The phrase “new evangelisation” gets thrown around a great deal these days. And St John Paul II’s demand for an evangelisation that is “new in its ardour, methods and expression” is often quoted. But while much attention has been devoted to methods and expression, I think we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions about the new ardour. For what if the new methods and expression fail to bear the prayed-for fruit? Or fail to bear it quickly enough for those currently so impassioned? After 10 years, or 50, or 100, might not this enthusiasm give way to disillusion and despair? And if this first blush of love begins to fade – which, as any wise ex-teenager can tell us, it often does – what then for the new evangelisation?

Even if successful, this “new evangelisation” requires that we (and I mean all Christians, not just Catholics) are embarking on a centuries-long endeavour. And given this, we need to approach it in the right frame of mind, fortified with a spirituality of patience and perseverance. And on this particular subject, I believe that Blessed John Henry has a great deal to teach us.

In Redemptoris Missio, St John Paul II distinguished the “new evangelisation” from two other kinds of mission: first, proposing the Good News to people who have never heard it; second, the pastoral care of those who are already Christian. The “new evangelisation”, by contrast, is necessary when a culture starts to lose its once established Christianity: a situation in which a culture where the Church has been firmly established is in the process of lapsing back into a position where, for the most part, Christ is unknown. And this, of course, describes Western Europe in our own time.

Arguably, the primary challenge of the new evangelisation – and the root cause of why it is needed in the first place – is keeping those we already have. Addressing, and ultimately reversing, this will be a huge job in itself – not least because, at present, we’re not entirely sure what precisely it is that needs addressing. (Catechesis? Sacramental preparation? Youth ministry? Parish community life? Liturgical music? Some, all or none of the above?)

The research we do have, however, points very strongly at how critical the formative years of childhood and young adulthood are for “setting up” a person’s adult religiosity. Unfortunately, that means that, in terms of broad societal trends (individual souls are a different matter, of course), “decline” is almost certain to continue for several years to come. (That is to say, as the more practising older generations gradually die off, the resolutely non-practising baby boomer generation “behind them” will certainly not be replacing them in our churches.)

Since at least the 1960s – in different ways, and at different speeds – swathes of the Western world have witnessed unprecedented religious change and (for the most part) decline. We have simultaneously witnessed a series of social and cultural revolutions, most recently the technological and media revolution driven by the internet. That alone has profoundly changed the way people think and act, possibly for ever, and whatever potential it holds for evangelisation – and these are many and exciting – it perhaps holds vastly more so for halting or disrupting it.

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