Evangelization Expertise

Archdiocesan Annual Appeal funds specialized education program in the new evangelization

By Christina Gray

The idea of a “new evangelization” isn’t exactly new. Pope St. John XXIII, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope St. Paul VI, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis all emphasized the Church’s dire need to attract newcomers — or the fallen away — in distinctly different ways than it has in the past.

Most if not all priests are familiar with the fundamental idea of the new evangelization, which calls for all baptized Catholics to deepen their faith and “re-propose” the Gospel to other Christians who may have experienced a crisis of faith or have slowly drifted away. But to carry this out well within the context of a parish community requires some knowledge and skill.

Father Michael Liliedahl is gaining that expertise, thanks to funding from the Annual Appeal. Father Liliedahl, pastor of St. Stephen Church in San Francisco, is about a quarter of the way through a four-year, postgraduate degree program — the licentiate in sacred theology (STL) in the new evangelization — at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. It’s an ecclesiastical degree in pastoral theology through the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, open to lay Catholics and Catholic priests.

“Many of us have not heard a clear explanation of what the new evangelization is,” said Matthew T. Gerlach, dean of the Institute for Lay Ministry at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. “We don’t exactly know what it is or how to do it. This course aims to remedy this.”

Father Stephen Burr, rector/president of Sacred Heart Seminary, said priests who graduate from the program, led by the program’s professors who are highly credentialed experts in the new evangelization, are prepared to lead critical efforts of evangelization in their parishes and dioceses.

“It is the intention of Archbishop Cordileone to have someone in the San Francisco Archdiocese specially educated in the new evangelization,” Father Liliedahl told Catholic San Francisco.

“Pope Francis continually says that a Church focused in on itself is a Church that is dying,” said Father Liliedahl. “A Church that is focused outward is alive and growing in the Spirit.”

The program’s online coursework includes a five-week summer residency for Catholic priests. The blended format allows Father Liliedahl to remain at St. Stephen Church and School during the traditional academic year and attend in-person classes at the seminary during the summer when pastoral responsibilities tend to slow down.

Coursework in philosophy can help priests better understand the points of view of those who might either not know, resist or completely oppose a Christian worldview. The in-person summer program gives priests from around North America an opportunity to share their experiences with each other.

“Looking ahead and seeing that I have 30 or 40 years left of ministry ahead of me, I asked, how do I make those years most effective?” he said. “I think the new evangelization is where to go for that.”

The methods of evangelization the Church has used over the last thousand years have changed drastically, said Father Liliedahl, because the world has changed drastically.

He said the Catholic Church traditionally evangelized by proposing ways of behaving, and then ways of believing, and then ways of belonging.

“It kind of flowed in that order,” he said. “Once you behaved a certain way you would come to believe. And once you behaved and believed, then you were given this sense of belonging in the community.”

But that process almost needs to be completely reversed in our day and age, according to Father Liliedahl. The traditional way has failed to resonate with today’s highly secularized culture.

So many today find themselves in an “existential crisis of loneliness,” according to Father Liliedahl. So many don’t know authentic relationship, what it means to authentically give or receive the gift of another person.

“If we are going to ask them to participate in the Trinity, which in itself is a giving and receiving of that total gift, we need to be in relationship first,” he said.

“First, you give a person a sense of belonging,” he said. As they establish a sense of belonging and they are able to participate in authentic relationships, they come to believe. “Once they belong and believe, then eventually behaving comes afterwards.”

Father Liliedahl admits the words “belonging, believing and behaving” seem to have been chosen for their alliteration, but they do accurately describe the process.

“First, you feel that you are part of a community, that someone cares for you and that you are met on your own terms,” he said. “Then you come to share with each other and grow together in your faith.”

Father Liliedahl said parish priests and staff often work long and hard to create a great parish, but the temptation remains to wait for “people to come to us.”

“But people aren’t coming to us,” he said. The onus is on parish communities to go out, to meet them where they are and invite them into the community. “If we just wait in our churches for an encounter, it may never happen, because they are simply not coming to us.”

Father Liliedahl is unsure at this point whether he will serve any official evangelization role for the Archdiocese of San Francisco once his education is complete, but he does understand the beauty of the new evangelization.

“Continuing education for priests is important to be able to understand the world and how to best minister in that world,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to engage in this continuing education for priests if not for the support of the Annual Appeal.” 

Learn how your annual gift supports the continuing education of our priests: https://sfarch.org/aaa/.

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.