The Church exists to evangelize. I remember when, in 1975, Paul VI, in On Evangelization in the Modern World, taught that “the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church” (par. 14), I was taken by surprise. I had never thought of myself as an evangelizer. I had thought of myself as a teacher. Therefore, as a teacher, I gave much thought to what Paul VI said later in the document: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (par. 41). So, I began to realize that if I wanted to be an effective teacher of the Gospel, I would have to become an effective witness, too.
At first I was resistant. I’m half English, and I quite naturally embrace a certain formality, decorum, a sense of boundaries. Witnessing and evangelizing were words that took me out of my comfort zone. However, I was challenged to grow in this regard because, when the Diocese of Lexington was born, one of my areas of responsibility became Director of Evangelization. It became my job to help parish leaders become evangelizers so that they could help everyone in their parishes to become an evangelizer. We were all to become witnesses of the good news of the Gospel: salvation through Jesus Christ.
As I gathered resources to use is forming parish evangelizers, I discovered a little book by our colleagues, Fathers Frank Desiano and Ken Boyack, entitled Discovering My Experience of God. Based on reflection questions suggested in the book, I finally found a way to tell my own story of God’s powerful actions in my life. Once I had learned to do that, I was able, by example, to facilitate a process that invited parish leaders to do the same. These parish leadership reflection days were simply inspiring because, after spending time in prayer and reflection, we shared our stories with each other.
However, sharing our stories involved listening, a skill that I think many of us who are teachers need to learn (I speak from experience). Teachers are accustomed to being the ones doing the talking. Teachers have content that we want to teach. Teachers often ask questions to which we already know the answers, but we want the other person to learn what we already know. Teachers are sometimes more attuned to content than to feelings. Teachers are inclined to correct something that we think is in error rather than to simply listen to the person who is describing an experience. An essential skill for teachers who want to be evangelizers is to become learners. To learn, we must listen.
I think witnessing and listening are skills that Pope Francis wants us to have as evangelizers. We are to share with others the Joy of the Gospel. Joy is a feeling, an experience. We are to listen to the marginalized so that we understand their experiences and can more faithfully live the Gospel in the light of this new understanding. Witnessing and listening are core skills for the new evangelization.