to great undertakings as it does to little ones. Arguably, however, it is specifically in the “little things”, in the everyday living out of the implications of our Catholicism – prayer, devotions, works of mercy, communicating the faith to the next generation, and so on – that the major part of the new evangelisation will lie. And I think the saints can help us here. Newman, obviously – and if we’re speaking of “little ways”, then naturally Thérèse of Lisieux too. Several others leap to mind here – St Teresa of Calcutta, Dorothy Day – but I’d like to focus briefly here on just one.

In The Way, St Josemaría Escrivá comments on Christ’s words: “Because you have been in pauca fidelis, faithful in small things, come and join in your master’s happiness. The words are Christ’s. In pauca fidelis! … Now will you neglect little things, if heaven itself is promised to those who mind them?”

Elsewhere Escrivá writes: “You have mistaken the way if you despise little things.”

Just as the “great” works of, for example, a happy marriage or raising a child – both cases where great ardour becomes realised and expressed in patient, daily practice – are built up out of countless unnoticed and uncommented-upon acts of littleness, so too must be the new evangelisation. So let me finish with Newman’s advice to the disappointed:

Give not over your attempts to serve God, though you see nothing come of them. Watch and pray, and obey your conscience, though you cannot perceive your own progress in holiness. Go on, and you cannot but go forward; believe it, though you do not see it. Do the duties of your calling, though they are distasteful to you. Educate your children carefully in the good way, though you cannot tell how far God’s grace has touched their hearts. Let your light shine before men, and praise God by a consistent life, even though others do not seem to glorify their Father on account of it, or to be benefited by your example.

Stephen Bullivant directs the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. This is an edited version of a lecture given at the Maryvale Institute

This article first appeared in the October 20 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here