For those of us in the Roman Catholic tradition, we have heard the Church speak quite a bit about a new push in Catholicism, “The New Evangelization.” The word “evangelization” is somewhat new to Catholic circles. Not the concept or even an engagement in it, the Church has always been about evangelization. But it is a word with cultural ties much closer to Protestantism and evangelicalism.
The Catholic conception of evangelism is more along the lines of “life-time discipleship.” This renewal in the look at evangelization is geared toward those who some might call, “cultural Catholics.” This is a controversial phrase, but in a United States, with Christianity historically being the dominant religious tradition, it is not unusual to have “cradle” Christians, people born into historically Christian households. For us in the evangelization business, this can be tricky as there are many understandings within the tradition concerning the nature of conversion and salvation.
CATHOLIC NEW EVANGELIZATION
At a recent meeting of Catholic campus ministers, we were presented with a very useful look at the impact of cultural diversity within local parishes (Catholic for church). Parishes have traditionally emerged, reflective of the ethnic/cultural group making up the membership, approaching the Gospel and the faith of Christ through their cultural lens. In an increasingly diverse world, parishes are becoming more ethnically diverse.
On this day, there was some push-back from my fellow white participants in the meeting who saw these cultural concepts as compromising the evangelical focus. Their expression was, “If they would just know Jesus” (meaning everything else will take care of itself and we really don’t need to get too hung up on culture). Culture seemed to be a distraction to these well-meaning ministers (easy to happen when your lens is the normative culture).
After several repetitions of this need to “just know Jesus,” I blurted out, perhaps a bit more robustly than I should have, that “None of us KNOW Jesus, none of us.” Perhaps not the expected lead-in during a meeting of campus ministers! Now, I wasn’t suggesting that those of us in the room did not have a personal relationship with Jesus. Each of us did. But as evangelizers, when we share the Gospel, what does it mean to know Jesus? What does it mean to KNOW (a complex theological discussion itself) the creator God of the vastness of the seemingly unlimited universe….get where I am heading?
CHRIST THROUGH THE LENS OF CULTURE
Can we know Jesus in different ways? Can I as a Sicilian Catholic gain a Biblical understanding of the risen Christ that is nuanced a bit differently than the Norwegian Lutheran, the urban evangelical, the Southern Baptist, and many other manifestations of the Christian tradition? Does one cultural manifestation invalidate another?
Christianity grounded in the incarnation of Christ. God came into the world through the son, Jesus, to give us a very tangible understanding of the God-head, perhaps because of the vastness of God. While we must avoid elevating any one culture above our understanding of God, we must also as campus ministers, avoid the Gnostic approach and stripping the trinity of the incarnation. I have long admired the work of InterVarsity and the Coalition for Christian Outreach for engaging their own cultural diversity and biases.
Is it harder to recognize the role of culture in ministry to young adults and understand the Gospel message through these lenses? Absolutely! But in this global world (Austin), we see Christ in so many ways, in so many faces, in so many backgrounds, and how much more are we blessed in our ministry when we open ourselves to God’s presence to us through such diverse lenses.
Dr. James Puglisi is the Associate Director of Campus Ministry at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He received his Bachelor of Arts (1984) from Allegheny College, Meadville, PA in Anthropology of Religions. He holds a Master of Arts in Higher Education (1996) from Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA, and a Master of Arts in Applied Theology (2002) from Wheeling Jesuit University. He was awarded a Doctor of Ministry from Catholic Theological Union (2008) in the area of Practical Theology. His doctoral writing was titled “Shalom: The Role of Truth Telling in Creating Communities of Racial Reconciliation within Institutions of Christian Higher Education.” He is actively involved in interfaith and ecumenical work at St. Edward’s University and in the larger Austin Community. In addition to his work in campus ministry, he teaches courses in the cultural foundations curriculum in the area of migration, culture, and diversity. He has presented at conferences on racial reconciliation and inter-religious dialogue. He is originally from Pittsburgh, PA.