As Pope Francis has reminded us lately, the Church is most herself when she is on mission; when she reaches out to those imprisoned by sin and offers them the freedom offered in Jesus Christ. Thus, it is fitting to see in St. Patrick a model of the missionary option of the Church, and a powerful intercessor as we engage in the New Evangelization. As you may know, St. Patrick was first enslaved in Ireland before he returned as a missionary. In an age when Christians face much hostility in a variety of ways, he can be a great example of being motivated by the love of Christ.
Despite the need for missionaries in both the United Sates and other places where Catholicism once flourished, we must recognize the changing dynamics. Patrick preached the Gospel in a land that had not yet come to know Jesus Christ or what the new religion of Christianity was all about. We, on the other hand, preach in a culture that has stereotypes and misconceptions about the nature and history of Christianity which form a strong barrier of subtle prejudice. In addition, America is currently saturated with a variety of religious and philosophical influences, each of which has changed the popular mind about what constitutes holiness.
Probably the most famous example of the new spiritual landscape within the United States is the idea of being “spiritual, but not religious.” Instead of outright rejection of such a position, we should first form sincere pathways of mutual understanding. In the new landscape which contains a great variety of possible permutations, we should not jump to the conclusion that the culture is de facto hostile to the Christian message. At a time in which many young adults are rejecting Christianity, they are simultaneously being exposed to a secular culture which promotes mindfulness meditation and a variety of alternative spiritual practices.
Our reengagement of the culture will not be a one-size-fits-all type approach, but rather will involve layers of dedicated evangelists, each of which must seek to move beyond stereotypes and encounter people in their unique context. Among such approaches, I would argue that we need a renewal in contemplative and monastic spirituality that exists not simply as a stale repetition of past spiritual practices, but rather exists in dialogue with the culture. The Christian contemplative tradition must respond to much more than lukewarmness and disbelief. In an age where Americans are being exposed to East Asian religions and philosophies, everything from Yoga to Zen Buddhism, we must again take up the missionary option to engage this new environment in a sincere effort to preach Jesus Christ in a new context.
Dialogue does not mean that we water down the Gospel or the demands it makes. Sincere dialogue forms the necessary precondition for missionary activity. Before we can preach Jesus Christ, we must form barriers of trust which can help to cultivate curiosity and openness to the Christian message. Such a trust must be earned by sincere interest in the new landscape rather than a distant rejection or analytical form of cynicism.
This is why the New Evangelization must involve a new thrust to engage the culture.