By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Ever wondered what exactly is evangelization and how is it most effective? During a weekend conference, “Discovering Christ,” held Aug. 21-22 at St. John Francis Regis Parish, 130 people from 15 parishes in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, five parishes in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas and one Mississippi parish learned about evangelization: how to invite others to discover Christ.
Through a video presentation and speakers, participants were trained in the first part of a series, “Discovering Christ,” “Following Christ” and “Sharing Christ.”
The series, said Dr. Claude Sasso, director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, presents “seekers, fallen away Catholics and regular Catholics [with] one simple thing: Jesus Christ — who he is, what he did, the Good News, the kerygma.”
Evangelization is not a new concept to Christians; it was first ordered about 2,000 years ago when Jesus told the Apostles to “go out and preach to all nations.”
Evangelization of the American continent began in 1492, shortly after Christopher Columbus discovered it. The first recorded preaching of the Gospel on the continent occurred in what is now Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on Oct. 12, 1492.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries crisscrossed the fledgling United States, preaching and teaching both Native Americans and immigrants to the young nation.
By 1900, Catholics made up 16 percent of the total U.S. population, with 82 dioceses in 14 provinces, and 12,000 priests. In the first half of the 20th century, Catholics increasingly assumed roles in secular American life participating less in ministries and Church life. Then in 1960, the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, was elected.
The Second Vatican Council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1962, and addressed Catholic Christianity in the modern world.
In the years following Vatican II, there were major changes in the U.S. Church. The liturgy was simplified and translated from Latin to English. Lay participation in ministry increased, and the number of priests and religious declined. Ecumenical dialogue was given new impetus, strengthening the hope of eventual unity among Christians.
Pope John Paul II coined the phrase “New Evangelization” in 1979, when he spoke of the need for the reawakening of faith in much of the Church. October 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of the first evangelization of the American continent and, in his apostolic letter marking the Jubilee Year 2000, he spoke again of the need for the Church’s mission of the New Evangelization.
Pope Benedict XVI said the most important thing to come out of Vatican II was that the Paschal Mystery is the center of what it means to be Christian— “the Christian life, the Christian year, the Christian seasons.” And the Paschal Mystery is at the center of evangelization, according to ChristLife, the Catholic Ministry for Evangelization, headquartered in Baltimore, Md.
The Catholic Church in the United States grew in the past century, but in recent years the number of people who identify themselves as Catholics has decreased, despite the fact that the Church is still the country’s single largest denomination. As of 2015, there are 178 Latin-Rite Catholic archdioceses and dioceses in the United States, shepherding around 64 million Catholics which is about 22.8 percent of the population.
The impetus for evangelization both within the Church and in the world appears to be growing. Wanting to help parishes evangelize in an organic, Catholic context, in 1995 Dave Nodar, a lay evangelist in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, founded ChristLife: a series of courses to help individuals encounter Christ, develop a relationship with Him in their own lives and share their faith with others.
Nodar became acquainted in 2000 with a newly ordained priest, Father Eric Arnold, who quickly became involved in ChristLife, working with Nodar and his team to develop three courses: “Discovering Christ,” “Following Christ” and “Sharing Christ.”
In 2006, the first pilot of “Discovering Christ” was run in Father Arnold’s parish, and in 2009, a DVD and other resources for parishes were produced. Now, Father Arnold said, the three-course series has been run in more than 500 parishes and offered to more than 40,000 people in 76 dioceses and in eight countries. The Christ Life team has been training parishes in dioceses across the U.S., including Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Wichita and Kansas-City-St. Joseph.
Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, says, “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him … What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (EG, No. 264)
Father Arnold said, “For many years we’ve heard talk about the New Evangelization, but most parishes haven’t known what that could actually look like in a parish setting. Now the desire to do something has grown so strong that we’ve seen a real hunger in parishes to find ways to put it into practice. The ChristLife series offers them a real, concrete way to put the work of evangelization into practice. The most important thing we can do is provide parishes with tools to help bring parishioners (and those still outside the parish) into a life-changing relationship with Jesus and his Church.”
Following the training conference, Dr. Sasso said he heard “expressions of appreciation and excitement” from participants eager to take what they had learned back to their parishes. “They were excited about it,” he said. “Like Cursillo and Christ Renews His Parish, it’s an asking, an invitation. It’s a sound program of evangelization training, and once the seed is planted, it’ll be self-sustaining. Our office wants to continue to give impetus to the program to interest more parishes. Any way we can facilitate evangelization in the parishes, we will. This is doable!”
For more information on the ChristLife series, Discovering Christ, Following Christ and Sharing Christ, contact Dr. Claude Sasso, firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (816) 714-2308.