Arts & Books Books

Evangelisation is a tightrope – but Our Lady can help us find our balance

Mary could be the key to the New Evangelisation, says Michael Duggan

Mary, Star of Evangelization: Tilling the Soil and Sowing the Seed
By Jacob Phillips
Paulist Press, 192pp, £24.99/$24.95

Pity the Catholic evangeliser. That is perhaps to press the point too hard, but early on in Mary, Star of Evangelization, Jacob Phillips puts his finger on an uncomfortable truth. Recalling the words of Paul VI, he reminds us that the Church has a duty to preserve in its “untouchable purity” a heritage of faith, while at the same time presenting it to “the people of our time” in a way that is “as understandable and persuasive as possible”. Catholic evangelisation, one might conclude, takes place on a tightrope where a loss of balance leads to failure, whichever side one falls.

In order to meet this challenge, Dr Phillips believes we would do well to turn our eyes Mary-ward. In Mary we see Christ’s proclamation making its home in someone’s heart, “being fitted at the very centre of that person’s world view”: a meeting of tilled soil and perfect seed, of the receptive and the dynamic, of culture and faith. Taking his cue from Pope Francis’s contention that the expressions of popular piety have much to teach us, Phillips uses the titles of Mary from the Litany of Loreto – Mirror of Justice, for instance, or Seat of Wisdom – as “a lens through which to explore the relation of faith and culture in the work of evangelisation”.

This is not a snappy how-to manual. The general reader needs to be on his mettle, But he needn’t go in fear of bamboozlement either. Dr Phillips successfully walks the line where the register of academic theology meets plain English.

And the rewards for the reader are plentiful: a revealing exploration of the treatment of culture in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the World that emanated from Vatican II; and a series of incursions, tied to the titles from the Litany, into the ideas of Catholic thinkers as diverse as Pedro Arrupe and Joseph Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Dorothy Day, before coming to rest with John Henry Newman and his notion of “simple assent”. The end result is a slimmish volume packed with much to ponder about on “evangelisation in a Marian key”.