The Catholic Church in England and Wales is taking up Pope Frances’s invitation to evangelize.
In his Apostolic Exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, the pope writes: “I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by joy, while pointing out new paths for the church’s journey in years to come.”
In his recent visit to Paraguay, the pope enlarged on how to evangelize. He said, “We cannot force anyone to receive us, to welcome us; this is itself part of our poverty and freedom. At the same time, no one can force us not to be welcoming, hospitable in the lives of our people. No one can tell us not to accept and embrace the lives of our brothers and sisters, especially those who have lost hope and zest for life.”
He pointed out that mission, evangelization and sharing the faith are not programs. People are not converted by arguments, he said. “You convince them by learning how to welcome them.” In his Apostolic Exhortation he quoted Pope Benedict XVI who said we evangelize, not by force but by attraction.
This is the strategy being implemented by the bishops of England and Wales in a new initiative called Proclaim ’15. It was launched July 11, the feast of St. Benedict. It was the Benedictine monk St. Augustine of Canterbury who initiated the first evangelization of England at the beginning of the sixth century and who is considered the founder of the English church.
In a letter to parishes, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, said Proclaim ’15 is being launched “to support, inspire and encourage new expressions of parish evangelization. He added that it is designed “to affirm the good work that is already being done by the Catholic community, and to provide resources and events to profile and develop new expressions of Catholic joy and missionary outreach.”
Part of that support includes prayer vigils in parishes, a national evangelization conference, and Internet resources.
In a July 7 press conference, Nichols distinguished proselytizing from evangelizing.
He said, “Proselytizing is a one-way street. It is saying, ‘I have got something you must have, and I’m going to make you receive it whether you like it or not.’ ”
“Evangelization is essentially an invitation,” and it is an invitation which will draw people closer together in their humanity, in their human experience. “We don’t go in for doorstep evangelization,” he said, “because it is impossible without a relationship, and you don’t begin to form a relationship of lasting quality if it stays on a doorstep.”
A 2013 BBC News Magazine article noted that baptisms — one’s initiation into the church — are in decline in England. One in three infants was baptized into the Church of England in 1980, but by 2011 that had fallen to just over one in 10.
The Catholic Church experienced a major drop-off in baptisms between 1964 and 1977, when the number halved. There has been a far gentler downward trend over the past three decades, recently stabilizing at about 60,000 baptisms a year.
This, and the living out of one’s baptism with joy, is the challenge the church in England and Wales is facing.