Pope Francis offered sage advice to the whole Christian world in his annual address to cardinals, bishops and priests who work for the Holy See in Rome. While following the lead of the past few popes in the modern era, he called for new efforts toward evangelization. He explained that Christians must be open to new ways of proclaiming the Gospel because we now live in a post Christian era, most especially in the West. He said, “We need other maps, other paradigms that might help us change our ways of thinking. We are not in Christianity, not anymore!” He added, “We are no longer under a Christian regime because the faith — especially in Europe, but also in much of the West — no longer constitutes an obvious premise of common life. One the contrary, it is even often denied, derided, marginalized and ridiculed.”
Some examples of what Pope Francis is talking about can be found in startling statistics. In the Canadian province of Quebec during the 1950s, 95% of their population went to Mass; today less than 5% attend. In the Netherlands, in 1970, 39% were Roman Catholic, now only 23% Protestants in the same period declined from 31% to just 15%. In 2015, 63% of Dutch people thought that religion does more harm than good. Here in the United States the statistics are not as dire as Europe or Canada, but there is indication of decline nonetheless. Christians comprised 73% of U.S. population in 2016; in just three years that percentage dropped to 65%. Presbyterians lost 40% of their members between 2000 and 2015. Roman Catholic baptisms in the U.S. are down some 34% while Evangelical Lutherans are down over 40%. I could go on with depressing statistics, but I think you get the point.
This past April Pope Francis issued the document “Praedicate Evangelism,” “Preach the Gospel.” In this he spoke of the creation of new “super dicastery” for evangelization which would supersede the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in importance. Spanish journalist Dario Menor Torres explained in his coverage of this new document that, “Pope Francis always underlines that the church is missionary. For this reason, it’s logical that we put in the first place the dicastery for Evangelization and not the one for the Doctrine of the Faith. This way, the pope sends a significant signal of the reform to the entire People of God.” It also now places those who compose the Curia of the Church at the service of the pope and bishops. Menor said, “As successors of the apostles, the bishops don’t have an ecclesiological position that puts them below those who work in the Roman Curia.” Which means a bishop from any diocese in the world will have the same hierarchical power as the prefect of any Vatican dicastery.
Earlier this month Pope Francis appointed Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle as prefect of the newly formed Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Cardinal Tagle is well thought of by his fellow cardinals. As a participant in the last three synods of the church he was elected by his peers to the council, a signal of their esteem for him. He is similar to the Holy Father in his simplicity, joy and love for the poor of the world. Having just returned from the Philippines with family members, I witnessed the overflowing attendance at Mass and exuberant practice of the faith. Having visited a few malls while there, Cardinal Tagle’s statement is absolutely true when he said, “Many at the Vatican cannot believe that in the Philippines there is a chapel in the mall. They cannot believe that evangelization can happen in commercial centers. They cannot believe that every first Friday there is Mass in offices, banks, they probably want to understand why this is so.”
He joked at a public and emotional farewell to the Filipino people about his appointment, “This is your fault!”
Cardinal Tagle reflected on his new position by saying that we are all called to “listen to God and listen to one another with patience, interest and attention” as regards our role in evangelization. He said, “Very often when we talk about communication, we are in a hurry and we do not listen to other people. We do not pay much attention to listening to others with the heart, which is the first step in evangelization.” He said we must do a better job including young people and women in the all important work of evangelization. He said, “Young people know the digital world better than we do. Women also have a natural predisposition for interpersonal communications. Women and mothers are experts in communication.”
May we all do our part. For as Cardinal Tagle reminds us, our mission is to proclaim Jesus Christ “carrying the cross with Christ and living his charity, sharing it with the world, especially with those in need.”
Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.