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The new evangelization of Catholics in a new language

30 November, 1999

Seán MacGabhann is an Irish-born Roman Catholic priest ministering in Canada. He sees relationship with Jesus as central to Catholicism. So his book is really a campaign to turn Catholics from concern with the institution to personal intimacy with Jesus: from head to heart, from power to service, from complexity to simplicity, from status quo to risk and from logic to paradox. It is a never-ending task with the person of faith always searching for what Ignatius of Loyola calls the “more”. The approach is punchy. I like it.

348 pp. Trafford Publishing. To purchase this book online, go to www.trafford.com/07-1756


    • Do Catholics Need To Be Re-Evangelized? 
    • Jesus: Source And Summit Of The New Evangelization 
    • We Are Never Fully Catholic 
    • Encountered By Jesus 
    • Meeting Jesus In Scripture 
    • Baptism: John’s or Jesus’s? 
    • Bishops Too Are Catholic! (i)  
    • Bishops Too Are Catholic! (ii) 
    • We Still Bid God 
    • Church: Chicken With Its Head Chopped Off! (i)
    • Church: Chicken With Its Head Chopped Off! (ii)  
    • Church: Chicken With Its Head Chopped Off! (iii) 
    • Sit Down Beside Me
    • Slow Down Frank! 
    • Formation For Matrimony
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (1) 
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (ii) 
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (iii)  
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (iv)  
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (v)  
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (vi) 
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (vii) 
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (viii) 
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (ix) 
    • A New Language For Mass Goers (x) 
    • Year Of Eucharist Resolution  
    • New Language For First Communion (i) 
    • New Language For First Communion (ii) 
    • What Is Your Religion? (i)  
    • What Is Your Religion? (ii)  
    • What Is Your Religion? (iii)  
    • What Is Your Religion? (iv)  
    • “Let My People Go” (i) 
    • “Let My People Go” (ii)
    • Whose To Blame? 
    • Distorted Thinking Retards 
    • Preferential Option For The Poor 
    • Preached And Directed Retreats 
    • Give Up Your Addictions 
    • A Confessional Awakening 
    • Sin Bravely!  
    • Cross And Crib
    • To Know We Don’t Know (i) 
    • To Know We Don’t Know (ii) 
    • To Know We Don’t Know (iii) 
    • To Know We Don’t Know (iv) 
    • Wanted: Reformers 
    • Catholics Worship Images 
    • Where Was God? 
    • God: Elusive As A Pot Of Gold 
    • Give Up Your Projections Of God 
    • Dropping Your Projections Of God 
    • Throw Your Images Into The Fire 
    • Free Of Your Images Of God 
    • “Late Have I Loved You” 
    • Mysticism Is ‘catholic’  
    • “We Need…. A New Saintliness” 
    • Peel Your Onion 
    • Attention! Attention! Attention!
    • You Can Experience God (i) 
    • You Can Experience God (ii) 
    • You Can Experience God (iii) 
    • You Can Experience God (iv) 
    • You Can Experience God (v)
    • We Too Are Lepers 
    • We Don’t Create We Irrigate 
    • Vatican State Is Real Estate 
    • The Coffin And Diana 
    • Pope Too A Disciple
    • Evangelize The Curia 
    • Cardinal Sins 
    • Relationship Grace (i) 
    • A Common Language Of Grace (ii)
    • Grace Is Always Already (iii) 
    • Theologians Too Are Learners 
    • Theologians Must Kiss!  
    • Benedict Benedict Benedict 
    • Sacraments Are Secondary 
    • Power Of Sacramentors  
    • Fiddling While Rome Burns 
    • People Strength 
    • The Salmon And The Triduum 
    • We Have Colonized God 
    • Slow Learners!  
    • Watch Your Language 
    • The Dark Side Of Jesus
    • Institution As An Obstacle 
    • Shut Out By The Institution 
    • Patron Saint For The Institution
    • Patron Saint For Bishops
    • Patron Saint For Excluded Women 
    • Patron Saint For Excluded Laity 
    • Patron Saint Of Sex Scandals 
    • But What Do You Think
    • Duc In Altum 
    • No Shortage Of Priests 
    • Involve The Children 
    • Ways To Involve The Children 
    • Dualism Shuts Us Out 
    • No Expectations No Disappointments 
    • Same-Sex Marriage And Our Response 
    • More Dreams – Fewer Meetings  
    • A Matter of Justice? 
    • The Rabbi and Evangelization
    • A Miraculous Marriage!  
    • Little Shockers! 



painted about 1650

He was born Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn on the 15th of July, 1606, in the Weddesteeg at Leyden, Holland; the son of the village miller, Harmen Gerritzoon van Rijn, and Neeltgen Willems-dochter van Zuytbrouck, the daughter of a local baker.

More than any other artist of the period, Rembrandt strove to give earthly reality to the face of Christ; and, at the same time, no other artist endowed that face with more radiant kindness – particularly in his later paintings. Such works, though radically different from most of so-called Christian art, reveal a true depth of spiritual understanding and sentiment.

Rembrandt was also a painter of the common people of history and of his time. Because of his profound experience of humanity, he was able to portray his subjects not only as sinful yet repentant, but also as being created in the likeness of God /heir Creator.

Rembrandt’s portrait of Christ’s Head was endowed with indescribable goodness and purity, the essence of one who would make the ultimate sacrifice.

As a painter, Rembrandt’s works reveal a new kind of beauty, far removed from the classical kind – a vision and an interpretation of the human person which transfigures the least beautiful face, or the ugliest body. Rembrandt was a painter of the insignificant or little people.


The Jubilee of the Year 2000, ended on January the 6th, 2001 with an exhortation of Pope John Paul II titled: “At the Beginning of the New Millenium.” I wonder if he had Rembrandt in mind because, no less than seventeen times in this short reflection, he exhorts us to “Contemplate the face of Christ.” In asking what is the core of the great legacy the Jubilee leaves us, he says: “I would not hesitate to describe it as the contemplation of the face of Christ: Christ considered in his historical features…. the experience we have had should inspire in us new energy and impel us to invest in concrete initiatives the enthusiasm we have felt.”

Because the Pope holds up before us the historical face of Christ to be contemplated, I offer Rembrandt’s Face of Christ as our best historical icon. For this reason, I italicized some key phrases in my brief description of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Christ’s Face. For example, more than any other artist of the period, Rembrandt strove to give earthly reality to the face of Christ. It is the human and historical Jesus that we are called to contemplate in the Gospels. We can rest assured that we will not remain at this level. But we have to begin here. The historical and human Jesus will lead us to experience the God who lives in us, in whom we live and move and have our being. Rembrandt’s face of Christ attracts us because no other artist endowed that face with more radiant kindness.

The late John Paul II issued a wake-up call to the whole Church, to be infused with new energy and enthusiasm in implementing the New Evangelization of Catholics. Playing it safe and sitting on the fence is apathy. Like Rembrandt, we have to dare to risk and dare to dream as he did. He stood out on a limb because his Face of Christ is radically diffirent from most of the so-called Christian art of his period.

Commentators on Rembrandt’s paintings tell us that he was a painter of the common people, the insignificant or little people. Like Jesus, he had a preferential option for the poor. The poor come in many shapes and sizes and in the light of the New Evangelization they are the laity. They are poor in the sense that they are at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of having any significant voice in the Church. Their dignity as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and God’s own people is largely ignored. They are seen more as a threat than as a complement to the overall functioning of the Body of Christ.

Rembrandt had deep insight into both the enormous potential and dignity of people. He portrayed his subjects not only as sinful yet repentant, but also as being created in the likeness of God their Creator. His moving painting of the father and prodigal son is a sound testament to our openness to and capability of conversion. The call of the New Evangelization could be summed up in one word: conversion. The more we contemplate the face of Christ the more we are moved to change our lives. Repentance then is less about turning away from sin but more about a fresh encounter with the person of Jesus. Created in the likeness of God means that we are God-bearers because God lives in us. It follows then that we are capable of having a direct experience of God. The little people, the laity, have not been taught this and suffer from an inferiority complex.

As we contemplate Rembrandt’s Face of Christ, we see a Christ endowed with indescribable goodness and purity, the essence of one who would make the ultimate sacrifice in order to secure the redemption of humankind. The New Evangelization calls for great sacrifice. Change and risk are painful. Like Peter, to have Jesus throw a rope around us and lead us where we prefer not to go, is scaring. We fear the unknown. But we have been on the outer journey long enough and now it is time to set out on the inner journey – the longest and without any road signs!

Like Jesus, Rembrandt dared to be different, to be counter-cultural. His works reveal a new kind of beauty far removed from the classical kind – a vision and an interpretation of man which transfigures the least beautiful face, or the ugliest body. Vision and newness describe well the New Evangelization. It is not
is just another program, of which we have enough, but evangelization with a difference: it is new. We are to embrace it with new energy and with a vision that is new in ardour; method and expression. Perhaps we could take Rembrandt as our patron saint for this new endeavour which, John Paul II believed, will result in a new Springtime for the Church.


These pages are the result of several years of reflection on the urgency of an Evangelization with a difference. Right after ordination I left for the mission fields of South America to Evangelize non-Christians because only they were the recipients of Evangelization – I thought! But not any more! The late Pope John Paul II, opened my eyes when he included Catholics and challenged the whole Church, not just to be re-Evangelized, but Ncwly Evangelized. This indeed is a new language that will take a lot of getting used to! In the following reflections I attempt to flesh out what this would look like in practice and everyday life.

They are aimed primarily at the average Catholic in the street, in the home and in the workplace. I can’t say in the pew because, in the West at least, our buildings are empty and only a New Evangelization will fill them again. It is my experience that most Catholics do not engage in much reading that could be classified as spiritual, church, biblical or theological. For this reason each reflection is short, devoid of theological jargon, down to earth, chatty with a spice of humour! It’s a very healthy sign when we can laugh at ourselves while being serious at the same time!

Only a friend will tell you that your breath smells! Johann Baptist Metz was a friend, former student and critic of the great Karl Rahner and he respected Metz for this. Rahner too was a critic of the institutional Church and he was often not tolerated much less respected. It failed to see where he was coming from as Metz tells us: “He has the Church in his guts, and he feels its failures like indigestion.” It was out of his love for his Church that Rahner criticised the leadership. It is in this light that I am critical of the institutional Church in these reflections which, like the rest of us, needs to be Newly Evangelized.

While in theory and belief we the Church are one, in actual practice we are two: the institutional / structural / hierarchical / leadership aspect and the laity. The latter suffer from a debilitating inferiority complex and do not believe they, along with the institution, are the Church. The institution on the other hand, suffers from a destructive superiority complex that keeps the laity in their subordinate place. The New Evangelization calls for a double conversion, metanoia and repentance here: the laity become who they are and the institution surrender control. It must return to a John the Baptist style of leadership and point to Jesus instead of to itself. Conversion demands that it return to its roots where Jesus was the focus. It has ousted him, taken centre-stage and turned in on itself.

I present the New Evangelization as uncomplicated, uncluttered and very simple – but not easy! It’s new in that it calls us away from more knowledge, more meetings and more programs to a fresh encounter with Jesus. He is our point of reference. He is our North Star. Obviously, a personal encounter with Jesus involves a relationship with him. This too is new because our main focus and teaching is knowledge about Jesus instead of simply knowing him.

Our Pelagian, doer, and control attitudes must go because they are obstacles to a fresh encounter with Jesus. We cannot forge a relationship with him and do not need to because we are already  in relationship. All we need do is just become aware of what already is and pay attention to it. This too is simple but not easy. Because we are, we do not need to strive for.  We are already graced, saved, in relationship, children of God and loved sinners. But we Catholics, particularly the institution, are set in our ways and resist change. As Simone Weil puts it, “It is easier for a non-Christian to become a Christian than for a ‘Christian’ to become one!” Our sin is not that we are bad but that we have settled for the good. However, the New Evangelization calls us to embrace what is best and the best is a relationship with a person; not knowledge of dogma, belief in a creed or following a religion.

The call to a fresh encounter with Jesus and an intimate relationship flowing from it, form the basis for each of my reflections. Put simply: The New Evangelization is Jesus-centred and relationship-focused. Because of this it transcends religion, all programs and is holistic in that it is a way of life impacting every aspect of it.

If programs could change and convert us we would all be saints by now and not need to be Newly Evangelized! Whatever little there is going on at the moment in an effort to evangelize, is program-oriented and going nowhere. Programs will not and cannot stir up in us a New Evangelization that is new in ardour; method and expression. But a personal relationship with the great Evangelizer will set us on fire. I stress over and over again in these reflections that we must get out of our heads and live from our hearts. Dan Brown in his book, “Angels and Demons,” makes an interesting point in this regard: “Sometimes divine revelation simply means adjusting your brain to hear what your heart already knows.” The New Evangelization gets right to the heart of the matter!

Along with Pope Benedict, I make the same comments and request the same of my readers that lie does in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth. At the outset, he makes it clear that it reflects his own opinions, which are not necessarily those of the Church’s official teaching office. His book, he writes, is solely “an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord’ (Psalm 27:8). Everyone is free, then, to contradict me. I would only ask my readers for that initial good will without which there can be no Understanding.”

Seán MacGabhann




“No,” says the Pope!

In 1997 Pope John Paul II met with a Special Assernbly of the Synod of Bishops for America: North, Central and South. This was in preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. Two years later in 1999, the Pope summarized the discussions in what is now known as The Church in America. It is his Apostolic Exhortation to the Catholics in America. He calls us “not to a re-Evangelization but a New Evangelization – new in ardour, method and expression” (Pope John Paul II, The Church in America: #6). Throughout his exhortation he stresses that the starting point for this new initiative is “encounter with the Lord.” This relationship with Jesus is so central that he mentions it sixty-six times!

On night four of the parish mission, the missioner preached about hell. He had the people squirming in the pews. This parish was going straight to hell! Right in the front pew a man sat with arms folded and a grin on his face that really irked the missioner. He couldn’t take it any more. Looking him straight in the eye, he demanded “And what have you to smile about’?” “Oh, I don’t belong to this parish,” was his smug reply.

When we Catholics hear the word “Evangelization” we tend to think that’s for the people in the other parish! Evangelization is what missionaries do in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We’re Catholic. We don’t need to be evangelized. Correct! We need a New Evangelization! How does that make us feel? It’s a bit like the surgeon  telling me that I don’t need by-pass surgery, I need a new heart! Basically that was the message of the prophets throughout the Old Testament. True and genuine conversion could be expressed only in a change of heart.

In this series of reflections I will try to flesh out in a practical way this New Evangelization we Catholics are called to. Because discipleship and the Gospel are essentially simple – not easy – I will keep it simple. What would a fresh encounter with Jesus look like in my personal life and lived out in my parish? I look back to my seminary days with regret. I spent five years studying about Jesus and never met him! What a tragedy! No wonder I need a New Evangelization! Scripture would have come alive for me had I been taught to pray with the Word. This is something I stumbled upon many years after ordination. Now I have a personal relationship with Jesus and what a difference it makes in my life! For sure my reflections will include ways of praying with scripture that’s certain to lead to a fresh encounter with Jesus.

On one occasion I met with representatives of the United and Pentecostal Churches to plan a service at sun-rise on Easter Sunday. The Pentecostals had been without a minister for a long time. Jim. their lay-leader, was happy that they were getting a new minister. Just out of seminary, 23 and his first assignment! But Jim’s response to that was, “He has a passion for the Lord.” That’s what a fresh encounter with Jesus is meant to stir up in us. Passion! Fire!

A New Evangelization that is new in ardour, method and expression. Now that’s a tall order! In fact, it is radical! What would that look like in my parish? It calls for an enthusiasm and excitement that comes only from a fresh encounter with Jesus. Risk and great courage are called for. Change is painful. But a relationship that is alive is always changing and risking. New methods, not gimmicks, demand risk, courage and change. If we are alive in Jesus they will automatically happen. And new in expression! Central to this is a new language. When the British occupied Ireland they found that the natives “Speak a language that the stranger does not know!” Frustrating! Try reading a lawyer’s letter! Impossible! I believe the institutional Church speaks a language that most of us find hard to comprehend. A kind of a lawyer’s language! It is heavily intellectual lacking personal flavour. Cognitive rather than affective. More head than heart. Simplicity too is dangerous! How do we express in a simple way, not simplistic, our fresh encounter with Jesus’? I will attempt to answer that in the rest of my reflections.



Source and Summit of The New Evangelization

We also call Him, “The Lord,” “Jesus Christ” and “Christ the Lord.” The most personal title for me is “Jesus.” One that Catholics tend not to use a lot. We associate the usage with Evangelicals, Charismatics and Pentecostals.
The title Jesus is relational. It has feeling and intimacy. Whereas The Lord is more formal, cerebral and distant. Many times I have heard a husband refer to his spouse as “the wife.” Not very flattering! Ask the average husband to describe himself as a husband. “I work hard, mow the grass, do the maintenance etc.” A non-relationship description! No mention of his wife. Ask the average Catholic to describe him or herself as a Catholic! “I go to Mass. I pray at home. I went to a Catholic school.” A non-relationship description. Where is Jesus? Where are we? A fresh encounter with Jesus is primarily relational.

Jesus calls us to intimacy. So why not speak the language of friendship and intimacy! Take the liturgy for example. The presider addresses the congregation with, “The Lord be with you,” and, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” What would it sound like if he said, “Jesus be with you,” and,”Go in peace to love and serve Jesus?” Relationships are dangerous! When we get close to Jesus and others heavy demands are made on us.

Like his first disciples, Jesus invites us to, “Come and see.” And the Gospel writer John, says they spent the day with him. Notice the first thing Jesus did. He invited them to a relationship with him. Then he taught them. We tend to do the opposite. Someone inquires about joining the Church and we send them to the RCIA. Or a man inquires about the priesthood. We send him to the seminary. We teach them. What if we first introduce them to Jesus and then teach them? Or rather, let Jesus teach them. It’s good to inquire about the Church, and go to the seminary. It would be better if their first desire was like some Greeks who said to Philip, “We wish to see Jesus.” Matthew has Jesus tell his disciples to go, “Make disciples, baptize …. and teach…” Notice the order! Relationship is first. Teaching is last.

Speaking to the director, St. Ignatius of Loyola, sternly warns him or her not to get in the way. He says, “It is more appropriate and far better that the Creator and Lord himself should communicate himself to the devout soul …. allow the Creator to deal immediately with the creature and the creature with its Creator and Lord.” It is a fact that most of the newly initiated into the Church at Easter drop off fairly soon. The same with our students in our schools. It’s not that we haven’t “educated them in the faith:” Maybe that’s the problem. Have they met Jesus? Who do they say Jesus is for them? I couldn’t answer that question till many years on in the priesthood. And I spent five years studying scripture and theology! I was educated! But I was not formed. I was catechized but not Evangelized. I knew about Jesus yet didn’t meet him. It was a case of the good becoming the enemy of the best. Of course it is good to be educated. But it’s best to have a relationship with Jesus.

Ignatius of Loyola saw how a director can be an obstacle to a relationship between Jesus and the directee. It is not outlandish to say that the institutional Church too can be an obstacle to a person’s relationship with Jesus. Look at the Crusades, the Inquisition and, nearer home, the bishops’ and priests’ scandals. Peter, the first Pope, was an obstacle! He tried to get between Jesus and his mission. I have a feeling that most Catholics see the Church as their main conduit to Jesus. An unhealthy dependence develops. We do speak of the Church being a dispenser of grace. The fact is that, as children of God, we already have a relationship with Jesus and so are graced. The Church doesn’t grant it. It nourishes the graced relationship. The servant is not above the master. The Body is not above the Head. The dog wags the tail! Not the other way round! Like Peter, the church must keep behind Jesus. So when the Pope calls for a fresh encounter with Jesus, he is speaking to the whole body, including himself.




A major obstacle to the New Evangelization of Catholics is the illusion that one day we are fully Catholic. We see this all the time in sacramental celebration. The sacraments of initiation; Baptism, Confirmation and First Eucharist are seen by many parents as graduation sacraments. They believe the children are now fully Catholic! The above order or sequence of the sacraments of initiation is correct. Eucharist, not Confirmation, is the completion of initiation. Bishops have to stop delaying Confirmation and using it as a means to keep our young people in the church – which it does not.

In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. The Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Live and Mission, (#17, 18), Pope Benedict XVI calls for a restoration of the correct order of the sacraments of initiation for children. He says: “It must never be forgotten that our reception of Baptism and Confirmation is ordered to the Eucharist. Accordingly, our pastoral practice should reflect a more unitary understanding of the process of Christian initiation… in this regard, attention needs to be paid to the order of the sacraments of initiation.”

Presently there is an imbalance between Jesus and the Church which needs to be corrected. I believe we put too much emphasis on joining, entering, confirming and marrying in the Church. The danger is that the institution can take precedence over a person. That person is Jesus. When the institution comes first, we unconsciously, or consciously, convey the notion that the Church is all powerful. In which case it makes sense to experience the sacraments as rites of entry into the club. And like membership of any club, when we are initiated we are full members.

Switch the focus. Sacraments are celebrations of what already is. Long before baptism or any other sacrament, we have a relationship with Jesus. The Church does not initiate that relationship. The Church helps us to respond and at different stages celebrate that intimate relationship. Nobody ever initiates a relationship with Jesus. We always respond. We need to focus more on this relationship with Jesus that already exists. If you doubt me listen to the profound and sometimes, embarrassing questions that a four-year old child has! Or observe their art. It’s natural for children to talk to and about Jesus. We need to build on that. Little three-year old Andrea, on Good Friday, cried when she saw the crucifix covered. She asked her mom why Jesus had gone!

Talking about art! The teacher asked the children to draw some of the beautiful things God created. Little Johnny drew God painting the sky and clouds with his left hand. When she asked Johnny why God draws with his left hand, he replied, “Well last week you taught us in the Creed that Jesus sits on the right hand of God!”

With the primary focus on Jesus we will be relationship-oriented. When the Church is the primary focus the sacraments are things to be done, hoops to be jumped through, devoid of a relationship. Relationship is not our forte as an institution. This shouldn’t surprise us. We are an all-male leadership! Men tend to be more head than heart. More thinkers than feelers. More abstract than concrete. More cognitive than affective. More in touch with our animus than our anima. We men are not comfortable with our feelings. The New Evangelization calls for a correction of this imbalance. Is this ever a hard nut to crack!

Relationships are never complete. There is always what Ignatius of Loyola calls the “more.” Our relationship with Jesus is the same. I never have a full relationship with him. Nothing is ever complete this side of the grave. It’s like the seminarian asking his confessor when he would be rid of sexual temptations. “About ten minutes after you are dead,” was the response. Because all sacraments are primarily a relationship, I am never fully a priest. A couple is never fully matrimonied. You are never fully Catholic. Maybe ten minutes after we are dead! So when asked if you are fully Catholic, matrimonied or a priest, the correct response is: “I am a little bit more (or less!) Catholic, matrimonied, a priest today than I was yesterday!” Karl Ratner said somewhere that all symphonies remain unfinished. A relationship with Jesus is definitely an unfinished symphony. 

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