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VATICAN LETTER May-28-2010 (880 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Evangelization: In with the 'new,' while maintaining the old

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Even as the Vatican prepares to add an agency to promote "new evangelization," the traditional forms of "old evangelization" -- missionary outreach in non-Christian lands -- are alive and well around the world.

More than one-third of local Catholic communities today are still in "mission territory," a geographical area that includes about three-fourths of the world's population. That explains why evangelization experts at the Vatican say the task of bringing the Gospel to non-Christians has barely begun.

The Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization has yet to be officially announced, but it is expected to focus on the task of re-evangelization among traditionally Christian populations, for example in Europe and North America.

Pope Benedict XVI spelled out the rationale for the new agency during his recent trip to Portugal, saying the church's missionary map today is not only geographical but also anthropological, made up of cultural and social categories of people who have largely drifted away from the Gospel.

With the continuing mobility and mixing of cultures and populations, along with the explosion of global communications, it's easy to see why the Vatican might be paying less attention to national boundaries in its missionary strategies.

But geography still matters in many parts of the world, said Msgr. John E. Kozar, national director of the Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States.

"By virtue of geographic limitations and history, there are still some peoples that have never experienced any contact with Christ or the Catholic faith. Examples of this might be in the deep jungle areas of Brazil, in Papua New Guinea, in isolated mountainous areas of Malaysia, and other lands," Msgr. Kozar said.

He added that in some countries that lived for generations under communism, there are many people today who have never known Christ. The church's outreach to them, too, would be "the old form of evangelization": announcing the Gospel for the first time, he said.

At the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican department responsible for missionary work, officials said traditional missionary activity remains the model in most parts of the developing world. But even here, things are changing -- sometimes rapidly.

"In a world where populations are so mixed, territory is no longer the main thing," Archbishop Robert Sarah, secretary of the congregation, told Catholic News Service.

The missionary assignments have therefore changed. Many missionaries used to be sent to a country -- usually to remote areas -- where they learned the local language and immersed themselves in the culture, often remaining for life. Now they are more likely to work in cities and move from country to country.

Missionary formation now focuses in part on dealing with typical urban problems such as lack of housing, broken families, street children and migration. Missionaries are trained to work with the mass media and new technology, and to promote regional cooperation.

Especially with increasing urbanization in poorer countries, all of this makes sense. But there is a risk, too, Archbishop Sarah said, because missionaries on shorter assignments have less connection with local or tribal cultures, and are sometimes seen as "tourists."

He quoted one African cardinal who joked, "Missionaries were once very willing to go out into the bush. Now they want a big house near the airport."

The decline in the numbers of priests in traditionally missionary religious orders has also had an impact, Archbishop Sarah said. The days when the Vatican could send out a vast army of foreign missionaries into non-Christian lands are over.

"We try to favor a South-to-South cooperation, for example priests from one African region evangelizing in another part of the continent. We can do this today because we have plenty of new priests and seminarians in missionary countries -- there are more than 4,500 seminarians in Nigeria alone," he said.

The cost of missionary work continues to rise, but the Pontifical Mission Societies, which finance specific evangelization programs, operate on an amazingly tight budget. The amount distributed annually for projects in the more than 1,200 mission-dependent church jurisdictions in the developing world is about $150 million -- less than this year's payroll for the New York Yankees.

In recent times, collecting the money has become more difficult for a variety of reasons, including the worldwide economic crisis. Msgr. Kozar said another factor is "the tendency of people to respond to spontaneous crises" but to sometimes lose sight of the everyday needs of the universal church.

As the Vatican turns greater attention to evangelization in First World countries, missionary territories may be a source of personnel. Archbishop Sarah noted that church communities in Africa and Asia are already beginning to send missionaries to work in Europe. They are finding, however, that "re-evangelizing" is not an easy task, he said.

"When Europeans went to Africa, they found a very religious people, open to God and to the Gospel. But the same isn't true when a missionary comes to Europe today," the archbishop said.

He added that while globalization and the communications explosion has made it more likely that non-Christians have a superficial knowledge of Christianity, that's never enough. Real conversion happens not by hearing about Christ on TV or radio, or visiting Web sites, but with a "real personal encounter," and for that you need a missionary, he said.


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