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Evangelising Secular Culture through Accompaniment and Dialogue

As a viewer of Michael Matt’s Remnant, a sometimes reader of the blog 1 Peter 5, and a student of such works as Taylor Marshall’s Infiltration and Christopher Ferrara’s The Great Façade, it is apparent that, from a traditionalist perspective within the Church, Pope Francis can do little right. I have sympathy with their view that something has gone awry since Vatican II since even Saint Pope Paul VI acknowledged that ‘the smoke of Satan’ has entered the Church. The substance, though, of their main critique – that Pope Francis is too concerned with the needs of this world at the expense of the evangelisation of souls – does cause me concern. I believe that it is based on a misunderstanding of the role of the Catholic Church.

I am with the traditionalists when they support the claim of Saint Pope Paul VI in his great apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (Evangelisation in the Modern World) that ‘Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity.’

However, the how of evangelisation is up for debate. I listen to the great Doctor Angelicus, Saint Thomas Aquinas when he points out that the pursuit of the ultimate end (evangelisation of souls) is not an exclusive and so does not rule out the pursuit of a subordinate end e.g. the common good. The ultimate end and “vocation proper” of the Catholic Church is the evangelisation of souls but fashioning the common good is a relevant subordinate end and, indeed, the pursuit of this subordinate end may enhance the realisation of the ultimate end. How so?

Our prevailing secular culture is not a rich soil for the propagation of the faith since theologian Tracy Rowland and scholarly George Weigel coruscate the secular environment as ‘toxic.’ Indeed, the toxicity of this secular culture moves Rod Dreher to argue for the “Benedict Option” whereby the Church separates herself from Western societies: but how can the Church evangelise at a distance? No, rather those who seek to evangelise should, as a first step, accompany those lost souls. Are their lives blighted by drugs, disordered sexuality, excesses of alcohol? Whatever their particular poison it is fruitful to accompany them at their point of need – through dialogue. The first step in dialogue is ‘cumulative talk’ i.e. seeking consensus and building up trust. There is no judgement; rather there is a seeking of common ground. How do our lives overlap? What do we share?

The life of the “lost soul” may have been blighted by living in an area of socio-economic deprivation; but these poor social conditions may also have been the experience of the Catholic soul. If so, then they have a commonality of experience and, perhaps, much to share and so a bond of trust may be formed. Hence, their conversations may be focused on the subordinate end of helping this lost soul to achieve a more virtuous life evidenced by freedom from harmful dependencies. In so doing, this supports the common good of society. During this first stage of their developing relationship there may be no talk of Jesus, redemption, or salvation – all efforts are directed at restoring the wayward one to a more fruitful moral life within society.

When such a bond is established, then the second step of ‘exploratory talk’ takes place. This type of dialogue entails constructive criticism as a process of hypothesising, making statements and counter-statements. Once there is fellowship between the souls then the ground has been laid for the beginnings of evangelisation: subordinate ends are making way for ultimate ends. Some limited evidence for the success of this approach is to be found in education research. Strangely, it begins at the turn of the millennium - with UFOs!

Whilst teaching Aquinas’ Five Ways for the existence of God, I was somewhat discomfited when a clearly unimpressed student addressed the following remark: “Sir, there is more evidence for the existence of UFOs than there is for the existence of God.” Initially miffed with my lack of success, I paused, reflected and began a process of accompaniment. I thought, “if I wish this young student to be interested in my topic, the existence of God, then I have to show interest in his topic, UFOs.” And so began an investigation into ufology, the Nephilim and a multi-dimensional universe. As a then classroom teacher of religious education (RE) I was enriched by this study. Not only did the class of 2000 benefit from this new knowledge but so too did many later RE classes.

Study of dialogue grew throughout the noughties. Faced with teaching Roman Catholic RE to students attending state secondary schools I was caught in a dilemma. Should I catechise or should I give way to mainstream RE? Or is there another way? Eventually, another way presented itself through Pope Saint John Paul II (1990: 56) and his encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio:

Dialogue does not originate from tactical concerns or self-interest, but is an activity with its own guiding principles, requirements and dignity… Those engaged in this dialogue must be consistent with their own religious traditions and convictions, and be open to understanding those of the other party without pretense or close-mindedness, but with truth, humility and frankness, knowing that dialogue can enrich each side. There must be no abandonment of principles nor false irenicism, but instead a witness given and received for mutual advancement…

Through genuine dialogue each and all of the participants are enriched; each and all come closer to truth. And, of course, there is only one “Way, Truth and Life” (John 14:6). Through cumulative talk, an accompaniment takes place and a fellowship begins. Through exploratory talk, a true dialogue is born and truth emerges – and where there is truth, here is Our Lord.

Our secular culture is not closed to evangelisation – it awaits accompaniment and it seeks dialogue: both of which are keys from our current St Peter.

Dr Antony Luby | St Columba’s parish, Banchory

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