Easter is where it all began

01 April 2012

Since the early days of the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the phrase “new evangelisation” has gained currency in Catholic circles at least. It became a leitmotif through the 26 years of John Paul’s papal ministry, and Benedict XVI has followed suit vigorously, even setting up a new agency in the Vatican to promote “the new evangelisation”.

In October, the world-wide Synod of Bishops will have as its theme “The New Evangelisation and the Transmission of the Faith”, and it will, no doubt, provide important trajectories into the future.

Evangelisation has its roots in the experience of the first disciples who encountered the Risen Christ after they had seen him executed on Calvary and buried nearby. His death seemed totally bad news, and it’s no wonder that some of them decided to turn their back on Jerusalem, the place of death, and head for places like Emmaus in search of some shred of new life.

But it was at that point of seeming hopelessness that they encountered the One they had seen die. They weren’t expecting to meet him, and they didn’t know what to make of the encounter at first. They thought that he was a ghost. But then it became plain that he was no ghost; he was the Jesus they had known, in the body, but now transfigured in some overwhelmingly mysterious way.

Their whole world was turned on its head as their fear was turned to joy. Only slowly did they come to the conclusion that Jesus was risen from the dead, as Christianity would come to say, and that this resurrection (which was no mere resuscitation) was the true goal of all that Jesus had said and done on earth. He was born to be raised.
That experience of encountering the Risen Lord was the womb of the Good News the disciples set out to preach to the whole world. The Good News was that life, not death, had the last word, that the victory belonged to the all-conquering love which raised Jesus from the dead. That was the source of the great burst of Gospel-energy seen in the first evangelisation by the apostles.

Then looking across the landscape of Christian history, we can see other threshold moments where a new burst of Gospel-energy has opened up vast horizons and possibilities hitherto unimagined. These have often come in the wake of collapse or even catastrophe.

As a response to the chaos that came with the collapse of the Roman Empire, St Benedict goes into his cave at Subiaco, and that cave becomes the womb of a new civilisation born of the ruins. Benedict’s monasticism will make medieval Europe possible. Benedict himself looks back to the towering figure of St Antony of Egypt, father of Christian monasticism, who goes into the desert and there brings to birth a new way of being both Christian and human, indeed a new civilisation.

In the medieval period, we see another new surge of Gospel-energy when friars like the Franciscans and Dominicans appear walking the roads of the world rather than staying in monasteries. These wandering charismatic preachers look back to Jesus and his disciples travelling the roads of Palestine, and they too bring to birth a new civilisation made possible by the Good News of Easter.

Beyond the trauma of the Reformation which sundered Western Christianity, we see another of these threshold moments when groups of clerics like the Jesuits become the prime mover of the Counter-Reformation, with men like St Francis Xavier going to ends of the earth to bring people to the Risen Lord. Just when the Catholic Church seemed down for the count, we have a new burst of Gospel-energy when that seemed impossible.

The same is true after the devastations of the French Revolution. Then, too, the Church in France seemed down for the count. But in such a situation of seeming hopelessness, you have figures like St Marcellin Champagnat appearing against the odds.

You also find many new missionary congregations appearing, groups like the Marist Fathers and the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart well known in this part of the world. It was that great burst of Gospel-energy which led to the evangelisation of the Pacific. At the time, they said you could leave a French missionary on a Pacific island, come back in 30 years, and everyone on the island would be Catholic and speaking French. This was more than a kind of imperialism; it was a new evangelisation.

The Second Vatican Council called for a new burst of Gospel-energy in the wake of the devastation caused by the two-part apocalypse we know as World Wars I and II, the great emblems of which were Auschwitz and Hiroshima. There, death seemed to have the last word in the most horrific way.

But for the Council, Easter was the only answer. The Council Fathers didn’t use the phrase “new evangelisation”, but it’s what they were talking about, as John Paul II, himself a Council Father, knew very well. So, too, Benedict XVI, who was not a Council Father but a theological expert helping the Fathers do their work.

After World Wars I and II, nothing could be the same. Certainly the Church couldn’t just put up a sign saying “Business As Usual”. There was a need for a new burst of Gospel-energy, another threshold moment with an evangelisation which, in the words of John Paul II, would be new in “ardour, method and expression”.

We needed new fire in the belly (or heart, if you prefer), new strategies, new structures. That’s what is coming to birth slowly and painfully in the Church at this time; and the Synod of Bishops later this year will serve as a kind of midwife in the process.

In the Archdiocese, we are caught up mightily in the process. I have said that we need to adapt our strategies, structures and services to the changing demography of this time and place.

But we also need to adapt them for the sake of mission, for the sake of a new evangelisation, a new surge of Gospel-energy which alone will solve our chronic problems both internally and externally.

That must be the focus of all our planning, now and in the future. What we are called to do takes its place within the long history I have sketched here. But the roots of it all go back to the beginning – when the disciples encountered the Risen Jesus whom they had seen die on the Cross.

That same encounter is the key for us now. Easter is where it all began and it’s where it will all end.

Mark Coleridge