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Deacons as Apostles for the New Evangelization

“Whoever believes that Christ the Lord is the way, the truth and the life, whoever knows that the Church is his continuation in history, whoever has a personal experience of all this cannot fail, for this very reason, to become fervently missionary. Dear deacons, be active apostles of the new evangelization. Lead everyone to Christ! Through your efforts, may his kingdom also spread in your family, in your workplace, in the parish, in the Diocese, in the whole world!”1

The U.S. bishops have made evangelization, forming a joyful band of missionary disciples, their highest priority for the next 5 years, and with good reason. Only 30 percent of Americans who were raised Catholic are still practicing, meaning they attend Mass at least once a month. Of that 30 percent, roughly half of these people are at Mass on a given weekend.2 That 30 percent continues to decline. In October of 2019, the Pew Research Center indicated that: “In the U.S., [The] Decline of Christianity Continues at [a] Rapid Pace.”3 The others either seldom attend Mass or no longer consider themselves to be Catholic at all. The current situation in the Church in America is dire and requires a drastic redeployment of assets. To use a business marketing analogy, when customer retention rates are at 30 percent, it is time to seriously evaluate every aspect of the promotional strategy and its relationship with the product. Pastors need to decide between making missionary disciples and merely managing what they may accept as the inevitable decline of the parish. What would it take to bring people back to the pews?

“What the world needs is God’s love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in him.”4 Many Catholics today are “sacramentalized” but have not had a personal encounter with Christ.5 Pope Francis says, “Faith is born of an encounter with the living God who calls us and reveals his love . . . The truth which faith discloses to us is a truth centered on an encounter with Christ, on the contemplation of his life and on the awareness of his presence.”6 Pope Francis emphasizes in both Lumen Fidei and Evangelii Gaudium the necessity and the impact of encounter experiences with the Lord Jesus, and he is not alone in his conviction. It is this personal encounter which will heal the Church and bring the faithful back into the pews and into salvation. How can we bring every person to an encounter with Christ? The NCCB issued “Go and Make Disciples”7 in 1990 to answer this question and to make evangelization a priority in the Catholic Church in the U.S. While it is a superb document, its impact has not met the bishops’ hopes and expectations, and the New Evangelization remains only partially implemented. Thirty years later, perhaps it is time to revisit this and suggest a new plan, one that empowers deacons to live the diaconate to the fullest, and in doing so, bring souls to Christ.

With a growing shortage of priests and an ever-increasing number of permanent deacons, deacons compose one of the few available pools of human resources to teach and leverage expansion of the New Evangelization among the laity and so impact those attending Mass, former Catholics, and the burgeoning number of those who identify with no religion. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote, “There is no greater priority than this: to enable the people of our time once more to encounter God.”8 Perhaps it is now time to shift human resources and improve diaconal formation and training so as to send forth deacons and their wives to bring people back to Christ.

Read more at Homiletic Pastoral Review

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