If you aren’t familiar with the idea, “new evangelization” is a term used in Catholic circles to talk about re-proposing the gospel to those who have fallen away from the faith, or are apathetic about their faith. In particular, the new evangelization is about re-evangelizing cultures that have a strong Christian heritage, but have embraced secularization and marginalized the faith. European cultures are the most obvious target for new evangelization, but North America is also considered ripe for re-evangelization. New evangelization, or re-evangelization, is seen as a necessary antidote to the de-Christianization of previously Christian cultures.
Pope Benedict XVI has shown some initiative in this regard, establishing the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization in 2010. In October, a synod of Bishops will be held on the new evangelization, and, as Vermeulen notes, the US Council of Catholic Bishops has just produced a resource on the new evangelization.
In this context, Vermeulen suggests that Catholics pondering new evangelization have something to learn from the Wesleys, noting that the 18th century evangelical revival began at a time when Christian religion and observance in England was at a very low point, with many either hoping to get by with a bare minimum of religious commitment, and others showing seeming indifference.
So what did the Wesley brothers do in their setting of indifference and perceived divisions? Did they tone down their sacramental devotion to appeal to the “rational” sensibilities of the age? Or scrap the Book of Common Prayer’s disciplines of daily liturgical prayer as obsolete? Did they insist that a particular “right” way of worship would solve all problems? Did they ignore suffering and injustice in England and focus only on an otherworldly, eternal salvation? None of the above. Instead, Charles and John Wesley set out for the mines, meadows, prisons, and town squares of England with an urgent Gospel message, a messagemeant to be lived.
So she encourages Catholics, facing immense indifference among their own constituency in the United States today, to adopt a full-fledged and in-depth approach to evangelization, calling people to a real, robust, “lived Christianity,” but one that includes a rich sacramental and ecclesial life:
Charles and John Wesley demonstrated a confidence in the Gospel—that by bringing Jesus Christ into all aspects of the lives of those they ministered to, lukewarm members of the Church of England and the “unchurched” masses alike would be inspired by the Holy Spirit to draw close to Christ in the sacraments, especially Holy Communion. In Disciples Called to Witness, the bishops of the United States call on each person today to have a similar confidence that by “proposing anew” the unchanging message of encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, we too can trust and participate in the work of the Holy Spirit, drawing people out of indifference and into authentic Christian living.
It’s an interesting comparison, and an appropriate one, I think, given Methodism’s original location as a movement of reform and renewal within the Church (noted previously here).