By Patrick Schmadeke
What exactly is the word we are trying to spread in the work of evangelization? Is it about a given doctrine, a given parish community? Does it reflect on the leadership of a pastor or bishop or pope? The answer seems to be yes and no. Doctrine, parish life, pastoral leadership and many other dimensions of Catholicism are all important but they orbit around something more central. Namely, the answer to the longings of our hearts is found in the person of Jesus, and everything that flows from him.
Ultimately, in evangelization, in “getting the word out,” we are bearers of the word. That means that the word we share, inevitably, comes down to personal experience and emphasis based on the situation at hand. What may begin as a general emphasis on “love God and love neighbor,” pivots into the concrete reality of what this looks like on a personal level. The question we must all answer is this: “What does Jesus mean for me in the concrete, lived reality of my daily life?”
Our answer to that question is the ground for our personal expression of evangelization. Each of our answers is born of our personal experiences. For me, evangelization has taken the form of talking about God over a cup of coffee, visiting with youths in juvenile detention centers and being present to persons in day centers for adults with disabilities. These focal points come from my lived experience.
Evangelization does not come prefabricated or in cookie-cutter mold. Rather, the beauty of evangelization is that our efforts at it come from our personal experience. This experience gives rise to personal emphasis on the locations where we know we need to bring Jesus’ love.
God calls us to evangelize in the midst of our lived experience. What it looks like for a banker, firefighter, nurse, accountant, politician, car mechanic, athlete, actor, cleric, lawyer or artist to “get the word out” about Jesus is intensely particular. Our job is to engage in wonder about how we might bring our God-given gifts to bear on our everyday experience and relationships.
What Pope Paul VI said in 1975 is still true today: “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” This is instructive. If we want to be effective in getting the word out about Jesus, then our actions need to match our words. It is difficult to speak credibly about abortion if one does not personally walk with women in need. It is difficult to speak credibly about climate change if one does not examine one’s diet and habits of consumption. It is difficult to speak credibly about immigration if one has not migrated or walked with those who have. Credibility is born of competency and honesty, both of which require a good measure of personal experience. There is no short cut for this.
Personal efforts at evangelization rest on personal experience. We are the best at evangelization when we lean deeply into the specificity of our personal experience, recognize the presence of Jesus in that experience and share the joy we find in that with others. That is the word, and the work, of evangelization.
(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)