“What would a new evangelisation of this country look like?” It was a question that revealed my questioner’s suspicion that the new evangelisation might merely be a vague aspiration, rather than the central task of the Church in our lifetime.
I struggled to think of a picture to express this reality which, as St John Paul II once explained, is already taking shape wherever there is a new ardour to evangelise arising out of greater unity with Christ and confidence in his power. This is the supernatural confidence needed in the enormous task facing us across Western societies that are increasingly estranged from their Christian roots. As the saintly pope explained in Redemptoris Missio, this is a task involving nothing less than re-evangelising “entire groups of the baptised [who] have lost a living sense of the faith, or no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel”.
An image that comes to mind is the light which Christmas brings each year, not only to our darkened streets which are illuminated at this time, but also to the life of families and society as a whole.
Recently on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in a seemingly endless queue waiting to enter the cave of the Nativity, our youth and adult pilgrims found the place of Christ’s birth marked by a silver star.
A star is a single point of light visible to the human eye in the darkness of the night sky. The Gospels relate that Christ was born in the darkness of night. They tell how the appearance of a mysterious star marked his Nativity and led the pagan world to Him and “the sight of the star filled them with delight” (Matthew 2:10). Christ’s first coming was like such a single point of light in the vast darkness of the ancient world, drawing to himself first the shepherds of Bethlehem and then the Magi.
On the night flight returning with our Holy Land pilgrims, I unexpectedly glimpsed the picture my questioner was seeking. Late into the night I looked out from the window at what seemed an ocean of darkness beneath which was the continent of Europe over which we were passing. In this dark landscape, I gradually noticed dispersed points of light. In the most inhospitable terrain they were few in number, and yet as our journey progressed the lights became concentrated in towns and cities eventually illuminating the whole horizon. This, I thought, is surely
an image of the new evangelisation: the witness of countless numbers who become such points of light – sometimes few in number in hostile terrain, sometimes so many as to illuminate whole societies.
In this way we are to reflect the Light which first shone in Bethlehem and so become a point of light wherever Providence has placed us. In the last century, the Second Vatican Council expressed this hope that Christ’s light would be recognised shining on the face of His Church – the light reflected in the holiness of her members, since “every Christian in every state of life is called to the fullness of the Christian life and to perfection of charity”. A saint of the 20th century, St Josemaría Escrivá, made it his first point to similarly encourage us: “Don’t let your life be barren. Be useful. Make yourself felt. Shine forth with the torch of your faith and your love.”
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis urges us anew to be such radiant witnesses. The Holy Father also warns us against all discouragement lest Christians, “called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelisation!”
It was joy which marked England’s first evangelisation which Blessed John Henry Newman evoked, in his Birmingham sermon of 1850, as “the fair form of Christianity which grew and expanded like a beautiful pageant from north to south; it was majestic, it was solemn, it was beautiful and pleasant, it was soothing to the griefs, it was indulgent to the hopes of man; it was at once a teaching and worship; it had a dogma, a mystery, a ritual of its own; it had a hierarchical form … so marvellously was heaven let down upon earth.”
This is surely how our contemporaries will again recognise the light of Christ. Benedict XVI expressed this very beautifully when reflecting on how we greet Our Lady as a Star of Hope. He said: “Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by – people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.”
On my return flight from the Holy Land, the British landscape eventually came into sight, allowing a momentary glimpse of the countless lights illuminating this land. This Christmas, may those lights remind us how we are called to bring a greater Light to every walk of life in the new evangelisation. And may that Light which first shone in the dark streets of Bethlehem remain for us “the everlasting Light”.
The Rt Rev Mark Davies is the Bishop of Shrewsbury
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.