Shoe Leather Evangelization

Shoe Leather Evangelization March 14, 2013

Most of us are just getting to know Cardinal Bergoglio, the man who is now Pope Francis. Anyone with access to the Interwebs can now be an “expert” after a few searches.

As I learn more about Bergoglio, I’m struck by his simplicity and humility, as are many others. His sincere and prayerful countenance when he first greeted the world yesterday made a strong impression.

We don’t know much about how he ran the chancellory in Buenos Aires, but we do know that he lived a simple life and practiced evangelization in a concrete and tangible way: by hitting the pavement. We’ve been tossing about the term “new evangelization” for many years, but it hasn’t been clearly defined. In many cases, it has been a source of encouragement for more writings and more conferences. All well and good, but what does it mean, what does it look like, and how do we engage in it? Cardinal Bergoglio seems to have given a profound witness in the way in which he lived his life as Archbishop with the people. In the truly Catholic tradition, he didn’t wait for his flock to come to him. He went to his flock, serving the poor and needy himself. He practiced and encouraged his priest to do likewise what we call shoe leather evangelization.

For a long time, we’ve known that local works better. And evangelization is no different. People come to the faith because of a personal encounter, typically with an individual, but ultimately with Christ. Doctrine is important, but it means nothing if it is not lived.

Last month I gave a talk for the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Based on interviews I conducted with people who run successful catechesis programs for youth as well as my own experience of encountering substantial faith filled communities on secular university campuses across the country, I identified three components to every successful program:

  1. Create community by building relation, e.g. through friendship.
  2. Offer solid catechesis.
  3. Encourage and guide people in the development of a truly deep spiritual life which is the encounter with Christ.

The response of the cardinals and bishops at the meeting was quite moving. They understood this better than I. The second and thirds steps have to happen concomitantly. But the first step paves the way and sustains the journey.

Maybe it was their understanding of this very basic component absolutely essential for evangelization that was part of what led them to choose Cardinal Bergoglio as our new pope. I don’t know. No one outside the conclave knows, not even those who hint at insider information whether from this conclave or the one in 2005.

But my inclination is that Francis, like his various namesakes, will be encouraging an evangelization that involves meeting people where they’re at (not unlike Christ himself) and witnessing the faith in very small, personal ways. Once we start that, we just might see the springtime that John Paul II foretold.



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