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New Evangelization: What's New, Why Now? [N1]

Updated: Feb 3

The 14th topic of the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP, “N”, is about the New Evangelization. I don’t know about you, but I enjoy eating Old Chang Kee products. Imagine for a moment that one day, it decided to call itself New Chang Kee. I would probably ask, “what’s wrong with Old Chang Kee? Are they still selling their beloved curry puffs?” I guess this disorientation may come about when we hear the phrase “New Evangelization”? Was there something wrong with the “old Evangelization”? Has the “product” changed?

Pope Francis reassures the Church that no, the message has not changed. It is still the following: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (Evangelii Gaudium, 164) [1]. However, what has “changed” is the need to evangelize with a “new … ardor, methods and expression” [2].

Why is this necessary? What exactly is this new ardor, methods and expression? Let us ponder what the Bible [3], the Church and the Saints teach us about this crucial topic.

Listen to the podcast here:

Opening Prayer – Luke 17:5-6

“The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamine tree, “Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.”

Opening Song – John 3:16 in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Korean, English, Persian (One for Israel)

1. Introduction

1.1. Evangelization: Why is the Gospel good news?

The word “evangelization” comes from the Greek “Euangelion” meaning the announcing of “good news”. St. Paul and the apostles were excited about the person and message of Jesus. They had encountered Jesus as a Savior, who by his cross and resurrection, has triumphed over sin and death, and who has sent his Holy Spirit to accompany his followers in all things. The command by Jesus to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15) was not felt as a burden imposed upon them, but as a joyful obligation. They had experienced true freedom in the Gospel: “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1), and they wanted to proclaim this to the world, that God has made adoption as his children possible in Christ.

Sociologist Rodney Stark, in his work on the triumph of Christianity over the Roman empire, notes that one important reason was the fact that:

“The Greek and Roman gods were ethically challenged…and didn’t care about human beings, and they often mistreated them if they bothered to pay attention at all. There was no sense of virtue. And they were nasty little supernatural things – and then the Jews, and subsequently the Christians, came along with this enormously powerful, all-seeing God who was very, very much in favour of the human race. Who cared about moral behaviour but also cared about rewarding moral behaviour. Who cared what happened to humans. It was an image of God that was absolutely unique and new, and it had enormous appeal. The idea that life had meaning and purpose – this was not something that Zeus could give. And consequently the Jews before them, and the Christians subsequently, had a far more attractive, powerful, and significant God”.

Echoing the observation of sociology, one of the Fathers of Modern Catholic theology Henri de Lubac notes that when Christianity was first preached “humanity was lifted on a wave of hope” [4]. Man felt liberated from fate, “the stars in their unalterable courses, did not after all, implacably control our destinies” and the “countless gods, spirits, demons who pinioned human life in the net of their tyrannical wills, weighing upon the soul with all their terrors now crumbled into dust.” Instead of the capriciousness of fate, Christianity announced the glad tidings that “the Transcendent God, the friend of man, revealed in Jesus, opened for all a way that nothing would ever bar again” and that this message was not limited only to a “small and select company” but meant for mankind as a whole, regardless of ability and social standing [5].

This overwhelming experience of joy when Jesus is preached was brought home to me in a palpable fashion when I was listening to Pastor Francis Chan describing how, after a long preparation living with the people, a missionary in Papua New Guinea preached the Gospel of Jesus for the first time to a community of tribal people in a very remote area. The village chief was heard shouting “Itau” which means “it is good” in the local language. Upon hearing that Christ can be their sin bearer if they believe, the people joined their chief in shouting “Itau” and broke into spontaneous rejoicing which lasted for two and a half hours:

1.2. Why a “New” Evangelization?

When I first saw this video, I wept. At the fact that they had experienced “Evangelii Gaudium” i.e. the joy of the Gospel, and that I, a cradle Catholic, have often went “yeah I heard this before”, John 3:16, nice bumper sticker, I even have it as a wristband. I also wept that a Kimyal community in West Papua broke down in joy upon receiving a translation of the Bible in their own language, whilst in contrast, I break down in relief that I have “put in” my due for the day i.e. half an hour of Lectio Divina, and may the Lord please not demand more from me.

I wept at my lukewarmness. I needed a new ardor, a renewed fervor in my faith.

When I surveyed the Church at large, I also wept. For example, a Church leader working with indigenous people can boast (not weep) that in thirty years, he has never baptized an indigenous person and has no intention to start.

This sentiment captures the crisis of Christianity experienced in certain parts of the world. As a Vatican document on the New Evangelization notes:

“[St. Peter’s experience of walking on water towards Jesus, but seeing the wind, becoming afraid, and then sinking] can be reflected in many of the faithful as well as entire Christian communities, especially in traditionally Christian countries. In fact, because of a lack of faith, various particular Churches are witnessing a decline in sacramental and Christian practice among the faithful to the point that some members can even be called ‘non-believers’... At the same time, many particular Churches, after initially displaying a great enthusiasm, are now showing signs of weariness and apprehension in the face of very complex situations in today's world.”

In the Singapore context, we are not a “traditionally Christian country.” But are we nevertheless experiencing “signs of weariness and apprehension?” I would say “Yes”. Many who call themselves Catholics have heard about the faith, taken it for granted and are bored. Increasingly educated, and exposed to science and reason, the doctrines of Christianity seem also pre-scientific with no rational basis. Finally, the doctrine of Christianity, especially its moral teaching, is for some, no longer felt as a challenging but necessary path to liberation but as a burden.

A new ardor, new methods and new expression are needed to re-proclaiming the faith. What would that look like in the Singapore context?

"Ushered in a Tearful Joy" by Vasily Polenov (c. 1900). Mary Magdalene brought the good news to the mourning disciples. Her joy is visibly etched on her face amidst the gloomy atmosphere of the room.

2. New Ardor, Methods and Expression – A case study in working with teenagers in Parish Catechism

What follows is based on my own experience as a parish catechist inspired by the vision of the New Evangelization. I believe that the experiences shared would be applicable to other disciples of Jesus in their own context.

The latest Directory for Catechesis (2020), published under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, describes the identity of the Catechist as a Witness, an Accompanier and a Teacher of faith [6]. As a Catechist myself, I found that this description fits the call of the New Evangelization nicely. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to share why and also some stories from my own experience.

2.1. New in Ardor – The Catechist as Witness

Ardor refers primarily to enthusiasm and excitement. This is something that cannot be “faked”. It has to be real. It has to flow from an encounter, or a re-encounter with the person of Jesus Christ [7].

In the Singapore context, Cardinal William Goh’s signature “conversion experience” retreat attempts to do just that, i.e. when the love of Jesus for each individual is experienced in a personal way. Jesus Christ is experienced no longer as simply a great moral teacher but one’s personal Lord, Savior and friend. To continue fanning the flame of conversion, the Cardinal insists on the cultivating of an intense prayer life and on-going formation so that the converted disciple can better share the Gospel with others.

In the context of parish catechism, it is critical that the Catechist is burning with love for Jesus. Above all else, the Catechist is a witness, who has himself been touched by Jesus and is present because he desires to facilitate a similar encounter for those under his care. Indeed, “[t]he testimony of his life is necessary for the credibility of the mission[8].

Students, especially teenagers, are particularly sensitive to authenticity. A Catechist, when faced with possibly bored and cynical students, need to demonstrate that the words of a famous song ring true for him personally, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back. Though no one joins me, still I will follow.

2.2. New in Methods – The Catechist as Accompanier

The song “I have decided to follow Jesus” was inspired by the words of a new Christian convert from a tribe in India. He said those words when asked to apostatize under the threat of death. This type of foundational faith is admirable in a Catechist, but as someone who is also concerned with the effective transmission of the faith, a stubborn faith is necessary, but not sufficient. The Catechist also needs sympathy for the faith journey of those under his charge, or in the words of the Directory, he needs to be an accompanier and educator, becoming a “traveling companion” with those whom he is catechizing, an “expert in humanity”, and who “knows the joys and hopes of human beings, their sadness and distress… and is able to situate them in relation to the Gospel of Jesus[9].

I remembered one incident that might illustrate this new approach. I bumped into my student who was hanging outside Church and not attending Mass. In my earlier years as a Catechist, I would actually have focused straight away on his non-attendance at Mass and tell him that what he is doing is very wrong and that he should go for confession and then for Mass the next time.

This time, however, I did something different. I said hello and asked him if he would like to chat a while as he seemed to have things on his mind. What followed was a 30-minute conversation where he shared about how he felt that Church teaching is restricting his freedom and that his family situation is unhappy. I acknowledged his feelings as very real and shared with him how, in my own experience, I too had these feelings but had gradually found Christ to be a source of freedom. I did not focus on what he “did not do.”

A year later, while preparing another batch of students for confirmation, he waved at me and said that he too has decided to get confirmed. He too had experienced the love of Christ for him and found in the Catholic faith a source of true freedom. While I would never dare to take any credit for his conversion, I nevertheless shudder to think what might have happened if I had “scolded” him for not attending Mass during our first encounter, out of a sense of misguided or unbalanced zeal.

Catechist & author of this episode Nick Chui with his catechism students: with Aidan (left image), and with Bernadette and her father (right image)

2.3. New in Expression – The Catechist as Teacher

Pope St. Paul VI famously observed that “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41). This quotation is often rightly used to remind evangelists to be authentic and not be too eager to “teach” others. However, what is often not noticed, is that the Pope also notes that once the other person is convinced that you are authentic, you still need to be an effective teacher of the faith.

There was once a teacher who was asked by his principal, “why do you think students are so bored in our classrooms?” The teacher replied half-jokingly, “it’s because we are providing answers to questions the students are not asking.”

Effective teaching begins with taking the questions of those whom you are attempting to catechize seriously. And a helpful conversation starter may well be the following question: “Is the Catholic faith your parent’s religion or your religion?” To give this question a biblical focus, John 6:66 (ominously titled) to John 6:69 can be very helpful.

It’s towards the end of Jesus’ bread of life discourse. The verse starts by reporting that after Jesus’ announcement of the necessity to eat his flesh and drink his blood “many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him.” (John 6:66). A close analysis of the preceding passage would yield two reasons why Jesus was abandoned by some of his disciples, namely that they considered the eating of his flesh immoral, and that they also considered the entire discourse absurd and offensive to reason. When he turned to the Twelve and asked them “[w]ill you also go away”, Simon Peter responded “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:67-69).

Simon Peter’s affirmation that he is sticking with Jesus was motivated by two reasons, namely, that the teaching of Jesus has brought him “eternal” life, i.e. the fullness of life. And that Peter had strong reasons to be convinced that Jesus was, “the Holy One of God.” Peter did not claim that he had understood whatever Jesus had just taught. However, he had a more foundational conviction. If Jesus was the Holy One of God, and that his prior teaching were “words of eternal life”, then he can still continue to trust, even if the doctrine remains incomprehensible.

This short discourse, when used in a catechetical setting, opens up conversations when those being catechized are challenged to confront a reality, i.e. I would have heard of people who stop practicing the faith, “will I also go away?” And if there are reasons why I may make this decision, what are they? Do I also find what Jesus teach incomprehensible and possibly even offensive and hence I am tempted to leave too? What are they? And also, if I do stay, what is it about Christ that attracts me and convinces me that he is who he says he is?

With such conversations, Catechetical sessions can be then placed on an “evangelical” footing, attempting to provide answers to questions participants are actually asking. If a number of them for instance, are wondering about whether there is evidence for God’s existence, it would do the session no good if it is about “discerning the will of God”. If they are doubting even the concept of sin, catechesis on whether something is sinful only if it “hurts” somebody is necessary before a session on the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Mosaic depicting Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I at the sacristy of the chapel Dominus Flevit in Jerusalem. St Pope VI is a saint of the New Evangelization. The meeting with Patriarch Athenagoras was a historic ecumenical moment with the mutual lifting of each respective excommunications from 1054 AD.

3. All are Called and Have a Duty to Partake in the New Evangelization

The concept of the New Evangelization now applies widely to the whole of the evangelizing mission of the Church, i.e. applying also to ordinary pastoral ministry to the faithful, and to the mission ad gentes as the Church’s first and foremost task (and not only to pastoral outreach to the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism), and all of us (including families) are called and have a duty to partake in it [10].

For those who are not catechists, there are lessons that can also be learnt from the three examples above.

To be a witness, you would need to ask yourself an honest question. Is your relationship with Jesus authentic? Are you personally striving `to deepen it daily? Or is religion for you a good means to imbibe in your children good “values” but it is not something you practice yourself?

To put it concretely in terms of Catholic parents with school-going children, would you drop off your kids for catechism, then go for Mass and after they finish catechism, bring them home? Neglecting to also ensure that they attend mass? Because mass is “over-rated”? If you happen to do that, don’t be surprised if your children would consider Holy Mass as not that important and subsequently stop going altogether. In other words, we need to be personal witnesses that the Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith [11].

Nevertheless, it is also true that children often express a disinterest in attending mass. You may consider their reasons “lame” but as an accompanier, is it possible to really listen? If one of them were to say “I don’t go because Mass is boring?”, discern if that is the real reason or if it is something they say which masks something deeper. If they say it is boring and it’s the real reason, ask more questions. Example, why do they consider it boring? Do they understand what is happening at each part of the Mass? What have they put “into” the Mass i.e. their own understanding? And ultimately, is God himself boring? Why or why not? Someone who accompanies would need to develop the art of deep listening.

Finally, being a teacher of the faith would mean being able not to only tell people what we do, but also why we do it. It would be good to keep the following questions in mind whenever we share the faith:

  • What do we do or believe?

  • How does what we do or believe relate to other aspects of the faith? Is it true? Why should we care?

A friend for instance asks you about what Good Friday is all about since it’s a public holiday. You can respond “it’s the day Jesus died” (what we believe). But Jesus’ death is in a specific context, there are other characters in the Passion, e.g. Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas (connecting it to other aspects). When Jesus talks about being “on the side of truth” and Pilate replies “what is truth?”, we can start asking whether to what extent we value truth or prefer expediency (is it true/why should we care)? In this way, we develop a method to evaluate if we ourselves, in our own way, are effective teachers of the faith.

All of us, regardless of whether we are catechists and regardless of whichever sector(s) of the Church, society or culture we are in, are called to be witnesses, accompaniers and teachers of the faith, as part of our calling and duty to partake in the New Evangelization.

4. Conclusion: The New Evangelization and making restless the unrestless heart

In a movie scene depicting the life of the African Saint Josephine Bakhita, (1869-1947), we see the future saint, who was kidnapped by slavers and who was now in Italy, taking refuge in a Catholic Church and looking with fascination at the Crucifix. Not yet a Christian, she proceeded to ask the parish priest “Padre, who is this man?” The Priest readily answered, “oh this is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Bakhita did a double take. “The Son of God?” she asked incredulously. “A slave?”. The Priest asked “why did you say he was a slave?” Bakhita answered “only slaves are crucified in my country!” The Priest went from initially reassuring her that Jesus was not a slave before pausing and realizing that she has intuited correctly, the absolute scandal of the cross. He then went on to proclaim, “God allowed his Son to die as a slave, to teach us that there are no slaves, servants or masters, for him we are all the same, his children. We are all free. Jesus died on the cross to show us that violence is a beastly thing, and that we must love one another. Love is the only thing that counts!” When Bakhita nodded in amazement, the bemused Priest blurted out in a moment of comic relief, “in all these years of preaching, this is the first time someone has really listened to me!”

For me, this scene captures the spirit of the New Evangelization. The Priest, a representative of a traditional Christian country, blurts out the creedal formula of Jesus’ identity without much thought. But the words were not simply information. They stirred the heart of Bakhita. When the Priest realized this, his own heart was stirred, and he broke into a spontaneous homily on the meaning of the death of Jesus. His last sentence that “finally someone has really listened to me” was both comic and also food for thought.

Have our hearts become “bored” because we have “heard it all before?” Do we need, to paraphrase St. Augustine, the Holy Spirit to “make restless again” our “unrestless hearts?” The answer has to be “Yes”. For at the heart of the New Evangelization is the message of an indestructible hope.

Cover art illustration by Koh Azariah Augustine. To exemplify the Church's missionary proactivity in reaching out to broken people and those typically overlooked by the society at large. Hence the ship sailing to parts unknown. The ship is also meant to symbolize safe space for community building and a door to a new way of living that the world cannot offer.

In the words of Benedict XVI, commenting beautifully in Spe Salvi (at 3) on the life of St. Bakhita, as we end in prayer together:

“She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her—that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her ‘at the Father’s right hand’. Now she had ‘hope’ —no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: ‘I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good’.”

May Mary, Star of the New Evangelization, pray for us, that our unrestless hearts may be made restless, so that we may know and receive the hope to which he has called us (cf. Eph 1:18).

* Is there anything in this session which struck you or any thoughts, experiences or ideas which come to your mind? Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.

** Thank you for joining us on the A-Z of DiscipleSHIP. We look forward to having you with us again next month, as we study the letter “O”, for Opus (or Work).

Recommended Closing Song

“Jesus Christ, you are my life”, Jubilee 2000 song

Recommended Reading / Resources

Reflection and Sharing Questions

  • Question 1 (Witness): Have you ever listened to or read about “first hand” conversion testimonies? Share one which has been particularly memorable. How do they differ from the “typical” Sunday homily or Catechetical session? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this “testimonial” approach?

  • Question 2 (Accompanier): Pope Francis talks a lot about the spirit of accompaniment, in bringing people back to Jesus. Are you enthusiastic and recognise this as an important attitude? Or do you sometimes fear that accompaniment may mean a “watering down” of the Gospel?

  • Question 3 (Teacher): In your experience, what would be the qualities of an effective teacher? How does it apply (or not) when it comes to the transmission of the faith?

After this podcast, how will you approach evangelization? What would remain the same? Why?

Download the slides here:

N1 New Evangelization slides - FINAL
Download PDF • 1.33MB

© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha, cover art: Koh Azariah Augustine


1. Pope Francis forcefully and lovingly emphasizes in the same passage that this is the “first” or “principal” proclamation, the one which “must ring out over and over” on “the lips of the catechist”, and “the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.” See Evangelii Gaudium, 164.

2. As summarized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in this article in a section on the historical context of the New Evangelization (an important must-read), in 1983, Pope St. John Paul II addressed the Catholic bishops of Latin America in Haiti and called for a New Evangelization: “The commemoration of the half millennium of evangelization will gain its full energy if it is a commitment, not to re-evangelize but to a New Evangelization, new in its ardor, methods and expression.”

3. Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture references are taken from the RSV 2nd CE.

4. Henri de Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), p.22.

5. Ibid., p.23.

6. Directory for Catechesis, 113. To be precise, the Catechist is: (1) a witness of faith and keeper of the memory of God; (2) a teacher and a mystagogue; and (3) an accompanier and educator.

8. Directory for Catechesis, 113.

9. Directory for Catechesis, 113. See also “J” for “Journeying with Others: Guardians of the Community”.

10. It is important to recognise that while the phrase “New Evangelization” was initially used to designate pastoral outreach to those who no longer practice the Christian faith, this phrase was gradually extended to the proclaimation of Christ where He is not known (i.e. mission ad gentes) as well as to pastoral care and formation of converted Catholics (i.e. to form mature Catholics), including describing the family as the model-place for evangelization. It is also important to understand that the core idea of the New Evangelization is traceable to or had began from Vatican II. See e.g. the Instrumentum Laboris, “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith” (2012): (1) at 10 to 14 on “From the Second Vatican Council to the New Evangelization”; (2) at 45-50 on “The Question of a ‘New Evangelization’; (3) at 51-75 on the various sectors of the New Evangelization (cultures, society, economics, civil life, scientific research and technology, communications, and religion) and Christians within these sectors; ”; (4) at 76-79 on “Mission ad gentes, Pastoral Care and a New Evangelization”; (5) at 85-89 on “A Definition and Its Meaning”; (6) at 110-113 on “The Family, The Model-Place for Evangelization”. See also Evangelii Gaudium, at 14-15 on “The new evangelization for the transmission of the faith” where Pope Francis confirms that the New Evangelization is a summons addressed to all and that it is carried out in three principal settings, namely: (a) ordinary pastoral ministry (i.e. to members of the faithful); (b) the baptized who lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism; (c) preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. See also “D” for “Discipleship – A Vision of the Discipleship Process”.

11. See also “E” for “Eucharist – the Common Union”.

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