Authentic Witnesses

Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than he does to teachers and if he listens to teachers, it’s because they are witnesses.

Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41.

One of my college professors drilled into us a quote from Pope St. Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than he does to teachers and if he listens to teachers, it’s because they are witnesses.”[1] I’d like to offer some reflections upon this quote for evangelists.

To begin, while the quote is in Evangelii Nuntiandi, it is not original to the Apostolic Exhortation. It is actually taken from a Wednesday Audience of Paul VI on October 2, 1974.[2] I think that if we look beyond the exhortation to this address, we’ll have a better understanding of what Paul VI had in mind with his “Modern man listens” quote.

Paul points out “two fundamental aspects of the apostolate of the laity” that he believed “were fading” (as of 1974) within Christians: “the importance of personal witness” and “the unity of the various witnesses of the Gospel among themselves and with their bishops.”[3] There is much that could be said about both of these aspects, but I’ll limit it to a couple of observations.

Right after listing these two aspects, the Holy Father provides the famous words later found in Evangelii Nuntiandi 41. Interestingly, the French word maîtres is used in this quote, and is rendered into English as “teachers.” However, it could also mean “leaders” or “masters.” We note here a broader focus than simply teachers in a school setting, so it also applies to Church leaders (clerical, or laity who assist clerics). Paul then explains that contemporary man feels “an instinctive repulsion for all that may appear [as] mystification, façade, compromise. In such a context, we understand the importance of a life that really resonates with the Gospel!”[4]

As I see it, Paul VI was saying that contemporary man desires authenticity above all else. Man’s desire for knowledge and mastery over the material world contributes to this desire for authenticity. Coupled with this material pursuit is a desire for what is spiritual, or, as Paul VI put it, a “hunger for another thing, a strange solitude.”[5] It seems to me that by “strange solitude,” the Holy Father is referring to how man is faced with a paradox. One the one hand, he has a drive for mastery and also a desire for solitude, to be alone with God.

Man’s hunger and desire for solitude is met in Jesus Christ.

For Christians, Paul said, that hunger and solitude is met in Jesus Christ as He is a “mystery more unfathomable than matter: the mystery of God that invites man to a sharing of life in an endless communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[6]

I would insert here a thought that is not in Paul’s address, but which goes quite well with the theme of authenticity. By desiring authenticity, man is seeking to have reason(s) to believe. Trained as contemporary man is by a materialist worldview, he knows the misery and the dead-end brought by this worldview. There is a kind of love/hate relationship. Man both loves the advancements brought by focusing upon the material world, but hates a deleterious effect it can have upon him. For man is both spirit and matter, and focusing upon one to the detriment of the other is disastrous. Ensconced for so long in a materialist mindset brings a corrosive effect. Here is where authenticity matters greatly.

Materialism brings with it sickness, but can stir a desire to believe within man. He needs a reason to believe, and that reason must be true, authentic. Oftentimes, that reason is not found in deep theological truths (though it can happen) as one’s everyday existence is not tied to libraries and schools of learning. Rather, everyday life is found in the world of relationships, commerce, the public forum, etc. For this reason, the Holy Father emphasizes witnesses of the Gospel, people who embody the eternal and its principles. This embodiment is not about techniques, or an abstract ideal. The laity, Paul VI said, must be about “concretizing this ideal, like a leaven buried in the dough.”[7]

In my own travels either in person or just browsing the web[8], I’ve seen in action the Holy Father’s point about authenticity. Hypocrisy is a capital sin to many of religion’s detractors today—do as I say, not as I do—or, as Paul VI decried, “Phariseeism” (pharisaïsme). I hear stories of Christians who claim to be “religious” and “traditional” towards marriage, but who fornicate with reckless abandon. Another example would be hypocrisy with respect to demonstration of Christian charity. We see it very prominently displayed when we don’t look to help our neighbor who is in need, which creates an opportunity for much anger and bitterness towards the Faith.

The takeaway for evangelists here is plain: be authentic. Do not be married to the spirit of an age, lest you find yourself a widow in the next (as Archbishop Sheen once said).[9] We are called to be witnesses of the Gospel, to the eternal that is God in man. A great duty is upon us to love God, to know Him, and to serve Him. By being discerning followers of Christ, we are upholding what is true, beautiful and good in a world gone mad with polarization, struggle and strife. Above all, we testify to the love of God in Jesus Christ, and that is something worth dying for.

[1] Pope St. Paul VI Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), paragraph 41. The text is available on the Vatican’s website both in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis (page 557ff) as well as the Wednesday Audience page for Paul VI.

[2] In the official record, the Address is in French, which was a language Paul VI knew well.

[3] ….[D]eux aspects fondamentaux de l’apostolat des laïcs, qui s’estompent plus ou moins dans l’esprit des chrétiens de ce temps: l’importance du témoignage personnel et l’unité des divers témoins de l’Evangile entre eux et avec leurs Evêques (taken from the Wednesday audience page above).

[4] Il éprouve en effet une répulsion instinctive pour tout ce qui peut apparaître mystification, façade, compromis. Dans un tel contexte, on comprend l’importance d’une vie qui résonne vraiment de l’Evangile!

[5] [É]prouve une faim d’autre chose, une solitude étrange.

[6] Le chrétien tout donné à Jésus-Christ connaît un autre mystère plus insondable que la matière: le mystère de Dieu qui invite l’homme à un partage de vie dans une communion sans fin avec le Père, le Fils et l’Esprit Saint.

[7] [Si] bien présenté fût-il, sans que les laïcs ne concrétisent cet idéal, comme un levain enfoui dans la pâte. 

[8] I find Reddit to be a particularly notable locus for the following point.

[9] Cf. Fulton J. Sheen. “How to Think.” Vision Video YouTube Channel (May 12, 2021). 19:53 mark.

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