That’s what the Vatican is asking Catholics to do — to take up evangelizing, to speak openly of one’s faith in order to spread it.
While such personal sharing has long been the province of, well, evangelical Protestants (among others, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses), it means a paradigm shift for Catholics, whose spiritual lives have been largely centered inside the parish. But with Catholicism in the West facing major losses and what Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl — a Vatican point man on the new request — calls a “tsunami of secularism,” the church this year is pouring resources into a massive campaign dubbed “the new evangelization.”
Which is what brought Gallagher out in the rain this spring, a few weeks after the Rev. Adam Park at Epiphany Catholic Church laid out the challenge to his young congregation.
“You’re kind of like, ‘Ugh.’ It’s something you want to push off and let other people handle. Why be on the defensive if you can stay in your community where everyone nods their head and everyone goes home happy?” said Gallagher, a software developer who lives in Glover Park. “There’s an anxiety that accompanies putting yourself out there, especially with a topic such as religion. But once I realized: If God and my religion are important to me . . . I shouldn’t have any problem talking to other people about it.”
The campaign seeks to overhaul the concept of evangelization to something built for 2013, more subtle invitation then pushy dogma. In new church-created classes, lectures, conferences and iPhone apps, Catholics are asked to think of evangelization in terms of generous gestures, small comments and overcoming the fear of simply inviting someone to church.
The effort is global but heavily focused on Europe and the United States — places where Catholicism has lost the most ground. Ten percent of Americans are former Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center. From the Vatican down through bishops and then to priests, the church is telling Catholics — many for the first time — to find ways to evangelize, a word and concept with which many of them don’t identify.
“Catholics tended to be more private about faith” after they grew in stature and size in America. “There was this ‘we’ve kind of arrived’ comfort factor,’ ” said Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, a Catholic school in Front Royal. “We’ve been kind of resting on our laurels with these beautiful churches and traditions. But we are in a new situation now.”
The topics of God and the supernatural have become more delicatein an increasingly diverse and secular America. Tack onto that the very public dispute in the past couple of years between the Catholic Church and the Obama White House over mandatory birth control funding, and a prayerful comment at the water cooler can quickly get entangled in partisan politics.