ROCHESTER — From George Weigel’s perspective, Blessed John Paul II did much more than simply talk about the new evangelization.
Weigel, a nationally known Catholic theologian, author and commentator, recalled John Paul II’s one-week Holy Land pilgrimage in March 2000, saying he sought not only to mark the millennial celebration but also set an example for Catholics worldwide.
"Why would an 80-year-old man, who was already feeling the effects of Parkinson’s disease, take an unprecedented trip to the Holy Land?" mused Weigel, who wrote the 2002 book Witness of Hope, the authorized biography of John Paul II, who will be canonized in April 2014 along with Blessed John XXIII. Weigel said he has come to appreciate that the late pope, by returning to the birthplace of Christianity, modeled how all Catholics should display a sense of discipleship and mission as called for by the new evangelization.
"He was picking up the church on that slightly bent back and carrying us," Weigel told approximately 200 people Dec. 5 at the University of Rochester’s Interfaith Chapel during his lecture, "21st-Century Catholics in an Unfamiliar America."
The new evangelization is a term popularized by John Paul II and continued by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Weigel, who favors the expression "evangelical Catholicism," describes this as a sweeping movement in today’s church, in which Catholics are called to take an active role in their faith while helping others discover or rediscover the faith.
"We are living through a historic moment in the history of the Catholic Church," Weigel said, contending that there are only four or five comparably significant periods in the church’s 2,000-year history.
Weigel added that the new evangelization had actually been in the making for close to a century. He noted that Pope Leo XIII, who was pontiff from 1878-1903, set the wheels in motion by calling for understanding between the Catholic Church and the modern world in such areas as science, economics and politics, sparking a reform that eventually led to the Second Vatican Council.
According to Weigel, evangelical Catholics demonstrate publicly and unapologetically that their beliefs are not a myth or "a spirituality in a supermarket of spiritualities," but what they consider to be the true faith. He emphasized that evangelical Catholicism is vital in order for the faith to survive in today’s American culture marked by religious indifference and open hostility toward Christianity.
"This is going to demand much more from us that it has in the past," said Weigel, who in early 2013 released the book Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church.
Weigel concluded his Dec. 5 talk by offering ways that audience members can keep their faith relevant as well as others’. He noted the importance of our baptism, saying that when John Paul II visited his native Poland he went to his old parish church and kissed the font where he’d been baptized because "he knew that was the most important day of his life." Weigel suggested that audience members find out the dates of their baptisms and celebrate their baptisms every year.
He also called for not only fulfilling Sunday-Mass obligation but also increasing participation in weekday Mass, eucharistic adoration and reception of the sacrament of penance, as well as practicing lifelong evangelization and catechesis. He added that our actions should be accompanied by "a profound sense of mission in each of us" that is evident in homes, neighborhoods, workplaces and elsewhere.
"Every territory is mission territory and every Catholic is a missionary disciple," Weigel said. He observed that discipleship is rooted in friendship with Jesus Christ as evidenced by his earliest followers, who realized that such a friendship "demanded they go out and change the world, which they did."
Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His appearance at UR was sponsored by the university’s Catholic Newman Community as part of its Faith in America lecture series.