VATICAN CITY — The Year of Faith, which comes to an end on Nov. 24, the Solemnity of Christ the King, has been a “year of grace” characterized by “enthusiasm and dynamism” that has brought many Catholics back to the faith, says Archbishop Rino Fisichella.
As president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, he has led the Vatican department that has been the principal organizer of the year’s events. Archbishop Fisichella sat down with the Register Nov. 6 to share his reflections on the last 12 months, during which he discussed the challenges facing the New Evangelization and how Catholics need to radically change if it is to be effective.
Your Excellency, from your perspective, what have been the main achievements regarding the Year of Faith?
First of all, it was really a moment of grace — a very evident moment of grace. We cannot forget that. We started the Year of Faith with Pope Benedict, and we continued with another pope, Francis. Of course, this was a unique experience during the Year of Faith, and for many people, it was a concrete act of faith because we are not used to having a pope resign. Many people were probably touched by this experience.
And then there was the enthusiasm about the election of Pope Francis. This was another experience of faith: two different personalities but, in any case, continuity in the Catholic faith.
So this is, first of all, the experience that we have. But second, I would also say it underlined the enthusiasm and dynamism among our people. We’re used now to stressing that these times are a moment of crisis, but we [in this discastery] don’t think that.
Of course, there is currently a crisis of faith, and we are experiencing a global crisis during this peculiar moment of the world. But while we normally underline this aspect of crisis, we do see, with the same realism, that there is such a great dynamic of faith and enthusiasm for the faith that was experienced this year. Also, I would say we experienced unity in the Church through different experiences, initiatives and events.
Look at the bottle over there. In it is a model ship, the logo of the Year of Faith, and that was made by a man in jail in the Philippines. He sent it to me. So, also in jail in the Philippines, they experienced the Year of Faith. There was a young lady from Niger, a country where Catholics make up just 1% of the population, whose name was Marie Cecile. She said [to me]: “When I go back to my country I feel I will never be alone in my life because of the experience of living the faith together — it was something so profound and unique for me that, coming back, I know now the Church is together with me.”
How much effect do you think the Year will have had on lapsed Catholics? Do you think we will see many reversions from it?
I don’t know if it was the Year of Faith or the occasion of a new pope, but, certainly, we had, in these last months, a great experience of people coming back to the faith. We have many personal testimonies from priests around the world — in Italy, France and the U.S., too. That has really been the general reaction. Many people have come back and asked for the sacrament of penance. Especially during Easter time, we had a really great, great impact, with these people coming back after many years far away from the Church.
How much do you think this has to do with Pope Francis, who has emphasized many times the need to go out to the periphery?
The nature of the Church is to evangelize. At this dicastery, we underline daily that to evangelize doesn’t mean staying in our community, but going outside it. Pope Francis, from the beginning of his ministry as bishop of Rome and as the pope, has said we need to go to the peripheries of life. So I think this is a great help. Probably many people, in their own circumstances, have been waiting to hear this message and will be touched by its continued proclamation.
Looking back on the year, is there anything you might have done differently or any initiatives you wanted to do and might do in the future?
It was such a rich moment of faith, when you think of the young people receiving confirmation. It has been a great moment of happiness and enthusiasm, of such popular piety and confraternity, but also religious piety.
To take the event on Pentecost, when 200,000 people from movements, associations came to Rome, and then a meeting of seminarians, of families and of catechists and all of these meetings. It was so full of experiences: catechesis, pilgrimage to the tomb of Peter, confessions, adoration — moments that pilgrims lived in a very intense way. That was wonderful.
But if I can say one event was, for me, unique, and it was unique because it was the first time it had happened in the history of the Church: For one hour, around the whole world, we were in unity around the Eucharist. That was something unprecedented.
There was an attempt in the last century, but never this. It really was a moment of grace for me. Believe me, it was something great.
I remember the title of a very interesting book from Hans Urs von Balthasar — I am a disciple of his, and so I have studied him all of my life — called This Is the Heart of the World (Das Herz der Welt). During this hour, I said, ‘This moment Christ really is the heart of the world, because never have we had a moment like it.’ No words; just silence and the presence of Christ among us and within us. This was a real unique and enthusiastic moment for the Year of Faith.
Some argue that for the New Evangelization to be truly effective, it’s necessary to return to the Church’s Tradition and roots, and that without that consciousness of 2,000 years of the Church, the New Evangelization will be less effective, less potent. Do you agree with this?
No, I repeat that the nature of the Church is to evangelize. Without evangelization, there is no Church. That should be very clear. We are speaking of a New Evangelization, and this expression can be useful or useless; because the most important thing is to create, once again, among our people — Christians — the consciousness that they are called to be evangelizers. This is the New Evangelization.
It is necessary and urgent to understand that we are at a peculiar moment of our history, a peculiar moment of a real cultural change. To evangelize up until the last century was probably easier because there was a great sense of unity within the Church. Then you knew who was the enemy of your faith: atheism. But atheism in the past was just a theoretical and philosophical system. Today it’s different; the culture is different.
We are confronted with atheistic behavior, and people don’t know they are atheists because they are living in a very pagan way. For this reason, it is more difficult to evangelize.
Is it atheism or more of a prevailing, subconscious agnosticism, one which eventually leads to atheism?
In some ways, it can be this as well, in that they don’t care. But for me, the problem is not atheism or agnosticism. The problem is that people don’t feel any more the absence of God in their life as an absence. This is the problem for us today: the necessity of a relationship with God; that means a relationship with yourself.
If you don’t have a relationship with God, you cannot also have a relationship with yourself. So people today probably don’t understand that the absence of God is a confusion within your life, that you don’t understand any more who you are because there is no more relationship with the Transcendent. What is present is just material; you take what you want. So, in my humble opinion, the challenge today is not to do something. First of all, we should be aware of the necessity for a new spirit to evangelize. This is more important for me.
Looking at the recent history of conversions to the Church in England and Wales, numbers were rising to their highest levels in 1959 before plunging over the following 10 years and never really recovering. In light of this, what sort of new evangelical approach should the Church have? Should she look back to when there were such high numbers of conversions? Does it show the Church was doing something right then, but not now?
I won’t talk about a strategy. The New Evangelization is not about a strategy. It’s not a pastoral strategy in order to create new conversions. I think that the problem is our style of life. So I just have one question: What happened in Antioch when there was a group of 25 or 30 people — disciples who were, for the first time, called Christians? What happened in Antioch 20 centuries ago? Antioch was the New York, London or Rome today, because it was very interracial, multicultural. But this small group of people — 20-30 people, maybe 55 at most — were recognized by everybody as Christians. Today, we are 1.2 billion Catholics, and no one recognizes us. So this is the problem for me.
What has happened? My opinion is that our style of life as Catholics is pagan. It’s no longer recognized by others, so we live like others. In the second century, we had the Letter of Dionysus, and you can read that, at the beginning of the second century, Christians didn’t dress in a special way; they didn’t eat in a special way. They observed laws like everyone but — but — their style of life was so paradoxical that they were recognized by everyone.
What made them differentiate themselves from others exactly?
We no longer today have that Christian style of life. That’s very clear. And we justify everything. We probably don’t take seriously the radicality of our faith any more.
I don’t know the expression in English, but in Italian, we say that “we put water into the wine until the wine doesn’t taste like wine any more but as water.” We don’t have the radicality of our faith anymore, and that is the reason for conversion. If we as Christians baptize but in our lives we don’t show that we’ve encountered Christ, really in a concrete way, how can we proclaim it? How can we re-evangelize others? Our words are just empty words.
Has that desire to live the radicalness of the Gospel also been lost because we don’t preach any more the imperative of being in the Church to be saved?
My intervention at the Synod [on the New Evangelization in 2012] was very clear on that theme. I said it seems to me that our communities are now so bureaucratic that we don’t show our living community any more, our life of sharing with people, what we are.
There is a kind of bureaucratization in our relationship that is tremendous. So you go to church just because you need a paper or a service, because you need to receive something, but there isn’t a living community welcoming and accepting you and living with communion. Communion is one of the most important words for our life.
What about salvation?
Sure, we don’t speak about many topics any more, about salvation. Where in our homilies, teaching, catechesis do you hear the words salvation or redemption?
Do you feel that if it is not preached, people won’t feel compelled to come in?
You should not say something to people in order to come back to the Church. You should convey the necessity to give a sense of meaning to people’s lives, the sense that your life is Jesus Christ, who died and is risen for our salvation. This is the specificity of our faith. So what do I have original in my faith except that?
We are in the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. At the extraordinary synod of 1985, 20 years after the conclusion of the Council, John Paul II asked the bishops about they thought about actualization of the Council. The final conclusion was that “probably we gave attention to structures of Church, and we forget to preach Jesus Christ.” I think that, after 30 years, we should repeat the same. It’s sad, very sad for me, but probably we forget to preach the essential aspects and originality of our life, of our religion.
What will your department focus on now?
Once you find the essential, to focus on Jesus Christ, because this is what we are, and then you should find a common language, an experience for all the Church.
I think the New Evangelization should probably also be a necessity to make one common experience and to find one common language, one common context in our pastoral work: and then in our different Churches we can be in a different way with different methods. So the experience we had in preparation of the Jubilee for 2000, for one year all the Church was thinking, reflecting, praying — everything focusing on God the Father. Then the second year, the focus was on Jesus Christ, and the third year, the Spirit. And then today, we experience that with the Year of Faith. So I am convinced if we find — I don’t know how — a common pastoral understanding, a common pastoral approach and engagement in our pastoral work, probably we find again the way of announcing in a meaningful way Jesus Christ, the Gospel.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.