alt text needed

Cardinal Dolan on the New Evangelizaton

You can’t give what you don’t have.” So says New York’s Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, passing along a piece of classical advice during our interview in his chancery office on 1st Avenue in Manhattan. Actually, he recites the saying in Latin first—this president of the U.S. bishops’ conference has a doctorate in history. He’s referring to a pressing concern of the Church today: the New Evangelization. Pope John Paul II used the term in 1979 when he spoke of the need for much of our Church to awaken our faith. How can we share the Gospel if we don’t experience it?

This month representatives of the world’s bishops gather with Pope Benedict XVI to talk and pray about evangelization. This World Synod of Bishops coincides with the kickoff of a Year of Faith (see our column on page 20). Cardinal Dolan will be among the U.S. bishops at the synod. He gave a talk on the New Evangelization to the pope and cardinals just a few months back, when he received his red cardinal’s hat. Now sitting in his office at the end of a busy workday—a day that apparently will continue for some hours—he talks freely, in his trademark unguarded, jovial style, sometimes even breaking in on questions. He’s a seasoned media handler.

Q: Before you were elevated to cardinal, you gave a talk on the New Evangelization. First of all, why were you chosen to do that?

A: Well, I think ’cause the other guys couldn’t make it! [laughs] Seriously, I think they wanted an American. I think they wanted a new cardinal. And I think they wanted somebody from a big city who was somewhat known to perhaps have a reputation, however unjustly, of being materialistic and secularistic. Those are thought to be the toxins to the New Evangelization.

Q: I think a whole lot of people don’t understand what it is. What’s the difference between the New Evangelization—

A: It is somewhat confusing because everybody immediately says, “What in the world is so new about evangelization?” Isn’t it nine days older than Pentecost? After all, it was the last mandate of Jesus to go out and preach the Gospel. That’s evangelization. So in one way, it ain’t new. It’s as old as the hills, namely the hills of Galilee. It’s as old as the hill of the Ascension. It’s been the engine that has driven the mission of the Church for two millennia.

Pope John Paul II is the one who coined the term “the New Evangelization.” And what did he mean? He says first of all, we’ve got to evangelize ourselves again. We traditionally tend to equate evangelization with missionary work. And missionary work is indeed an essential component of evangelization. Missionary work we think of ad extra . . . to the foreign lands who have never heard the saving name, person, or message of Jesus Christ. So John Paul II said the New Evangelization means we also evangelize ourselves.

Number two, it also means that we evangelize the Church. He reminded us of what Pope Paul VI said in Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975: the Church always needs evangelization. So that’s somewhat new, because usually we think of the Church as the subject of evangelization, the doer. John Paul said it’s also the recipient.

And thirdly, we must evangelize those cultures of the world that are nominally Catholic, but wherein the Gospel has lost its tang.

Q: Right—we hear a lot about European Catholicism being kind of dormant.

A: Yeah, listless, lethargic, drifting. “If salt loses its tang, what is it good for?” to quote from Jesus. Now, the very fact that, if I understand correctly, the first time John Paul II used the term was in his visit to Poland in ’79. He was kind of hinting we need to do that throughout all those lands that are nominally Catholic—nurse the flame of the Gospel. We need to refire it.

Q: Many people worry that secularization is a major problem in our time. Are people all pointing to the U.S. as a secularized place?

A: It is strange, because I think we in the United States would be very proud of the fact that the United States of America is a very religious nation. Europeans, especially if they’re here for the first time, as we’re driving up and down the street, they’re saying, “Why are all these churches here? Why are your churches filled? We thought you were pagan!”

We know that the United States of America is a very religious nation. But if you look at the perception that America has throughout the world, we’re a military power, we’re very wealthy, and we’re all about Hollywood. Because that’s about all they see on TV. That’s what gives us the perception, however inaccurate, that we are a secular, pagan nation.

We do know that we have very powerful secularizing influences. Where? Government. Universities. Entertainment. The media. Those four opinionmaking institutions, those four cultural-forming entities, are very secular. And that’s what gives the perception, however inaccurate, that we are a secular, pagan nation.

Q: When you say secularism chokes the seeds of faith, what do you mean? A: Well, it’s in the very definition: secularism is when you seek your ultimate values in the here and now and not in the beyond. Secularism is when you seek personal worth in what you have or what you do instead of who you are.

The other danger is that even though America is a highly religious nation, there’s also a powerful influence within religion that would make it intensely personal and would say that there is a profound Berlin Wall between one’s religious beliefs and one’s external behavior. And that, of course, contributes to secularism, right?

Q: I’m sure it would. There’s a tension between the Church as a controlling influence—

A: Yeah, and it would also put duct tape over the New Evangelization! The essence of evangelization is to carry one’s faith into the marketplace, into the public square, into society and culture. If you come from a culture or a society that believes religion is intensely personal, that’s going to mitigate against a vibrant New Evangelization.

Q: Let’s say Catholics discover who we are as Catholics, and we become worthy of going out and preaching something. Then how do we not go back to triumphalism, to thinking we’re better than everyone else?

A: Well, it’s a biggie, because one cannot evangelize unless one is confident— confident in the strength and endurability of one’s own faith. But there’s a thin line between confidence and arrogance, triumphalism. The good news is that the Second Vatican Council threw out triumphalism in the Church. The bad news is the confidence went with it! We need to recover a sense of confidence.

Q: I think a lot of people in that post-Vatican II moment didn’t have the confidence that you’re talking about.

A: No, you were taught that a sense of doubt, a sense of wavering, a belief that there really are no enduring definitive answers to life’s ultimate questions, that really life was more of a question mark than an exclamation point—that seemed to be the dominant values from about 1965 to 1985. That’s a tough climate in which to evangelize.

Another problem is that, for Americans, especially for Catholic Americans, when we say “evangelize,” we usually mean biblical fundamentalists. And they are in-your-face know-it-alls. And we don’t want to go there because very close to the essence of Catholicism is a humility. And that’s not bad. One could make the case that that was the favorite virtue of Jesus Christ—humility. But humility does not militate against confidence. In fact, one could say you’re humble because you’re confident. You know your ultimate value comes from God and the gifts that God gave you; not from anything you produce.

Q: Do we need Catholic apologetics, a more aggressive defense of the faith?

A: Oh, we do! We do! For one, we need it from a defensive point of view because the faith is being taken away from a lot of our people. Over and over again, we hear from our kids who, within their first couple of weeks at a university, will all of a sudden call home and say, “Oh, guess what, I’m going to New Hope Baptist Church,” because their roommate has succeeded in criticizing the Catholic faith to such an extent that they’re unable to defend it. Part of that is due to a false irenicism that came from the Second Vatican Council—in other words, almost a “peace at any price.” So if somebody attacks our faith, we’ll say, “Well, you‘ve probably got a good point. We’re really sinners, and we don’t claim to have the ultimate answers.”

We claim to have the ultimate answers only because they’ve been given to us by Jesus Christ! Now the Church is at her best when she admits that she doesn’t have all of them. But she’s got a heck of a lot more than any other institution that I’m aware of! We have to restore a sense of excitement, a sense of confidence in our Catholic identity.

Q: Where are the warning flags for triumphalism?

A: One would be a judgmentalism. The same Jesus that we believe has given us the gift of the Church also teaches that we can never judge another person. Number two, if we believe that evangelization only applies to others and not ourselves. A third thing is when people stop hanging around with us because we’re boring them to death! St. Francis de Sales said you always catch a lot more flies with a spoonful of honey than you do with vinegar.

Q: Pope John Paul II would quote Luke 5:4 in speaking of evangelization: “Duc in altum”—“put out into the deep.” How do we go about doing that?

A: Well, “Cast out to the deep” is a sequel to his call, “Be not afraid,” because we’re scared to cast out to the deep. We would rather stay in the shallow waters. We would rather tread water than swim laps. John Paul II reminded us that Jesus said, “Uh-uh. I’m not asking you to stay in the shallow water. I’m not asking you to lie on a rubber raft and float around. I want you to cast out to the deep and be not afraid.”

Fear is one of the major opponents to the New Evangelization. We have instances in the world where people are literally butchered on their way to church. Those people are great evangelists because the blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith. But for us, I think there’s more of a cultural fear, that we will be thought to be nerds or bigots. We will be thought to be hopelessly oppressive, medieval, superstitious if we are religious at all, because faith has been caricatured as something medieval, superstitious, anti-enlightenment, opposed to science, and really at odds with everything that’s enlightened and progressive in the world. And religion is pretty much still locking people in dungeons.

So therefore, in swimming out, we have to say no, the very “be not afraid” of being branded all of that. There’s nothing more enlightening, more noble, more affirming of everything that’s decent, virtuous, honorable, beautiful, and true in the human project than faith.

Q: People express not only fear, but a certain tiredness, too, to see the Church, so to speak, falling on its face.

A: There’s a temptation to think that it’s always somebody else’s fault instead of our own. The Second Vatican Council taught us that we are the Church. Usually the people who are saying, “Oh, the Church has turned its back on the Second Vatican Council,” are saying, “because of those bishops! They’re the Church and they’ve let us down!” No, I say, you are the Church.


From Our Facebook Fans

From a mom: How do I stay Catholic with what looks like scandal in the Church—the sexual-abuse crisis, the bullying of Catholic sisters, a kind of hierarchy disconnect?

Cardinal Dolan: If the vitality of your Catholic faith depended on the credibility of the bishops, we would not have survived the first Good Friday because the first bishops, 11 out of 12, took off. There’s only one person upon whom our faith depends: Jesus Christ, the second person of the Blessed Trinity.

From a young reader: How do you stay so happy?

Cardinal Dolan: Prayer—I mean it! Remember the great prayer of John XXIII? Every night at about midnight he’d kneel before the Blessed Sacrament and say, “Lord, here are all the things that I am ready to take a bottle of grappa [wine] over.” And he’d rehearse all the crises. And he finally said, “Lord, it’s your Church; not mine. I did the best I can. I’m going to bed!” That’s resignation.