The Role of the Lay Faithful in Evangelization

By Michael Ogunu

Evangelization derives from the Greek word euangelion which means ‘good news’. In the Christian sense, the ‘good news’ is the revealed Word of God, especially the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus did bring the good news for human salvation. To facilitate the proclamation of this good news, he called his followers, who themselves must allow the Word of God to thoroughly pass through their entire life, and be ready agents for the announcement of it to all peoples. Thus Jesus, having been sent by the Father, calls his followers to become an evangelised entity, the Church, and entrusted it with the mission to evangelise others, the whole world, through the preaching of the Word and the planting of the Church among those who do not yet believe in Christ.

Drawing from the insights of Vatican II, and the deliberation of the 1974 synod of bishops, Pope Paul VI gave a concise definition of evangelization in the Church today. According to him, evangelization means bringing the good news into all strata of humanity, and through its influence transforming humanity from within and making it new.

The good news in this definition refers essentially to Jesus himself who is the saviour of all mankind; His message to humanity including his promises and assurances, and his salvific work for mankind. The all strata of humanity embraces persons who have not yet known Christ and relate with him on the strength of that Christian message; people’s activities which are contrary to the teachings of Christ; people’s environment which have been polluted by sin and demonic forces; people’s consciences which have been marked by the increase of wickedness; people’s cultures or way of life which have made the enjoyment of the freedom won for man by Christ impossible; and also human relationships, etc.

The activities involved in this exercise according to the teaching of the Church at this point, include explicit proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ in words through the Kerygma, preaching, catechesis and in deeds through witness of life to those who have not yet known Christ; incorporation into the Christian community of those who have been evangelised.
The aim of this exercise according to the above definition include, the renewal of the individual or society from within; interior change of persons or conversion and transformation with the power of the good news, of judgements, lines of thought, actions, points of interest, determining values, sources of inspiration and models of life which are in contrast with the word of God and the plan of salvation.

In practical terms, evangelization in this context means brining the good news of Jesus Christ which I have personally experienced to others; sharing with others the joy I have in my intimacy with the Lord and in experiencing his mighty deeds in my life; getting others to share in that joyful and marvellous experience of the Lord in me. It entails also deepening the faith and knowledge of those who have accepted to follow Jesus to enable them take on the responsibility of evangelizing others in turn. It calls for the explicit proclamation to others of God’s love in Jesus Christ as the good news of salvation, of the name, teaching, life, promises, assurances, the kingdom and mystery of Jesus the Saviour, as well as the fact that in Jesus there is salvation from everything that oppresses humanity, especially liberation from sin, fear and evil. It involves showing when and how God intervened in the hearer’s experience in life, invitation of hearer to make a faith commitment to Jesus; incorporation of the respondent into the ecclesial community where he could have the opportunity to deepen his faith and be prepared to take on responsibility within the Church.

In this broad understanding, all in the Church are called to evangelise in keeping with the possibilities of their situation. The Magisterium reinforces the evangelization thrust of the Church according to this understanding in the 1983 Code of Canon Law as a right and a duty of all the faithful in every part of the world:

All the Christian faithful have the duty and the right to work so that the divine message of salvation may increasingly reach the whole of humankind in every age and in every land.
This canon implies, that evangelization in this broad sense is not restricted to the ordained or those with a canonical mission or mandate or professional missionaries (although all these retain a special importance in the work of evangelization for all Christians). On this note, Vatican II caution that bishops, parish priests, and other priests of the secular clergy will remember that the right and duty of exercising the apostolate is common to all the faithful, whether clerics or lay and that in the building up of the Church, the laity too have parts of their own to play. For this reason, they will work as brothers with the laity in the Church and will have a special concern for the laity in the apostolic activities of the latter.

Pope John Paul II also stresses that today evangelization is the work of all the members of the Church: Bishops, theologians, priests, religious and laity, both adults and youth.
The canon stresses that, as a duty, the Christian faithful is obliged to spread the good news of Jesus in the manner described above whenever and wherever the opportunity presents itself. It shows that, as a right, the Christian faithful need no other authorization or commission to exercise this right in the various circumstances of his life. His authority comes from a divine commissioning that calls for the baptized to act in virtue of their own Christian commitment. Authorization and commissioning by the Church authorities becomes necessary only for the sake of good order and especially where the evangeliser exercises this right in the name of the Church and in Church buildings.

The 1983 code gives the lay Christian faithful the authority to carry out this obligation either as individuals or in associations.

Since the laity like all the Christian faithful are deputed by God to the apostolate through their baptism and confirmation, they are also bound by general obligations and enjoy the general right to work as individuals or in associations so that the divine message of salvation becomes known and accepted by all persons throughout the world; this obligation has a greater impelling force in those circumstances in which people can hear the gospel and know Christ only through lay person.

This canon implies that lay persons have a special role in the task of evangelization because at times or in certain circumstances, it is only through them that the good news could reach certain class of people and it is only through the secular activities typical of lay persons that the temporal order could be transformed.

Pope John Paul II highlighted at the beginning of his encyclical letter regarding the above cited mandate of Christ to his followers that “the Mission of Christ the Redeemer, which is entrusted to the Church, is still very far from completion”. So, it is incumbent on every Christian faithful to be zealous about furthering the proclamation of the good news.
The term ‘mission’ is derived etymologically from the Latin word missio which means ‘to be sent out’. Jesus in the final stage of his redemptive mission, as can be seen in the foregoing scriptural text, commissioned his followers to go out and evangelise all persons in the whole world. The high importance of this ultimate mandate of evangelization given after Christ’s resurrection from the dead is comparable to his last testament of love before his passion. In John’s gospel, Christ before he suffered, gave his disciples the greatest commandment to love one another after his own pattern of love (Jn. 15:12). That means a love that is self-sacrificing (Jn. 15:13) and that is employed in the humble service of others (13:14). The greatest act of love is manifested in evangelization whereby one lovingly presents to another the message of eternal salvation for his soul. So, evangelization is the most supreme act of love since it could lead to the greatest good of salvation of soul.

The lay members of Christ’s faithful are invited by the Church to closely collaborate with the sacred ministers in order to further the mission of evangelization entrusted to the whole Church. Particularly, by their more direct presence in the temporal order, lay people should “strive so that the divine message of salvation may be known” and they “have the special obligation to permeate and perfect the temporal order of things with the spirit of God”. Lay faithful can fulfil their role in the mission of evangelization beginning with good participation in the organization of Family Prayers and Discipline, Neighbourhood Preaching, Small Christian Communities, Church Societies, Christian Apostolates, Collaborative Ministries, Parish Projects.

The faithful from the good moral and Christian discipline in their homes can become springboards of evangelization to all around them. They become thus “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14) to those around and a shining example of high moral probity, good conduct and sources of admiration. In addition, Christians could attempt actual verbal evangelization of all around them by speaking of Christ to them, apart from their lives of living testimonies. The faithful may therefore pay some brief and friendly visits to neighbours around them. Showing that they care about their neighbours’ welfare and asking them about how they are faring, materially and otherwise, are enough preparatory steps to sowing the gospel message which they may spontaneously imbibe from the Christian faithful at seeing the good works of their lives. Indeed, in the lucid viewpoint of Pope John Paul II, “the evangelical witness which the world finds most appealing is that concern for people, and charity towards the poor, the weak and those who suffer”.

Every lay faithful according to individual state or profession in the world should evangelise. They could preach as individuals or while forming a partnership of two in the manner of the early disciples sent out by Christ (cf. Lk. 10) carry out evangelization of their working environments. As teachers and administrators of schools they should discharge their functions so well as to make the spirit of the Gospel manifest. Christian apostolate of catechizing the young and old converts, even as volunteer or professional catechists, is a laudable venture that lay faithful could also embrace. Efficient pre-marital courses could also be well organized with the assistance of the lay faithful but with the full involvement of the clergy to ensure that the programme is successfully directed to meet especially its spiritual goal and that it is not a wasted endeavour. As medical staff of whatever categories of doctors, nurses, auxiliaries or other health workers they should be conscious of the sensitivity of the states of patients as maximum opportunities to discharge their duties efficiently, mercifully, while also encouraging them to trust in God, be fully reconciled to faith and giving them the possibilities of sacramental visits especially of a priest. Evangelization is enhanced in such group or individual apostolates to prisons, hospitals, orphanages or other similar institutes where Christian mercy and charity are demonstrated.

The various ways and means by which the lay faithful can be effective witnesses to the faith described in the preceding sections can be summarized as follows:
· Regular (weekly) Confessions to purify themselves and be effective witnesses to the faith.
· Frequent devout participation at Eucharistic celebrations and Eucharistic adorations.
· Contributing to the Diocesan development fund.
· Praying for the conversion of those who do not yet believe in Christ and for the unity of all Christians.
· Praying for our Bishops, Priests and Religious.
· Praying the Rosary everyday for increase in faith, for conversions and for increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
· Teaching Catechism at Catechism classes in the parish on voluntary basis.
· Avoiding all forms of dishonesty, corruption, immorality and ungodly living.
· Showing love and compassion to fellow human beings, whether Christians or people from other religious faith.
· Discharging our duties creditably wherever Divine Providence places us.
· Striving to live exemplary Christian life and being actively involved in Parish activities.
· Being on the lookout for lapsed and fallen Catholics and doing whatever one can, to bring them back to active membership and religious practice.
· Making our families models of what Catholic families should be.
· Showing complete dedication to Church activities by devoting time, talent and treasures for the growth of the Church.
· Supporting the work of Catholic charities.
· Supporting the Propagation of the Faith by contributing generously (financially) to it.
· Reaching out to the alienated and lonely.
· Reaching out to divorced and separated couples.
· Making regular visitations to the sick, the bed-ridden and the ageing.
· Bearing witness to Christ through exemplary life in the family, in society, at work, and in the Church and offering to God your sufferings, uniting them to the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of souls.

Prof. Michael Ogunu is the President of the Executive Board of the World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa