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The Re-Evangelization of America: A Martyr's Responsibility of the Laity

by Father John Hardon, S.J.

We do not normally think of America as a mission country. On the contrary, we have for generations been sending missionaries to other countries: to the people of Asia and Africa. We have mission-aid societies and Mission Sunday. Over the years, thousands of American priests and religious from our nation have gone to distant lands to preach the Gospel and proclaim the Kingdom of Christ to people “sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

But much has happened since the middle of the twentieth century. We have become more and more secularized. It was not too many decades ago that we could honestly say we are a Christian people. Our churches were numerous, our congregations were flourishing. Our Catholic school system was the envy of the world. Our Catholic family life was, as always, under severe pressure. But it was, nevertheless, stable. And our Christian values of right and wrong were basically sound.

My purpose in this presentation is to ask four questions and try within one hour to answer them.

  • Why does America have to be re-evangelized?

  • What does re-evangelization mean?

  • Why are the Catholic laity mainly responsible for this re-evangelization?

  • How is this re-evangelization a call to martyrdom?

Why Does America Have to be Re-Evangelized?

America has to be re-evangelized because it has become de-Christianized. This is not my opinion. It is not even an opinion. It is a provable fact.

There are certain basic premises of Christianity which are easily identified. Even where a person is not professedly Catholic, there are principles of faith and norms of morality that those who profess to be Christians believe and put into practice.

A Christian believes in the existence of a personal God who is the Creator of the human race.

A Christian believes that God became man is the person of Jesus Christ. Thus Christmas Day is the birthday of Christ, the Son of the Virgin Mary; and Good Friday is the commemoration of His death by crucifixion on Calvary. Easter Sunday is the feast of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

A Christian believes there are certain moral laws that are divinely binding on all human beings; that pre-marital relations are fornication, and extra-marital sexual activity is adultery. A Christian believes that marital relations between husband and wife are sacred and that artificial birth control is a sin. A Christian believes that sexual activity between two men or two women is sodomy and a crime that characterized the pagan nations of antiquity and destroyed their civilizations. A Christian believes that the willful destruction of unborn human life is murder and abominable in the eyes of God.

A Christian believes that marriage is a lifetime commitment and that divorce with remarriage is forbidden by Jesus Christ. Even among Christians who were not Catholic, marital instability was frowned upon and an embarrassment to Protestants. For Catholics there was never any question of a “temporary” marriage or of a “part time” commitment to one’s marriage vows.

A Christian welcomed children and Christian families were sizeable and the population growing and our schools flourishing.

Something drastic happened. Every one of the features identified as typical of a Christian civilization is, to say the least, under trial.

Our Holy Father in speaking to the bishops from Western countries is telling them in the plainest possible words that their people need to be re-evangelized. And I believe I know the Pope’s mind well enough to say that he also believes the United States needs to be re-Christianized.

What Does Re-Evangelization Mean?

It means re-conversion. It means bringing people whose ancestry was Christian; who may even have been baptized; who may even have been professed Catholics—but who no longer believe in the basic truths revealed by Christ and taught by the Church for almost two thousand years.

Re-evangelization means more than converting people from a life of sin. It means converting people’s minds to accept on divine authority what God has revealed. It means bringing unbelievers, who had abandoned their Christian faith, to become believers.

The very term, “re-evangelization,” is new to our vocabulary. And the reason is not hard to find. Our century is witnessing the most widespread and devastating loss of faith among Christians—including Catholics—in the history of Christianity.

We must make sure we know what we are saying. In the Western world, there has been a massive abandonment of Christian belief, and a corresponding abandonment of Christian morality.

Recently I received a phone call from a priest in California who asked whether Catholics in a given Western state could vote “Yes” on a ballot which allowed direct abortion under certain circumstances. The other choice was to vote unrestricted abortion. In other words, American citizens are no longer being given the option to vote against all direct killing of the unborn.

We return to our question; “What does re-evangelization mean?” And we repeat: Re-evangelization means restoring the Christian faith to millions in our country who no longer believe:

  • That God became man in the person of Jesus Christ.

  • That Christ died on the Cross for the redemption of the human race.

  • That Christ rose from the dead.

  • That Christ founded a Church, vested with divine authority to teach revealed truth and command obedience in His name.

  • That Christ instituted the sacraments which confer the grace they signify—including the Eucharist which is Jesus Christ really present in the Blessed Sacrament.

  • That there is a heaven and a hell, and that there is, consequently, eternal life for the saved and eternal death for the lost.

Why are the Catholic Laity Mainly Responsible for this Re-Evangelization?

The answer is simple to put in words, but not easy to put into practice. Of course, re-evangelization is more demanding. It is always harder to reconvert a former believer than it is to convert a non-Christian to Christianity; or a non-Catholic to the Catholic Church.

However, our question centers on the adverb “mainly.” We are asking why are the Catholic laity mainly responsible for the re-evangelization of America. There are five principal reasons:

  1. The laity are the most numerous members of the Mystical Body of Christ. They are empowered by the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation to evangelize and re-evangelize others. The Savior was speaking to all the faithful when He said, “Go into the whole world and preach the Gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

  2. The laity are in direct contact and in daily association with the d-Christianized world in which they live. Where they live and the work they are engaged in, the business they do and the relationships they have, the people they see and talk with, the persons whom they meet, with whom they travel, whom they are seeing and hearing and associating with, day after day and hour after hour are those who so desperately need to be re-evangelized.

  3. The laity are in positions of influence in the world and on the world, such as no bishop or priest can have. How did the pagan Roman Empire of the first century of Christianity come to know about Jesus Christ? From the Christian faithful among whom the pagans lived, with whom they were in constant contact, and whom they saw living lives that their pagan contemporaries had never seen.

    Let me quote at some length from the famous letter of a certain Diognetus, written in the early second century. Diognetus compares the life of Christians with that of the pagans among whom they lived: “Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do no inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based on reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.”

    Having said this, Diognetus goes on. Although much the same as their fellow citizens, there is something extraordinary about Christians. “They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their household, but for them there is no homeland, wherever it may be, their homeland is a foreign country. Like others, Christians also marry and have children, but they do not expose these children. They do not kill the children. Christians share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they live on a level which is above all human law.”

    I could go on quoting Diognetus, but I think even these quotations give us some idea of the influence the laity have always had on the society in which they lived. It is no exaggeration to call the believing faithful who are loyal to Christ as “the moral soul of the world.” Strongly believing and faithfully living Catholic laity are like the soul in relation to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so the faithful Catholics are found in all cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the visible soul, so the laity are seen living in the world but their religious life remains unseen. I do not hesitate saying that just as the body without the soul is a dead corpse, so a country without Christ-like laity is a cadaver.

  4. The laity realize, as fathers and mothers of families; as persons of the world of business and politics—how deeply our beloved country has been de-Christianized. No words of mine can describe the sorrow and anguish, dare I say the agony that a sincerely believing and deeply committed Catholic lay person experiences in trying to remain faithful to the Savior in our nation today.

    This is only to be expected once we realize that the Catholic laity are living in a real world; in a world in which matter instead of spirit is what matters; in a world in which unless something is perceptible by the bodily senses it is said to be nonsense.

  5. The faithful laity are blessed with extraordinary grace from God. The Holy Spirit provides them with the gifts they need to not only survive, but actually thrive, in a world that has rejected the Savior and made sin the norm for being normal.

    When the American Psychiatric Association decided that homosexuality is simply the natural orientation of some people, it gave not a few bishops in the Catholic Church in America the grounds for defending sodomy. On these grounds, it is abnormal for a person to not accept and defend homosexuality. Those who still believe that sodomy is a grave sin are said to be mentally unhealthy. They are afflicted with the disorder of homophobia.

Thirty years in working for the Holy See has taught me, in two words, an awe full lot. How well I know how deeply our Holy Father depends on the Catholic laity to preserve the true faith in secularized nations like our own.

How is this Re-Evangelization a Call to Martyrdom?

Our final question is also the most practical. We ask ourselves: How is this re-evangelization a call to martyrdom?

The best description of martyrdom was given by Christ Himself just before He ascended into heaven. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” He told the disciples, “and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but throughout Judea and Samaria, and indeed to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Here we have capsulized in one sentence the motivating power of martyrdom, its nature, and its apostolic purpose.

The source of strength to suffer for Christ comes finally from the Holy Spirit, who is said to give power. In the language of the New Testament, this power is the same kind of power by which miracles can be worked.

The nature of martyrdom is to witness, except that when Christ spoke to the disciples He did not say “You shall be my witnesses,” but, “You shall be my martyrs,” which tells us exactly what we want to know. The essence of being a martyr is to be a witness. And we know what a witness does. He gives testimony publicly that something he saw or heard is true. He has experience of a fact or an event, and as a witness he declares that what he says or signs his name to is so. He gives evidence to others that what he testifies to should be believed. Why? Because he personally knows.

We are liable to miss the preceding adjective “my” in the clause “You shall be my martyrs.” This prefix is crucial. Those who are martyrs are witnesses to Christ. They testify, if need be with their blood, that what they believe is true because they have known Christ. To be a witness, even to martyrdom, one must have experienced Christ, in a way comparable to what Peter told the early Christians: “You did not see Him, yet you love Him. And still without seeing Him, you are already filled with joy so glorious that it cannot be described, because you believe” (1 Pet. 1:8).

What do we mean by martyrdom of witness? It means suffering for our profession of Christ, suffering from active or at least passive opposition. From whom? From those who lack a clear vision of the Savior or who, having had it, lost their former commitment to Christ. The brave defender of the Church’s teaching authority; the devoted servant of the papacy; the strong believer in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist; the courageous teenager who practices Christian chastity; the firm parents who are concerned about the religious and moral training of their children and are willing to sacrifice generously to build and care for a Christian family—such persons will not be spared active criticism and open opposition. They must be ready to live in an atmosphere of coldness to their deepest beliefs.

Sometimes they would almost wish that the opposition were more overt and even persecution would be a welcome change.

To give witness to our love for Jesus Christ and proclaim His truth in a paganized society like our own is nothing less than a living martyrdom. But let us be clear. The deepest joy on earth is to suffer for our courageous faith. This is the joy that I pray our Lord will give all of you. It is nothing less than a foretaste of heaven here on earth.


Mary, Mother of our Redeemer, we want to be faithful to your divine Son and witness to His truth to everyone who enters our lives. But we are weak. Obtain for us from Jesus the strength to live a martyr’s life in the modern world and, if it is God’s will, we ask for a martyr’s death. Help us, we pray, to face the opposition from those who reject your Son. Mary, Queen of Apostles and Queen of Martyrs, pray for us.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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