By Jonathan Mitchican
In centuries past, preachers who wished to reach large groups of people often had to travel great distances. In the 20th century, Archbishop Fulton Sheen reached millions without having to leave his city. Through his radio and television programs, Sheen managed to use modern media as an effective tool for evangelism. He did not do it by means of anything flashy: No special effects, no song and dance, it was often just him and a chalkboard. The key for Sheen was to ground what he was doing in the gospel.
“The only way to win audiences is to tell people about the life and death of Christ,” he once said. “Every other approach is a waste.”
As a Catholic priest and as a Christian, it has been my great joy to see that basic mission of evangelism blooming in the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in which I serve. It covers the United States and Canada and is one of three Ordinariates that were created as a response to Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus in 2009, the other two being in the United Kingdom and Australia. The initial impetus for Anglicanorum Coetibus was the request of some groups of Anglicans, “repeatedly and insistently,” that they “be received into Catholic communion individually as well as corporately.” The Holy Father’s response was more generous than many of us had ever dared to imagine, providing not only for entry into the Church but also a means by which the great patrimony of English Catholic spirituality, expressed in various ways in the traditions and liturgical life of Anglicanism, could be celebrated and preserved within the Catholic Church. The purpose of that patrimony is not to be a museum piece but a powerful way of witnessing to Christ in the world.
On April 9, the Vatican approved a newly revised set of Complementary Norms for Anglicanorum Coetibus. The changes are slight, but they emphasize that the primary mission of the Ordinariates is evangelism. The most significant of these changes is that those who were baptized in another tradition or who left the Catholic Church without completing all the rites of initiation may become members of the Ordinariate if they have come to desire “full communion with the Catholic Church through the evangelizing mission of the Ordinariate.” This includes all people, not only those with an Anglican background. The mission of the Ordinariates is to tell everyone about the life and death of Christ and to bring them into relationship with the Risen Lord.
There is a profound spiritual hunger in modern Western societies, especially among younger people. The Christian faith, once vociferously opposed by the elite, is becoming increasingly unknown to rising generations. It is hard to rebel against the faith of your parents if you were never exposed to any kind of faith. Along with this loss of knowledge about the faith in our culture has come the loss of a sense of awe, wonder, and mystery. For this reason, when young people seek out the Church, they often tend to gravitate to more traditional forms of worship and devotion.
What these new norms reinforce is that the Ordinariates are well equipped to share the gospel with a world that has been desacralized. We have been given a blessing, through our liturgical and spiritual patrimony, of offering people a renewed sense of the mystery and majesty of God. But this cannot and will not be accomplished if we allow ourselves to become a boutique, encasing in amber our liturgical heritage and sharing it only with the few religious connoisseurs who happen to seek us out. Rather, as Archbishop Sheen made clear so long ago, our task now is to use what we have been given to bring Jesus to the world.
Christians of different backgrounds sometimes get the mistaken impression that when it comes to evangelism we are in competition with one another. That idea, it seems to me, is drawn from another world and another time when all we needed to do was build churches and expect the culture to fill them. Our competition in evangelism is not other Christians but the desacralizing culture, which has gained such a deep foothold in the popular mind that even Christian institutions, Catholic and Protestant alike, have often unwittingly become engines of secularization.
The calling to evangelize is certainly not unique to the Ordinariates, nor are they the only part of the Catholic world in which beautiful, traditional worship and orthodox faith and devotion are leading to growth and conversion. Yet the gift of our patrimony provides us in the Ordinariates with a special opportunity to share the gospel in the English-speaking world in an idiom that, while forgotten in many places, will nevertheless resonate with many people.
The size, resources, and authority of the Catholic Church creates the means by which this patrimony that we have received — which has so much in common with the traditions of Anglicanism in which many of us in the Ordinariates were nourished — can be amplified and made readily available to the whole world. Like Archbishop Sheen before us, we can and should make use of all the forms of new and changing media available to reach people with the gospel, but our recipe for success is never going to be gimmicks or gadgets.
Our not-so-secret weapon is, rather, a time-tested tradition, received as the fruit of ecumenism, that allows the Ordinariates, if we choose to embrace our mission, to proclaim the saving power of Jesus to everyone who hungers and thirsts for the truth.