The Church, the Young, and the New Evangelisation

The Church, the Young, and the New Evangelisation

World Youth Day arose from the “Extraordinary Holy Year” 1983-84. Many Catholic associations, fraternities, groups of Catholic Action and other pilgrims came to Rome for its celebration. They were impressive. So members of new spiritual movements got the idea to invite the youth of the world to meet with the Pope. It was Massimo Camisasca of the Italian community “Comunione e liberazione”, nowadays Bishop of Reggio Emilia, who made this suggestion to me. At that time, I gladly gave my consent. But it was quickly contested. Immediately voices were strongly raised against it, saying that in the Holy Year of 1975, a similar idea ended in disaster.

Rampaging hordes?

The new spiritual movements, with whom we at the Council of the Laity warmly sympathised, would however not be put off. We counted on their participation and kept working on this. However, soon other obstacles surfaced. The youth leaders of the national bishops’ conferences started to say: “It is not up to the Vatican to get involved in  our youth.” Then the Communist Mayor of the city of Rome rescinded at the last moment an already given approval for a tent city in the “Pineta Sacchetti”, a large Roman Park; suddenly we didn’t know where major parts of the youth gathering could find accommodation. Some ecologists and journalists joined in, warning of the destruction of rare and precious plants in the public gardens. Then the climax came with a newspaper article awaking memories of rampaging hordes of Central Asia. Under King Attila these hordes had already once destroyed Europe. The article carried the headline: “The Huns are coming”.

Furthermore, all our Roman representatives of the religious movements were young and without experience. And we from the Council for the Laity faced for the first time the gigantic task of preparing such a World Congress. Nevertheless, the approval and backing of Pope John Paul II encouraged us. He supported us in spite of all difficulties and resistance. So, the first WYD took place from 11-15 April 1984 and made history. In particular, the young spiritual movements had in my opinion passed this, their test of fire – because it was only through them that a worldwide response was achieved.

New Movements

As the Episcopal Conferences had been – to put it politely – very reserved on the proposal, these new spiritual movements saw their hour had come. They used – outside and alongside the official Church channels – their global contacts and developed a special, not entirely unselfish, zeal to prove their strength and vivacity to the pastors of the Church. Some 300,000 young people gathered. The public was surprised that everything was so orderly during this colossal invasion of Rome. Later, 91-year-old Cardinal Dean Confalonieri commented: “Even the oldest Roman citizens cannot remember an event similar to this.”

Equipped with this success, I met with Francis Stafford, who had been Archbishop of Denver since 1986. A new WYD in Colorado was due. Once again I experienced thatinitiatives for the spreading of the Gospel would not fall like ripe fruit into the lap of dreamers and saturated people.

Young people

First it was important for me – together with the Archbishop – to reduce a general fear of large youth meetings among the Bishop’s co-workers. This time the rejection arose mainly from the image of the “Woodstock” rock festival that had taken place in May 1969 but was seen still as a witches’ Sabbath and apocalyptic chaos. Then we had to bear in mind that Catholics in the State of Colorado represent only a minority of some 17% of the total population. For this reason we had to act carefully at the first encounters and at the press conference. The number of expected young people had to be kept low because of the long shadow of Woodstock.

So I spoke of a possible 60,000 participants and a golf course in the centre of the city was considered for the meeting with the Pope. But reflecting on this later on, I soon became aware that this encounter in the United States would be of a completely different magnitude. We searched for another place and found it – Cherry Creek State Park: “Thanks be to God!” we had to say later. Because our initial estimates were exceeded tenfold – eventually 600,000 people celebrating with us came together. To stay in the city would have undoubtedly resulted in a catastrophe.

A Milestone

Well, the WYD in Colorado is past. Many other meetings followed worldwide. But Denver was a milestone because for the first time WYD took place without the support of Catholic culture in a country that is denominationally strongly mixed. Its big lesson is: such unexpected resonance reveals request for God among modern people in

America. Given this fact, I would like to undertake an empirical comparison and check the difference between the weight of religion in Europe and the New World. And doing so as a German, I may become a little envious. Aggressive secularisation is covering ancient Europe increasingly, sweeping allbefore it. Is this observation too much self-criticism of a pessimist? What does theempirical data tell us?


On this issue an investigation was made from 2006 to 2008 by a well-known institution in Germany, which has a good scientific reputation: the Bertelsm ann Foundation.

As I got this rich source of worldwide religious importance, I was especially interested in the insights about the United States. Anyone who has an eye on the ideological currents and cultural impulses around the globe, cannot but notice the strong influence of the United States on large parts of the world: movies, songs and hits, political and economic power. I say this not to flatter Americans, but rather to confront you with the specific responsibility which th is implies.

The United States seems really to be “God’s own country”. For a dedicated announcer of faith, the results shown in the survey are really very consoling; it awakens in me, I’ll admit, even a bit of envy. But listen to some details.

While in Germany about 18% of the population classify themselves as “highly religious” – those who regard the relationship with God a priority factor in their decisions – in the United States the percentage is 62%. And only 8% consider themselves “non-religious” in the U.S. – compared with 28% in Germany. In Germany only 17% frequently participate in public worship, whereas there are 52% in the United States. In Germany 28% pray often, in the U.S. 68%.

Evaluating these results of the survey we have to admit: people in Europe see themselves increasingly “one-dimensional”; they have “converted to the world”; Heaven is not only empty, it is dispensable. An interpreter of the survey for the United States, the renowned German sociologist Hans Joas, comes to the accurate conclusion that in comparison with Europe: “The United States is very much alive as a religious society”.


New Evangelisation

Can the U.S. faithful – and that means all of you – therefore lounge comfortably in your armchairs and sit back reassured? No. I did not come just to affirm you. A good messenger of faith intends always a“Magis – a growth in commitment” as Saint Ignatius said.

Since Saint Pope John Paul II, a dynamic expression has circulated among the faithful: “New Evangelisation”. These words signal a new beginning of the Church and aim to provoke. Christian complacency is water under the bridge!

Pope John Paul II used the expression “New Evangelisation” for the first time on 9th June, 1979 in his homily in Nova Huta, an industrial district of Kraków. This quarter had become famous in the fight of the Christian faithful against communism. Nova Huta was designed by the Warsaw Government as “A city without God” – an industrial and residential area without religious symbols and without a Church. But the workers rebelled. They gathered in this district, first to plant a cross and then later, after bloody fights with the State and its forces, to build a church – a church which is due to the sweat and resistance of the workers – as Pope John Paul expressed it at his first visit to his home country.

Thus, from the outset the term “New Evangelization” combines the commitment of allbaptised in society and in the world for the clear witnessing of the redemption of Christ. Testimony and spreading of faith are not the matter of experts or leaders. They fall to all members of God’s people. Even more: in his first trip to Poland in 1979, the Pope concluded his appeal with the words: “From the crosses in Nova Huta began the new evangelisation, the evangelisation of the second millennium … This evangelisation of the second millennium must refer to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council. It must be a work shared by bishops, priests, religious and laity, by parents and young people.”


The term “New Evangelisation” became the keyword of Pope Saint John Paul II. His successor, Benedict XVI restated it again and again, leaving us in no doubt as tothe urgency of a new announcement of the Gospel. As he pointed out early in his  pontificate during a trip to Bavaria: Evangelisation must precede all social commitment. He affirmed that a deep perception of Christ would push all the baptised – as he said – to become “Evangelists” and Apostles (September 2006).

On the feast of SS. Peter and Paul in 2010, Pope Benedict stated that PopeJohn Paul represented the Church’s missionary nature not only with his apostolic journeys, but also “with the insistence of his Magisterium on the urgent need for a ‘new evangelisation’: ‘new’ not in its content but in its inner thrust, open to the grace of the Holy Spirit which constitutes the force of the new law of the Gospel that always renews the Church; “new” in ways that correspond with the power of the Holy Spirit and which are suited to the times and situations; “new” because of being necessary even in countries that have already received the proclamation of the Gospel.” And Pope Francis finally devoted the encyclical “Evangelii gaudium – The joy of the Gospel” (2013) to the spreading of the word of God by all Catholics.

Lurking lethargy

This thrust towards evangelisation must not wither. It has to be revived repeatedly,against the constantly lurking lethargy of all the baptised. One challenge presented by the research in 2007 refers to the Apostolic spiritamong Christians in America. It states: “I try to win as many people for my religion” and asks participants for approval or rejection of this assertion. So how is it among U.S. Catholics, in their willingness to bear witness, to transmit faith to others? Surprisingly, 67% of the polled Catholics militated against such a personal Apostolate. (I should mention that the zeal of the Protestants in this point is ahead by 20%).

Statistics are, of course, mainly information on opinion trends. However, I would like to draw as a conclusion from the available figures, that a large part of the baptised Catholics must still be captured by the wind of the New Evangelisation. This statement is no rebuke to America. New Evangelisation doesn’t take place in one strike and once for all. It must be scheduled again and again in all the churches of the world. It is the ongoing fight against the “spirit of the world”, as the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans calls it: “Do not be conformed to this world!” (12.2).

God himself has given new aid against all Christian self-sufficiency especially in our time. Impressive schools of faith emerged from Vatican II, which are targeting the revitalisation of our relationship with God. As Vice President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity I got to know their founders and leaders and began to esteem their apostolate – “Catholic Charismatic Renewal”, which was developed in the U.S., “Focolare” and “Communione e liberazione” in Italy, Schoenstatt in Germany, “Shalom” in Brazil and others. WYD would not have happened without them. I praise them all for their zeal and its spiritual fruits.


But on this occasion I will mention the Neocatechumenal Way. This school of faith – as many know – seeks to highlight anew the grace of baptism among adult Christians and for those distant from the Church. I was appointed their personal mentor in 1986 by Pope John Paul II. I don’t mention this Way because of good memories. My approach to this new reality in the Church was not what you might call a “love story”.

Like other new spiritual movements after the Council, the Neocatechumenal Way initially found scepticism and rejection in local churches and in Rome. So Kiko Arguello and Carmen Hernandez, the founders, visited me several times, to complain and to ask for assistance. The conversations took up much time and differed from encounters with other communities asking for help. Kiko and Carmen usually began a spirited discussion among

themselves in my office about their concerns. Two or three times I forced myself to stay calm. But at their following visit I lost patience, banged my hand on the table and said: “Basta – now  I’ll talk!” Kiko became anxious: “Shut up, Carmen, be silent, he’s a German!” Certainly it was anything but love at first sight!


In the end, their approach in spreading the faith persuaded me, and my appreciation of how they guided the people grew. Eventually, I was able to accompany the group’s difficult process of recognition by the Pope. I personally owe them a great deal for my own faith, for trust in God’s Providence, and for courage to bear witness everywhere. But more important is their message for the whole Church: in an era that has been characterised by Pope Benedict as “forgetfulness of God”, these Christians show a joyful and attractive relationship to God and the Church. They give a vitamin-shot of fresh life to a parish. God is not dead; he is active today.


These impressions are based on facts. More than a million Catholics belong to the communities of the Neocatechumenal Way in the world. This is surprising, because its groups are no leisure activity, but make high demands on time and financial resources. They succeed in anchoring modern people deeper in God and the Church, as shown by the number of new houses of priestly formation: more than 100 “Redemptoris Mater” seminaries worldwide. In some dioceses – Berlin, for example – pastoral care would probably collapse without the priests from those seminaries.




Finally: World Youth Day serves to rediscover religious vocations among young people. Wisely the initiators of this Way use the spiritual enthusiasm of the festival to articulate God’s age-old question in a specific and unmistakable way: “Whom shall I send?” (Is. 6:8). With these words God Himself challenges one of the first prophets of the history of salvation; the prophet Isaiah tells us God himself was asking him. Many seminarians have heard this question at WYD.


Perhaps only those yearning for a priest are truly aware of his irreplaceability. Pope Saint John Paul II highlighted this. During his pontificate he wrote, every Holy Thursday, a message to priests. He concluded his first letter, back in 1979, with these touching words: “Think of the places where people anxiously await a priest, and where for many years, feeling the lack of such a priest, they do not cease to hope for his presence.

And sometimes it happens that they meet in an abandoned shrine, and place on the altar a stole which they still keep, and recite all the prayers of the Eucharistic liturgy; and then, at the moment that corresponds to the transubstantiation a deep silence comes down upon them, a silence sometimes broken by a sob… so ardently do they desire to hear the words that only the lips of a priest can efficaciously utter. So much do they desire Eucharistic Communion, in which they can share only through the ministry of a priest, just as they also so eagerly wait to hear the divine words of pardon: I absolve you from your sins! So deeply do they feel the absence of a priest among them!”


Cardinal Cordes served for several years as vice-president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. This article is based on a talk he gave in June 2016 to a conference in Denver, Colorado.

Faith Magazine

January & February 2017