We hear a lot these days in the Church about evangelization. Pope St. John Paul II first introduced us to the idea that we need a “new evangelization” in our time, but many don’t know that Pope St. Paul VI had himself already spoken much about evangelization, especially in his Apostolic Exhortation, “Evangelii Nuntiandi” (1975). And of course Pope Francis speaks forcefully about the need for evangelization, emphasizing the call for each of us to become “missionary disciples.”

But what is evangelization? How are we to understand it? What does it mean for us? We here in the Archdiocese of Portland in western Oregon are in the early stages of preparing for a pastoral planning process that will chart a strategic way forward in the great work of evangelization. So we should clearly understand what we mean by evangelization.

A little word origin exercise is in order here. The word “evangelization” is based on the Latin word, evangelium, which comes from an ancient Greek term, euangélion. This ancient Greek term is used throughout the New Testament and is translated into English as “gospel.” It is interesting to note that the Spanish word (evangelio) for this Greek term is closer to the Latin. This Greek term we translate as “gospel” actually means “good news” or “good tidings.” In fact the word “gospel” comes from an Old English word which means just that — good news.

OK, that is all well and good, but what does this mean for us? Well, it means that to “evangelize” is to share the gospel, the good news, with the world around us. Evangelization is the work of the Church to spread the good news to people everywhere, beginning with those closest to us.

In fact, this work of evangelization (spreading the gospel) is one that is commanded to us by Jesus Christ himself. Just before ascending to the Father after the resurrection he told the Apostles, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15) St. Matthew’s Gospel records our Lord’s words as these: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

We should think about our Lord’s words and the timing of them. These are the last words he is going to say to the Apostles before he ascends back to the Father. They are, in a sense, the Church’s “marching orders” from Jesus himself. We should pay special attention to them, knowing that our Lord places such emphasis on them at the very end of his time on earth.

The important question then becomes: “What is the gospel, the ‘good news,’ that Jesus commands us to preach to the whole world in making disciples?” Again, we have a wonderful summary of the good news from the lips of Jesus himself: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:14-17)

The essential content of the gospel is that God sent his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, into the world to save us from sin, from death, from the power of the Evil One, and to open up for us the way to eternal life. That is good news indeed! This is the message we proclaim as the great commission that Jesus has given us. The mission of the Church is to proclaim this message of salvation, to lead people to a new life in Jesus Christ, and to nurture them on the way to eternal life in the Kingdom of God. As I once reminded us in a previous column, the essential mission of the Church is the salvation of people.

The Church does a lot of other wonderful ministries and apostolates of education and mercy. Catholic schools, religious education, health care ministry, social justice apostolates, the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and care for creation are just a few. But all of these are engaged in by Catholics in the Church at the service of the larger mission, which is to introduce people to the person of Jesus Christ and to help them find salvation in his name.

In my next column, I will delve a little deeper into what the Church means by engaging in this great work of evangelization.