What do Charles and John Wesley have to teach Catholics in the United States about the New Evangelization? With the release of Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization (USCCB, 2012) and the Catholic Church’s upcoming synod on the “New Evangelization,” these two ministers seem as relevant as ever to how we think about evangelization in the modern world.
Charles and John Wesley were ordained in eighteenth century England, a time when the sacrament of Holy Communion was often regarded with indifference or neglect. Church historian John Bowmer remarks that the sacraments and Christian life were widely disparaged in this “new age of reason,” and most people in the Church of England aimed for the minimums of religious practice—receiving the Eucharist three times a year and treating it as an historic custom, rather than encounter with the living God. Unsurprisingly, most in the Church of England were not looking outward to form disciples or share the Gospel. In fact, many clergy and laity in the Church of England believed that England’s growing urban masses were beyond influence and simply had “no taste” for Christian liturgy and sacraments. Christianity was on its way to becoming a fruitless cultural niche.
This creeping indifference characterizes many U.S. Catholics today. As a recent Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) study confirms, most of the roughly three-quarters of self-identified U.S. Catholics who have drifted away from Sunday Eucharist have done so not deliberately, but simply due to the general busyness of modern life. While we as Catholics do not openly admit that there are some groups in society we perceive as beyond the possibility of openness to the Gospel, our parish practices reveal great shortcomings in this area, as we often default to ministering only to those who present themselves to us at parish events, with little thought for those who are absent. We cast out nets in familiar waters, but rarely lower the nets into the deeper, less comforting places. Defaulting to this status quo is certainly the wrong climate for embracing the call of the New Evangelization.
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 message meant to be lived.
Charles and John Wesley recognized that for Christians to authentically join in an eternal liturgy of praise and thanksgiving, their participation must be situated in the context of the Christian life. Christians not interested in the Eucharist? Take to open air preaching to tell of the person of Jesus Christ. Followers not finding a connection between human experience and the Paschal mystery? Organize the masses into groups for study, prayer, and lay preaching. Not reaching urban workers who viewed the Church of England as staid and stuffy? Witness to God’s love by doing Christ’s works of mercy and making prophetic stands—with all of these leading towards and flowing from the sacramental life of the Church of England.
As Karen Westerfield Tucker writes, at the heart of the Wesley’s evangelization was the desire that followers of Christ were to be Christians, “not in name only, but in heart and life.” Evangelization in this sense is not about one aspect of Christianity, but as Pope Benedict XVI writes, showing others “the art of living,” so that Christian faith “is not a kind of clothing to be worn privately or on special occasions,” but instead “something living and all-encompassing, capable of assimilating all that is good in modern times.”
Evangelization, especially this “new” evangelization in our times, is never about choosing one element of the faith to promote without seeking to cultivate ongoing conversion of all aspects of each of our lives. Pope Paul VI remarked that although some create separation between evangelization and sacramental practices, this is a sure mistake, for “the role of evangelization is precisely to educate people in the faith in such a way as to lead each individual Christian to live the sacraments as true sacraments of faith—and not to receive them passively or reluctantly.”
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.
Colleen Reiss Vermeulen lives in South Bend, Indiana where she is a Master of Divinity and Master of Nonprofit Administration candidate at the University of Notre Dame.
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