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Twenty-five years ago, while I was studying canon law in Rome, I first heard the expression "new evangelization." Pope John Paul II was then calling for a re-evangelization of countries with a long-standing Christian heritage that had somehow grown old and tired in the faith. Obviously, the countries of Europe were intended, but the need was also acute in the United States. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was in 1985 that the pope initiated the World Youth Days, an international gathering of youth to celebrate the Catholic faith. Re-evangelize the old, and evangelize the young, the pope seemed to be saying.
The old paganism, worship of money, power and sex, was back in force. But things are worse now than in the days of ancient Rome, because the new pagans are us, Christians often in name only; and so the liberating power of the Gospel is treated as ho-hum: "been there, done that." Caesar or Herod is now a nominally Catholic politician perhaps running for president or ensconced in the speaker's chair, who has long since made peace with the culture of death.
The new evangelization has to begin at home, through personal conversion. "Repent and believe the Gospel," said Jesus. Traditionally, we think of mission territory as some exotic locale in the Third World. But actually our workplace or neighborhood or own home or even our own heart is mission territory for the new evangelization. We stand in need of continual conversion, and reconversion.
Christmas holds the answer to what ails us: The birth of Christ as a helpless infant should stir up our love and affection. But just as there was no room for him in the inn at Bethlehem, the question persists: Will there be room for him in our hearts? As Dorothy Day wrote, "It is no use saying that we are born 2,000 years too late to give room to Christ... Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts."
Pope Benedict spoke of this on Dec. 16 in an Advent Vespers service with university students in Rome. "To go back to the Grotto in Bethlehem, to that humble and narrow place, is not just a mental journey: It is the way we are called to travel, experiencing today God's closeness and his action that renews and sustains our existence."
"That baby which we will encounter is the full manifestation of the mystery of the love of God who loves by giving his life, who loves in a disinterested way, who teaches us to love and only asks to be loved....He wants to infuse courage into our lives, particularly in moments in which we feel tired and bored and we need to rediscover the serenity of the journey and to experience with joy our pilgrimage to eternity."
Joy to the world, the Lord has come! Christmas is not just Santa and cards and presents and carols and fruitcake and eggnog, though all those things are wonderful provided they do not substitute for Christ. Christmas is Jesus coming to us in irresistible form, the promise of new and everlasting life, the secret of perpetual youthfulness even for the elderly.
Speaking to university students, the pope said: "Profound educational activity and continual discernment are needed, which ought to involve the entire academic community, fostering that synthesis of intellectual formation, moral discipline and religious commitment which Blessed John Henry Newman had proposed in his 'Idea of a University.' In our times one notices the need for a new class of intellectuals capable of interpreting the social and cultural dynamics, offering solutions which are not abstract, but concrete and realistic." Enough of typically academic abstract theorizing, the pope seems to be saying. Let's put our faith into practice!
Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.