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Pre-Evangelization: Prepping the World for Faith like Benedict XVI

February 1, 2021


It was the first day of a teaching career I had been working toward for most of my life. Confident that I would make a deep impression and the students would be hanging on my every word about the living God, I strode into my classroom crackling with sheer confidence. I was dressed to kill, and carried my new professorial briefcase to make sure people knew I wasn’t messing around. Things were about to get old school! No more crafts and crayons in the religion class. Lessons would be smart and engaging, introducing students to the intellectual side of the Church.

Class began. I wrote some notes on the board and turned to the students who, I believed, would be transformed by the end of the class. I jumped in with both feet, purposefully avoiding coming off like the teacher (Ben Stein) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

But my students looked at me as if I were . . . him. 

After a few dull minutes, a student raised his hand. Excellent, I thought, an interested student. 

“Can I go to the bathroom?”

Me: “Not to be pedantic, but can you? You should say, ‘May I go?’ Please wait. I’m just about to get to the most important part.” 

Dead stare. Ugh. Okay, I thought, things will eventually get back on track. Then, another hand: bathroom request again. Then another. Now it was, “May I call my mom back? She keeps sending me text messages.” At the ringing of the bell, the students ran out, phones in hand. No thank yous. No questions. No lingering to explore the content. 

Having imagined my students listening to me as raptly as Augustine listened to Ambrose, I was mildly bummed out. Eventually I learned that I should get to know what the students actually give a damn about—to understand their own understanding. 

So I started to talk about the concerns of the modern world, the world these students and I inhabited. This turned out to be an effective way to engage them. And you know who else took this approach? Pope Benedict XVI! 

Pope Benedict was a master at pre-evangelization. Early on in his career, he made sure never to presuppose the faith in his hearers, but always to propose it afresh. People need to be taught the faith, but they first need someone to prepare them for it. They need to see the nothingness of life without God  and then find instruction in silence and interiority. This is the work of pre-evangelization. From my experience, the best way to accomplish the first task is to make Nietszche your ally. Beginning with his perspective, take a good look at the modern (postmodern?) condition that entails the death of God in the cosmos and then, in an Augustinian way, show the absurdity of human life without God. 

Or, perhaps a better suggestion, follow the example of Pope Benedict XVI. Like Nietzsche, Benedict probes the questions of the modern world, but unlike Nietzsche, he offers us Christ. In his prime, he was a master at leading people from a nihilistic abyss to the faith of the Church. But he also knew how disappointing teaching the faith to contemporary people could be.  

I just finished the first volume of Peter Seewald’s new biography of the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI: A Life, and I hope every Word on Fire fan will read it, because it’s excellent. What stood out most for me in the book was the simple humanity of the young Joseph Ratzinger, especially when he related his early frustrations as a priest. In the chapter titled “The Curate,” Seewald quotes the young priest’s shock at the godlessness in his parish:

I came across this situation, particularly in religious instruction. There you have 40 boys and girls, who sort of go along with it dutifully, but you know that they hear the opposite at home. So it might be: ‘But Dad says, you don’t need to take that so seriously.’ You felt that somehow church and faith were still there institutionally, but that the real world had moved on far away from them.

He said this back in the early 1950s, which should shock those who consider the era to be a Catholic heyday. Not according to Ratzinger! He and a handful of other insightful Catholics recognized that if the Church was to be revitalized out of its slow ossification, the Gospel needed to be communicated afresh. They foresaw the need for a “new evangelization.” But how best to do that was the question, and, in many ways, still is the question. 

Ratzinger, perhaps unconsciously, evangelized in a very unique, personal style inspired by Augustine’s Confessions, Newman’s motto cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart), and Martin Buber’s dialogical personalism (I and Thou). The openness with which he communicated his own restless heart became a way of opening the hearts of others to Christ, inspiring them to likewise find their rest in him. Throughout the biography, Seewald quotes many of Ratzinger’s student’s reactions to his instruction. They all described an exciting search for the face of the Lord. While the faith indeed was taught, it was not presented as mere information but as something to partake in. But let’s be clear: he did not always have an interested audience.  

The young Ratzinger, who at first was eager to present the faith anew, was soon disappointed by the apathy he found in the mid-century Church of West Germany. His controversial article “The Church and the New Heathens” is an expression of this disappointment. In the opening paragraph, he wrote:

According to religion statistics, old Europe is still an almost completely Christian part of the Earth. But there can be no better case than this to prove what everyone knows, that statistics lie. The appearance of the church in the modern era shows that in a completely new way it has become a church of heathens, and increasingly so: no longer, as it once was, a church made up of heathens who have become Christians, but a church of heathens, who still call themselves Christians, but have really become heathens.

And around the time he published that article, he preached a sermon at the first Mass of his former student Franz Niegel, in which he said,

How often when I was a student I looked forward to being allowed to preach, being allowed to proclaim God’s word to the people, who must have been waiting for it in the perplexity of an often godforsaken daily life. I looked forward especially to when a word from Scripture or a new insight into our doctrine had struck me and made me happy. But how disappointed I was! The reality was quite different; people clearly weren’t waiting for the sermon but for the end of it. Today God’s word is not one of the fashion items people talk about and queue up for. On the contrary: it’s fashionable to know better.

Teachers need to awaken their students to the reality of God in his infinite beauty and goodness so as to be ready to listen to him in Christ. But starting with Christ (while theologically correct) might not always meet the case. It is important to first understand the way students see reality. Their worldview cannot simply be mocked or derided but must be comprehended before it can be addressed. This is the pastoral approach Pope Benedict has tried to practice his entire life. In the book, Ratzinger describe the “pastoral” in this way:

“Pastoral” should not mean: fuzzy, without substance, merely edifying, as it is sometimes misunderstood. It should mean: formulated with positive concern for people today, who are not helped by condemnations. They have been hearing long enough about everything that is wrong, everything that they must not do. Now they want to hear at last . . . what positive message the faith can give for our time, what it positively has to teach and to tell them. . . . What is true must be said openly, without concealment. Full truth is part of full love.

Assuming that the students, like all humans, desire the fullness of truth and the fullness of love, I decided to focus on exploring the nihilism we inhabit. First, we’d acknowledge modernity’s crisis in faith and then confront the consequences of our implicit worldview—but we’d not end there! I found Nietzsche to be extremely helpful for the first part. As a class, the students read Nietzsche’s “Parable of the Madman” from The Gay Science (1882), the famous parable with the line “we have killed him [God].” The acknowledgement that we live as if God does not exist is a great way of helping them sense their need for God. Humans, as Ratzinger so well understand, are made for God, and without relation to him they are nothing. On Ratzinger’s early reading, Seewald writes:

Joseph read sentences that moved him deeply: “There are humans only in the presence of God, and only in freedom. Only in both are they persons,” Theodore Steinbüchel had formulated. “Become what you are” now only made sense when it was really known what humans were: namely, “being to God.” And becoming themselves, as Heidegger demanded, was only real self-becoming if it was taken up into relationship with God, which fulfills what “human” and “self” really are. Therefore God was not, as Nietzsche said, the death of humans and their destruction, but their life. “The guarantee of their freedom is God, because he created them as ‘being transcending towards a You,’ and because this transcendence of their essence is only realized in a life of personal freedom.”

I wish I could give my students the same books Ratzinger read at a young age! Ratzinger understood that a philosophy of life cut off from God and a theology of God that made him into one being among many negated all the legitimate aspirations of the moderns, especially freedom. These aspirations will flourish in Catholicism, as Pope Benedict has repeatedly said. Getting students to see that is the challenge. But a good first step is to ask your students to look into the abyss and see their radical dependence upon God, followed with the invitation to live as children of God. God is not dead; he is life itself, the eternal “I AM,” who calls us out from the depths. Some will hear his Word and be converted, but many will continue to wander away toward the world and all its vacuous entertainments. But we place our hope in God, “who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). I think Pope Benedict would agree with that. 

This should be the hope that motivates all religious educators who, like Benedict, may feel discouraged by the indifference and apathy of their students. Like Benedict, they should hope that since Catholicism is reality and not just an “idea,” their students may eventually decide to get up and follow the light, discovering God. Such is the hope of every Catholic teacher. Such is the job’s reward.