In 1983, Pope John Paul II announced an initiative that he called a “New Evangelization.” It was to be a radically new effort to spread the Gospel by means of completely new methods and with new energy and commitment. At the time, approximately 50% of Catholics in the United States practiced the Faith. The rate of participation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America was higher than in the United States, but those Church communities were losing ground to Christian fundamentalism. In Europe, the rate of church attendance was between 2% and 3%.
Today, nearly four decades after the announcement of the New Evangelization, the rate of church attendance among Catholics in the United States stands at about 20%, the Church in Latin America loses about 10 million Catholics a year, and Mass attendance in Europe has fallen below 2%.
At the time the “New Evangelization” was announced, fewer and fewer young families were attending Sunday Mass. Today, the baptized children of those non-practicing families are adults who have opted not to have their children baptized. In the 1980’s it was the grim joke among clergy that the fastest growing religious group in the United States was fallen-away Catholics. Today, the fastest growing “religious” group in the United States consists of those with no experience of religious practice, no religious affiliation, and no knowledge about religion.
It doesn’t appear that the new methods of evangelization have produced the effect that the Church says it wants; perhaps, it’s time to look elsewhere.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus says, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Lk. 14:11) In conjunction with the parable about choosing an undesirable seat at a banquet in order to attract the attention of the banquet’s host, this might sound like to the sort of self-serving advice one would find in a popular book about professional networking or upward mobility. Alternately, it could be interpreted as condoning the type of false humility that intends to coerce a favorable response from God.
Jesus, of course, was suggesting nothing along these lines above. Rather, he was suggesting true humility of the sort that he illustrated in the second short parable in today’s reading. He said, “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.” (Lk. 14:13-14) Jesus says that true humility shows respect, compassion, and generosity to those who are incapable of repaying the kindness.
The Catholic Church has a long history of showing compassion to the poor, the disabled, the marginalized, and doing so with no expectation of recompence. We are, in fact, quite proud of our charitable works directed to those who suffer misfortune. We are equally proud of our Sacraments, our Pope, or visible presence in society, and our many other virtues. I’d like to suggest that we ought to abandon all pride about all our ecclesial virtues and accomplishments. I’d like to suggest that our preaching of the Gospel would be much more convincing if we approached the unchurched, non-believers, and the areligious with an attitude of humility. Instead of expecting conversion on the part of non-Catholics, we should instead give our full attention to our own process of conversion. In addition to proclaiming the Gospel message with an attitude of humility, I’d like to suggest that humility ought also to be the message we proclaim.
The decline in church participation that became so worrisome in the middle of the twentieth century isn’t the only social issue to have grown more serious in the ensuing decades. Instead of wars that last for years, wars now last for generations. The war against drugs is being fought against an increasing number of opponents, including corporations that manufacture medications intended to alleviate suffering and illness. Racial conflict is as prevalent as it was prior to the Civil Rights Movement. These, and all the rest of the many conflicts that tear at the fabric of society, cause private burdens, as well. Perhaps, the most commonly expressed concern of individuals is the rising level of stress and anxiety brought about by the out-of-control nature of social problems. Humility would go a long way toward alleviating such suffering.
Nations which want more territory, more respect, and more success are probably rather in need of more humility. Political parties and interest groups which want more influence and more prominence are also probably more in need of humility than anything else. It’s easy enough to see how humility could lessen the conflicts between nations, ethnicities, and interest groups, but humility can also have a curative effect within one’s own consciousness. The many external and internal events that cause stress and anxiety lose their power when put into perspective by a humble faith. Those who worry about what’s beyond their control need more humility rather than more control.
Jesus teaches that we cannot, and ought not, save ourselves. He humbled himself to take on our human nature and, in doing so, demonstrated God’s approbation of human limitation. The human failings and finitude that lead to conflict, envy, and worry are fully acceptable to God. They can also be fully acceptable to us, both in ourselves and in others, if only we are willing to embrace a humble faith in the Trinity.
In Jesus’ ministry, humility was both the manner of the proclamation and the message. Rather than a new method or a new message, the Church and the world need a renewed commitment to imitate Jesus’ humility. Making such a commitment requires more than intellectual assent to the wisdom of humility; it requires a lifetime of true humility. If we, as a Church, want to call non-believers to faith in the Resurrection, shouldn’t we first give evidence that we ourselves believe that the Resurrection is God’s recompense for humble faith?