“Evangelization” is in the Catholic Dictionary

I have recently come to understand that the word ‘evangelization’ has certain unhelpful connotations in Catholic circles. To those who have spent significant time in places where Protestant fundamentalism is common, the idea of evangelizing in our imagination might mean to walk up to someone and to ask them if they have been saved. Since often times these experiences find the Catholic unprepared and leave him confused, talking about evangelization sometimes carries negative baggage. 

Given we at Prince of Peace have committed ourselves to answering God’s call to live out the Gospel through evangelization, as well as sacramental worship, formation and serving those in need among us, it might be helpful to reflect a bit on what exactly evangelization means in our Catholic mindset.

In the resurrection account of St. John’s gospel, it is Mary Magdalene to whom Jesus first appears, and he tells her to go and announce his resurrection to his disciples. Scripture tells us that Mary did as the Lord asked and proclaimed to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:17-18). The word ‘evangelist’ comes from the Greek word ‘euangelion’ meaning ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’. So, an evangelist is someone who spreads the ‘euangelion’, the Gospel, or shares the good news of the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection.

To Mary Magdalene, her experience of seeing the Lord was very good news!  Having just been weeping  outside the tomb because she didn’t know where the body of her beloved Lord was, she’s filled with wonder and you can almost hear the joy in her words: “I have seen the Lord”. This experience of Mary Magdalene is a pattern for all disciples: we experience an encounter with
God, and we can’t help but share it with others. Evangelization is an impulse born of the joy that can only come from an encounter with the risen Lord. It’s an overflow, a bursting forth. This missionary impulse is not primarily an obligation put on us from without, but to the person who has encountered God, it is an uncontrollable urge burning from within. Consider the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “If I say, ‘I will not mention Him, or speak any more in His Name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9).

And so we see that we cannot speak of evangelization until we have first spoken of relationship.  Notice Mary Magdalene is first in an intimate relationship with Jesus, and her impulse to share comes from what she has first experienced. And the prophet Jeremiah, too, was totally possessed by God first, and from that came his commitment to sharing what God was  revealing to him about his plan of salvation for the people of Israel. We must first be disciples in an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. This is where evangelization comes from.

So, let us become possessed by God!  He is alive and still revealing himself to hearts open to him.  God never fails to give of himself. In the scriptures we meet him; in the sacraments we receive his very life; in community we put that life into action and learn to love like him; in our daily prayer we nurture our relationship with him; and in serving the poor we are able to see his visible face among us. Only once we have entered into relationship and allowed him to transform us by the power of his love do we become evangelists. Then we are able to join our voices to countless others who have echoed Mary Magdalene in announcing with great joy:  “I have seen the Lord!” 

Let us praise the Lord; and give him thanks!