Everyone has different skills in sharing the good news of the gospel.
Evangelization, I admit, is not one of my favorite words. We hear it almost exclusively in churches, often to describe something we all advocate but are not sure what it is asking of us.
In common usage it is often associated with evangelicals and evangelists. The latter have a bad reputation and evoke images of wild-eyed people preaching on street corners or handsome men dressed smartly and sophisticatedly, with the help of a team of experts, who, with the help of a team of experts, attract the attention of a large group of eager listeners.
My first reaction to the word and the images associated with it, I am happy to admit, reflects my prejudices. However, when Pope Francis speaks of evangelization, as he does in his October prayer intention, he has something far more down-to-earth and practical in mind. He speaks of “witnesses to a life that tastes like the gospel”. His phrase suggests that evangelization is much broader than talking about the Christian faith. It encompasses all relationships among people and with our world that encourage people to taste the gospel.
Evangelization is about all of life, not just its directly religious aspects. It’s not about that, but not about that. It’s both about this and that. It encompasses all of our lives.
Evangelization recognizes that the Christian faith is more than a set of religious beliefs that we may or may not accept. It is a whole life that has in all of us, Christian or non-Christian, many layers of faith and doubt, generosity and meanness, attention and blindness, hope and giving up, love and apathy. In order to come to faith or to make it a central part of our lives, we must all meet people who testify to the taste of the gospel.
Evangelization is not limited to regular missions, pastoral programs or media campaigns. Jesus wants the gospel to touch all of our relationships: with other people, with nature, with work, and with religious rituals and symbols. Perhaps we will find God’s presence in nature and be drawn to thank God for the beauty of the world and for being invited into such a wonderful world. Walking, cycling and sitting by the stream will then be ways of evangelization for us.
The religious practices and memories woven into our lives are also part of evangelization. These include statues, crucifixes, masses, family rosaries, hymns and poems, the smell of a rural church and all the conversations that make us ponder the mystery of our lives, whether it is explicitly religious or not.
In the chapel of a home for homeless people who have spent much of their lives on the street, a large, battered crucifix stands in the center of the chapel. It’s lost a leg and a lot of color. Above it, since the foundation of the house by the Missionaries of Charity, has been the words “I thirst”. For many of the men and their companions, the crucifix carries the scent of the Good News as strongly as any sermon.
When evangelization is this complete, we should expect to see evangelists by surprise. They could certainly include a man who develops programs, speaks and writes publicly in front of a large audience, and wins a large following. This could include a homeless woman who has had a hard life behind her, suffers from addiction and says the rosary in the back of the church, or the couple who pour coffee with a welcoming smile after mass. Everyone in his own way, often without realizing it, can touch the hearts of Catholics or non-Christians with the taste of the gospel.
Do you have to be Catholic or even Christian to become an evangelist? I would have been sure once that you would. Now I’m not so sure. The encounter with Sopheap amazed me. She and her seven children spent tough years in a Cambodian village during the Pol Pot era. Khmer Rouge soldiers controlled the village and its grain store, which was reserved for the regime’s cadres. Anyone caught taking rice from it was killed instantly, with the sure consequence that their children would also die – the people lived close to starvation. I met Sopheap after she was sent to a refugee camp on the Thai border. She had collected orphans to live with her and her children, and also trained young women to work as social workers for the poorest families in the camp. One day she told me that she had stolen rice during the Pol Pot years. “To keep your children alive, right?” I asked, wondering about their courage. ‘No’, she replied, ‘I did not steal for my children, but for the old people who had no one to find food for them’. I was silent, overwhelmed by the sudden, overwhelming scent of the gospel.
Sopheap was a Buddhist at the time. She later became a Catholic and a leader in the Catholic community, encouraged by the generosity of some Christians she met in the camp. If your “testimony of a life tasting the gospel” makes you an evangelist, surely she was after she became a Catholic. But did she become an evangelist only after her baptism? Or is it too daring to say that although she risked so much in the Khmer Rouge village and served her fellow refugees so selflessly, she was already an evangelist?
This article first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Madonna magazine.
Fr. Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant for Jesuit Communications