September 1, 2021

What is evangelization?

What is evangelization?

More than our words, our very lives need to go out and make disciples

By Father Richard Watson

Q: What does evangelization really mean? What is expected of us as followers of Jesus?

Father Richard WatsonA: Evangelization is one of those “churchy” words that I believe has many meanings and understandings. I would venture that there are as many definitions as there are Christians. I would like to try to define “evangelization” and then look at two levels of evangelization, the universal and the personal.

Let us begin by looking at evangelization as a verb, not a noun. For us Catholics, evangelization is not a thing but something we do. Broadly, we can describe evangelization as the “work of the Church,” and more specifically it is proclaiming the “Good News,” with the purpose of bringing about the kingdom of God as co-workers with Jesus.

We know that the New Testament was originally written in Greek, and it is from the Greek word euangelion, which means “good news,” we get the word euangelos (verb) “bringing the good news.”

Jesuit Father Bryan Massingale describes the work of the Church this way: “The deepest purpose of the Church is not to defend doctrine but to continue the earthly ministry of Jesus.” I think we can all agree that a good, practical and pastoral definition of evangelization is “to continue the earthly ministry of Jesus.” In other words, evangelization is making God’s love more accessible to all.

Now that we have a definition, how does the Church put the “action word” evangelization into practice? To continue the ministry of Jesus, we must understand the earthly ministry of Jesus and of course our primary source is the four Gospels (the Good News itself).

When Jesus begins his ministry by preaching in the synagogue of Nazareth, his hometown, he stands and reads the passage from Isaiah proclaiming liberty to captives, comfort to the afflicted and brokenhearted and a year of the Lord’s favor. Then Jesus rolled up the scroll and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

In the passage from Matthew 25, the judgment of the nations, Jesus again gives us a clear understanding of his ministry of evangelization. He tells us that when he comes in glory the sheep and the goats will be separated. What will be the criteria for this separation? We will be judged on how we respond to the least among us; the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner.

Jesus would have known that the prophet Isaiah referred to this type of evangelization as “true fasting and true worship.” (Is 58) How do we, not just the priests, but the priesthood of the faithful, evangelize in our modern world? Pope Francis tells us how: “We cannot keep ourselves shut up in parishes, in our communities, when so many people are waiting for the Gospel.”

Not much has changed in how we can best evangelize today. We use the words of Jesus, and the audience is the same. We reach out to the same people Jesus would hang out with.

How do we make this universal message of evangelization more personal? Often our lives and our actions speak louder than our words. By meeting people each day where they are — in our workplaces, our schools, the marketplace, the community — we have an opportunity to bring good tidings, the Good News of Jesus to others without ever preaching. A life well lived is the best sermon, a life that exemplifies compassion, sensitivity, inclusion and love. We are the most like God when we love. 

Pope Francis said back in June that “The path of evangelization does not always depend on our will and plans but requires a willingness to allow ourselves to be shaped and to follow other paths that were not foreseen.”

As Paulist Father John E. Hurley told the priests this year at our annual convocation, “We don’t need a new mission statement. We have one: Go make disciples.”

Let each of us respond to the call to evangelize our world. Jesus is counting on us.