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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?
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 Christs 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 ones 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 Popes 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 Catholicsbut 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 peoples 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 Christiansincluding Catholicsin 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:
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:
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 Churchs 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 familysuch 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 martyrs life in the modern world and, if it is Gods will, we ask for a martyrs 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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