The Catechetical Review - Communicating Christ for a New Evangelization

From the Shepherds: Catechesis in the Light of the Papal Magisterium of Pope Francis' Evangelii gaudium - An Access to the Church’s Mission

Authored by Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst in Issue #5.3 of Catechetical Review

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Looking back on the past and on the development of the church since the Second Vatican Council, there are two well-known and profound documents, which have brought the biblical call for evangelization into our pastoral consciousness: Evangelii nuntiandi in 1974 and Evangelii gaudium in 2013. Both apostolic letters have reflected on the manner in which the Gospel can be proclaimed and inculturated in our modern times under secular conditions. Both apostolic letters, on the one hand, are the result of a previous worldwide Synod of Bishops and, on the other, demonstrate well the contribution of the respective pontiff that wrote them. With Evangelii nuntiandi, Paul VI initiated a new awareness of how people can be attracted to the faith and be accompanied by the Church to find a sacramental community (see EN, 21-24). The inspiration for Evangelii gaudium began with Pope Benedict XVI, who was the reigning pope during the Synod of Bishops that preceded it, and continued with Pope Francis, who completed it. Pope Benedict XVI himself in 2010 had already founded the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization in order to place this important ministry once again at the center of the Church’s mission. Evangelii gaudium, in the interim, has become the principal reference for all reflections on the challenge of how faith can be awakened in parts of the world where Christians have grown weary of proclaiming the Gospel.

The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization is organizing, in the latter part of the fall of this year, November 28-30, an International Meeting (Congress) that will examine how Evangelii gaudium has inspired our view on evangelization and how it may help find new perspectives. The title of the meeting, The “Church which goes forth”: Evangelii gaudium, Reception and Perspectives, highlights a fundamental approach expressed by Pope Francis in this Apostolic Letter. The “Church which ‘goes forth’” is both “a community of missionary disciples, who take the first step…who boldly take the initiative, go out to others…” and is a Church that “is herself evangelized” (24).[1] Only one who has been evangelized can in turn evangelize others. This gathering in Rome will present through lectures, workshops, discussions, and testimonies of witnesses from different parts of the universal Church, the leading principles found in this important document. Understanding Pope Francis’ vision of a missionary church is already part of the new evangelization.

Six years after its publication, Evangelii gaudium has become a Magna Carta, as it is called, of evangelization and catechesis.[2] Evangelii gaudium is Pope Francis’ first Apostolic Letter and was published just eight months after his inauguration to the Petrine ministry. While it is based on the work of the 2012 worldwide Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, this Apostolic Letter is also the main document where the pastoral guidelines or direction of the new pontiff can be recognized. His knowledge of the challenge of evangelization and catechesis in our times is demonstrated by his detailed references to the South American experience in these fields expressed in the documents of Puebla, Medellin, and Aparecida by the Latin American Council of Episcopal Conferences. As the former Secretary of the Commission that redacted the final document at Aparecida,[3] Jorge Bergoglio already had extensive experience in the whole topic of evangelization in different cultural and social contexts. Evangelii gaudium has been written based on this experience. One can affirm, therefore, that the call to be missionary disciples articulated by the local churches of Latin America in Aparecida has indeed become a paradigm for the universal Church. The idea of “going forth to the outskirts” with the Gospel has become the central pastoral invitation of Evangelii gaudium (24-33).

The structure of this ecclesial document reveals its meaning and intention. In the introduction, Pope Francis begins by referencing Lumen gentium,[4] one of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, and its ecclesiology. It is the awareness of the Ecclesia semper reformanda and Ecclesia purificanda that calls the Church to an ongoing renewal (EG, 27-33).[5] As noted before, only those who are continuously being evangelized can in turn evangelize others (EG, 139). Only those who are being continuously catechized can themselves catechize others. The themes of the Apostolic Letter are outlined in paragraph seventeen, where Pope Francis states that he has “chosen to present some guidelines which can encourage and guide the whole Church in a new phase of evangelization” in a new phase of “going forth to the outskirts” (EG, 30).

These themes include a reflection on the appropriate instruments for evangelization and catechesis. The Gospel is proclaimed through preaching and in a liturgical context through the homily. Pope Francis speaks of the homily as a privileged form of catechesis, as a “supreme moment in the dialogue between God and his people which lead up to sacramental communion” (137). Homilies should touch the inner consciousness of its hearers by integrating the content of the faith with the heart (feelings, emotions, desires,) and with the brain (reason, intelligence, beauty, images) (see 110-175). The joy and salvation of the Gospel message is what has to be transmitted particularly to those in need. An evangelizing church does not seek its own glory. As a precondition to evangelize and catechize fruitfully, she is always in need of conversion, due in part to the temptation of “spiritual worldliness” or “seeking not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being.”[6] Sometimes this spiritual worldliness can be found hidden behind the “appearance of piety and even love for the Church” itself (93; see also 94-97). The Church’s conversion must, therefore, be ongoing and in the catechumenal sense of being born again, and again, and again.

In the third chapter of his Apostolic Letter, Pope Francis offers particular catechetical advice on the connection between the process of learning the faith and growing in the faith. Here, Evangelii gaudium emphasizes that lived faith has to be connected with an education in being for and living in community, that is, an education in loving one’s neighbor and an education in the maturity of the faith (160-162). In paragraphs 163 to 175, he provides an analysis of kerygmatic and mystagogical catechesis. The kerygma is expressed through a unity between the content of the faith and a lived personal witness that is modeled on the Trinity. The kerygma needs to be the center of all catechesis and evangelization. That is why he says, “On the lips of the catechist, the first proclamation must ring out over and over: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.’” (164, emphasis mine). The kerygma is not just a step in the process of evangelization. Its proclamation needs to illuminate the catechetical process leading the catechist to embrace, in the personal encounter with those to be evangelized, attitudes of openness, dialogue, mercy, patience, and closeness.

Pope Francis’ understanding of mystagogy is centered on the catechumenate and its process of listening and responding to the Word of God amidst a community who nourishes the spirituality of believers in a secular world[7] through, in part, liturgical celebrations with their symbols and signs of Christian initiation. Since education in the faith is relational and entails all the five senses of the person, the via pulchritudinis, or the “way of beauty” has a fundamental role in mystagogical catechesis. As Pope Benedict XVI always reminded us, truth is always beautiful and what is indeed beautiful is also true. Pope Francis affirms that “every expression of true beauty can thus be acknowledged as a path leading to an encounter with the Lord Jesus” and, as a result, “formation in the via pulchritudinis ought to be part of our effort to pass on the faith.” However, the catechetical process is only authentic when real beauty is not confounded or confused with a kind of “aesthetic relativism” that negates the unity between truth, goodness, and beauty (167). Finally, mystagogical catechesis also entails personal accompaniment. Missionary disciples, walking with and journeying together with other missionary disciples in a relationship of friendship, lead both ever closer to God while always respecting the freedom and privacy of the other. Catechetical sponsors help discover in those they are accompanying their gifts and charisms by always listening to and encouraging them without any form of manipulation or self-referral (see 170-173).

The fundamental curriculum or source of all catechesis is always Sacred Scripture. Catechesis opens the heart of the other, of the one being evangelized, to God’s Word. Together we listen, meditate, live, celebrate, and witness to the Word of God. This process makes the Kingdom of God present in the community; for the kerygma and, therefore, catechesis always has a social dimension, it always leads us to charity. To act according to the Gospel is what Evangelii nuntiandi had already called the proof of a deep conversion (EN, 24). The fourth chapter of Evangelii gaudium examines this social dimension and includes a reflection on the “ministry of peace” and on the political aspect of catechesis (see 217-241).

The ongoing missionary evangelizing agenda of the papacy of Pope Francis is fundamentally expressed in Evangelii gaudium. The document clearly draws upon the work of the Synod of Bishops that preceded it, but it also draws upon the personal experience of this pontiff in the church of Latin America that, in a certain sense, has become part of the heritage of the universal Church. Evangelization and catechesis, with all its steps, are not just a program but also a process.[8] All evangelizers must always be evangelized and be in a permanent state of conversion. This self-evangelization is the main precondition for the church to become a missionary church. Now it is the work of all local churches and the work of each one of us to give proof of conversion and, therefore, of missionary fruits that lead others to Jesus Christ.

Bishop Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst is the Delegate for Catechesis in the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.


[1] Emphasis mine in italics.

[2] Cf. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Der Ton macht die Musik. Katechese als Stimme der Kirche, Kevelaer 2019.

[3] Discípulos y Misioneros de Jesucristo para que nuestros pueblos en Él tengan vida “Yo soy el Camino, la Verdad y la Vida” (Jn 16,4), Final Document, Aparecida, 13-31, May 2007.

[4] Paul VI. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964.

[5] “I encourage each particular Church to undertake a resolute process of discernment, purification and reform.” EG, 30. See also the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio, 6.

[6] Emphasis mine. “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (Jn 5:44).

[7] Cf. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Handbuch der Erwachenentaufe. Liturgie und Mystagogie im Katechumenat, Münster 2002, 195ff.

[8] See how the revival of the ancient catechumenate in the Catholic Church of the United States of America has become an inspiration and encouragement to the universal Church, cf.: Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, Der Erachsenenkatechumenat in den Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika. Eine Anregung fur die Sakramentenpastoral in Deutschland, Altenberge, 1993, 467ff.

This article originally appeared on pages 6-8 of the printed edition.

Public domain image by Peter H from Pixabay 

This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting [email protected]

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