What we can learn from St. Paul’s bold proclamations of faith

Late January is rich in the celebration of saints involved in the work of evangelization. On January 25th, we celebrated the feast of the conversion of St. Paul, and on January 26, the memorials of Sts. Timothy and Titus, companions and friends of St. Paul. Reflecting on their lives and examples of witness to Christ is an opportunity to consider anew that question which the Church must ask in every age: How to evangelize today?

With changing technologies, philosophies, and structures of human interaction throughout the centuries, we have adopted our modes of outreach to share the Gospel with those who have not yet heard it and those who need to hear it again. Evangelization has had to both work around and adopt for its own mission an unending list of cultural phenomena from the Roman Empire to social media.

The beauty of this type of adaptation is how visible it makes the subordination and perfection of all things to Christ. In utilizing certain technologies or arrangements of human society for the purpose of evangelization, one can see how these things are good in themselves, but only find their true purpose when aligned with the will of Him who sustains all things.

St. Paul is the perfect model for this. In Acts 17:17, Paul “argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market place every day with those who chanced to be there.” In doing so, he worked within the functioning system of human communication in order to make a case for the Gospel to anyone willing to listen. And, in doing so, he caught the interest of the philosophers of the day, the Epicureans and Stoics, who took him to the Areopagus, a rocky hill where the Athenian council met in antiquity, and asked him to tell them more.

This sets the stage for what is truly an epic Biblical scene—St. Paul, with all the intellectual elites of Greek society surrounding him, proclaiming from the heights of the city, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (17:22-23). His subsequent speech is brilliant in its eloquence and in its ability to introduce the truths of the faith by explaining why that faith is the answer to the important questions and assumptions of the existing religious and philosophical traditions of Greek society.

We thus learn from St. Paul two important principles of evangelical method—first, to make use of existing methods of communication for the purpose of evangelical mission, and second, to introduce the message in a relevant and meaningful way, but without sacrificing the truth.

So, what are today’s existing methods of communication? Where is the rocky hill on which we can stand and proclaim the news of the Gospel? The answer which now always seems to be the first to come to mind is social media—how we get our news, stay in touch with our extended family, share our political and religious opinions, and reconnect with long lost friends. The Areopagus and town square are no more, and the Facebook home page is supposedly here to stay.

Certainly it is essential that we make the Gospel message available, accessible, and attractive through these channels. And, when used appropriately, they can do truly good things. However, to make internet evangelization the sole focus of our efforts is incredibly limited and even a hindrance to joyful proclamation of the truths of the faith. Not only do we see increasing research on “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles,” which prevent people from being exposed to people of differing views from themselves, but also the tendency to scroll past everything but the most eye-catching, easy to digest graphics. How can we possibly reach new people, show them that we care about them and are interested in their lives, and have confidence that what we are sharing is actually being read?

What would have been a part of Paul, Timothy, and Titus’ everyday experience—public speaking, lively in-person debate, and generous in-home hospitality—have become for us revolutionary new tools for the work of evangelization. Social media is our century’s new technology and central mode of communication, but to really be heard in this age, it could end up being a technology we need to work around. It simply may not be suited to the real substance of evangelization. We might do best to follow St. Paul’s example at the Areopagus literally in this century, and proclaim the Gospel actively with verbal speech.

Unfortunately, in this era of isolation, standing in the town square proclaiming the Gospel might look like one is talking to oneself. Today, sharing the Gospel with people we have not yet met requires going forth boldly into the realm of real human interaction—becoming friends with our neighbors, inviting people into our homes, and having honest, meaningful, in-person discussions with those whom with we disagree. It requires actively seeking out people with whom we can share the Gospel, in all of its truth.

Like St. Paul, we should be able to say “I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). As Pope Francis exhorts us, we must go to the peripheries! And, we can take heed from Pope St. John Paul II, who reminds us that “No believer in Christ, no institution of the Church can avoid this supreme duty: to proclaim Christ to all peoples” (Redemptoris Missio 3).  

Noelle Johnson is a junior studying theology and physics. You can contact her at njohns16@nd.edu