God willing, the new evangelization will happen, but let us not imagine that this time will be like the first time. The old evangelization proclaimed the Good News among pagan, pre-Christian peoples to whom it came as something new. Nothing like that had been done before. But nothing like our task has been done before either.
Re-evangelizing is not evangelizing as though for the first time again; the very fact of past proclamation makes re-proclamation different. For we proclaim the Gospel to a neo-pagan, post-Christian people to whom it does not come as new. The old world had not yet felt the caress of grace; our world, once brushed, now flinches from its touch.
Is re-evangelization completely and radically different from evangelization? No. The same Christ knocks at the door of the same human heart, though a heart with a different history. Is it more difficult? In some ways. Easier? In some ways. But different.
Here is one great difference: The pagan made excuses for transgressing the moral law. By contrast, the neo-pagan pretends, when it suits him, that there is no morality, or perhaps that each of us has a morality of his own. Since they had the Law and the Prophets, it comes as no surprise that the Jews took morality for granted. But to a great degree, and despite their sordid transgressions, so did the pagans.
Not that skepticism was unknown among them: “What is truth?” Pilate asked, not waiting for the answer. Yet consider all the pagan errors to which St. Paul alludes in his epistles: Was relativism one of them? No. He could omit it then; he could not have omitted it today.
Related to that first great difference is another. The pagan wanted to be forgiven, but he did not know how to find absolution. To him the Gospel came as a message of release. But the neo-pagan does not want to hear that he needs to be forgiven, and so to him the Gospel comes as a message of guilt.
This inversion seems incredible, because the neo-pagan certainly feels the weight of his sins. But he thinks the way to have peace is not to have the weight lifted, but to learn not to take it seriously. Hearing Christ’s promise of forgiveness, he thinks “All those guilty Christians!” Having chosen to view the freest people as the most burdened, he naturally views the most burdened as the freest. “Everyone has done things he regrets. Everyone lies. Get over it!”
The pagan was raised differently. He was brought up in the ways and the atmosphere of paganism, and in order to be converted, he had to be removed from both. By contrast, though the neo-pagan has probably also been taught pagan ways, he may have been brought up in an atmosphere of Christian sentiment. Consequently he regards the Gospel not as the story of true God become man, but as a sentimental fable for children. Even Christian sentiments are difficult to take seriously apart from the actual life of grace.
Then too, the pagan was likely to be exposed to the Gospel either all at once or not at all. The neo-pagan has been exposed to just enough spores to develop an allergic reaction. Perhaps he was baptized as a child, but never seriously taught the faith. Perhaps his parents became angry with the Church and stopped taking him.
The pagan suffered the burden of a pagan childhood, but he was spared the burden of an interrupted Christian childhood. Whereas he had never been immersed in the waters of faith, all too often the neo-pagan has been dipped in them, but then pulled out.
Not only was the pagan devoid of nostalgia for a Christian past, he was also unencumbered by the anger of guilt for rejecting it. The neo-pagan is susceptible to both the nostalgia and the anger, and he may even feel both at once.
I once met an atheist with a chip on his shoulder who boasted of the “fun” he had “ruining all the Catholic kids” at the Catholic college where he had taught. Yet after a few glasses of wine he said that he was “very religious,” and that he had recently joined a church choir from sheer love for the great old hymns. At turns, he was nostalgic for something good he had left behind, and belligerent because he had no good reason for having left it.