Greg Willits and Two Popes Who Beat Each Other Up
Today marks the official release of Greg Willits’ exciting new book, The New Evangelization and You: Be Not Afraid. Greg was the perfect guy to write it. Those who know him know he embodies the New Evangelization. He’s funny, creative, winsome, and willing to do whatever it takes to draw people to the Lord. He lives out the “new ardor, new methods, and new expressions” Pope John Paul II called for in 1983.
Over the years, Greg has also been on the forefront of Catholic new media. His frontier work includes the Catholics Next Door radio show and podcast, the Rosary Army apostolate, and his New Evangelizers web ministry. The new media is crucial to the New Evangelization and in Greg both elements collide.
Amazingly, Greg invited me to write the Foreword for his newest book, which I was humbled and happy to do. Below you’ll find the whole text and it should help you glimpse the book’s excellent content. After reading be sure to order your copy, and pick up one for your priest, too!
The year was 1770, and in a small Italian church, two altar boys prepared for Benediction. Annibale Della Genga and Francesco Castiglioni entered the sacristy, put on their albs, and grabbed the heavy brass candlesticks. And then they began to bicker.
Arguing over who would stand on the priest’s right for the procession, their quibble escalated into a shouting match. Alarmed parishioners turned their heads to the back of the church to see the commotion, and that’s when it happened:
Castiglioni cracked Della Genga over the head with his candlestick.
Blood dripped out of Della Genga’s head, and both boys began shoving each other. Shocked parishioners screamed, “Throw them out! Throw them out!” So the embarrassed priest grabbed the boys, led them to the door, and tossed them out of the church.
Now fast-forward several decades to 1825. Half a million people gathered in Rome for the great Jubilee celebration. The Jubilee occurred every 25 years, and its grand climax was the opening of the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica. Traditionally, the Pope would knock on the door three times with a large silver hammer and sing, “Open unto me the gates of justice!” On the third knock, the door would swing open, and the Pope would lead his people through. The symbolism was rich: pilgrims from all over the world coming back home to the Church, following their leader through the great porta fidei, the “door of faith.”
So this Jubilee year, in front of thousands of pilgrims, Cardinal Della Genga made his way to the door. It was fifty-five years after the candlestick incident. Only he was no longer Cardinal Della Genga. He was Pope Leo XII. And as he neared the door, he turned to the Cardinal beside him—Cardinal Castiglioni—and said, “Let me have the hammer.”
With a sly grin, Castiglioni replied, “Just like I gave you the candlestick?”
Amazingly, four years later Castiglioni succeeded his friend and became pope himself, taking the name Pius VIII.
Now if you told any of those pewsitters back in 1770 that they had two future-popes in the back of their church, they’d laugh you out of the building: “Those two boys? The ones shoving and whacking each other with candles? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Most of us have a similar reaction whenever we think about evangelization: “What, me?! You can’t be serious. How could I be an evangelist? I hardly know my faith. I’m too timid. I’m too awkward. I don’t like controversy. I’m the last person that should be evangelizing.” Compounding these feelings of fear and inadequacy is the problem that many of us have little idea what evangelization is, or how to do it.
That’s why Greg Willits’ new book is so timely and refreshing. He wipes away confusion, counters our greatest fears, and gives us challenging, yet gentle, encouragement. Packed with specific, practical advice on evangelizing, the book will not only help you understand what evangelization is but leave you confident in doing it yourself.
You’ll especially appreciate his clear three-fold path to evangelization: know our faith, live our faith, and share our faith. As Pope Benedict has often noted, catechesis—knowing our faith—is crucial to living and sharing it. It’s no accident he launched the Year of Faith alongside the anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The two are closely linked. Once we grasp what the Church teaches and why, we’ll be much more emboldened to share it.
However, as Greg explains, knowing our faith is not enough. We also must also live it by cultivating our prayer life, participating in our parish, and frequenting the sacraments. All of that activity grounds us on God and attunes us to his promptings. Greg is the perfect example of this dynamic. Before taking his faith seriously, he hardly evangelized. Yet after he renewed his commitment to the Lord and the Church, he’s become one of the most effective evangelists in America.
Finally, Greg says, we’ve got to share our faith. Once we know it, once we live it, we’re charged with spreading it to others. Catholicism is always personal, indeed, but it’s never private. As Pope Paul VI wrote in 1975, “the Church exists to evangelize.” Spreading the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead is her basic mission, and, thus, ours too.
These three callings—to know, live, and share our faith—have been around since the time of Christ. But most Catholics only practice one or two of them. In recent years, however, a new movement has given them fresh emphasis and form. Pope John Paul II christened it the “New Evangelization” back in 1979. Yet it wasn’t until 1983 that he began to unpack it. Speaking to a group of bishops in Haiti, he described the New Evangelization as not a new message, but a new delivery, one that was “new in ardor, methods, and expressions.”
If he were still living today, I think Pope John Paul would describe Greg’s book the same way (and I think if the Pope read Greg’s book, Greg would have a heart attack.) As you’ll discover, this book bubbles with excitement—with “new ardor.” On every page you sense Greg’s zeal for the New Evangelization and by the end, you’ll share it, too. As longtime readers and radio listeners know, Greg is naturally hilarious (who else can tie the New Evangelization to the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon?) He’s also a gifted storyteller who is not afraid to share stories of both success and failure. With great candor, charm, and excitement, his book embodies the “new ardor.”
Also, Greg’s book highlights many “new methods” of evangelizing. Over the years, Greg has used dozens of tools to evangelize. Whether digital forms like Facebook, YouTube, and radio, or decidedly non-digital means like hand-crafted rosaries, he’s constantly coming up with fresh ways to spread the faith. In the book, you’ll learn the background behind many of his efforts.
However the book isn’t primarily about Greg; it’s about you. Greg shares his “new methods” in order to get your mind racing with your own new ideas. He demonstrates you don’t have to trek to a remote African tribe in order to evangelize. If you have a computer, phone, or handful of yarn, you can evangelize right now using “new methods” of your own.
Finally, Greg’s book offers several “new expressions.” The New Evangelization is not a one-sized-fits-all project; there’s no one right way to do it. It demands varied and diverse expressions and that’s what Greg offers here. In addition to his own examples, you’ll find sidebars profiling many ordinary Catholics modeling creative ways to do the New Evangelization. They all have normal backgrounds—engineers, stay-at-home moms, entrepreneurs, young priests—but they share their faith in extraordinary ways. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Church is a house with a hundred gates, and no two men enter at exactly the same angle.” Here you’ll glimpse many of those different angles.
He probably didn’t know it when he started writing, but with this book Greg follows in the footsteps of Della Genga and Castiglioni. He doesn’t wield any brass candlesticks. He doesn’t swing silver hammers (at least not that I know of.) But Greg’s whole life is aimed at leading people through the porta fidei, the door of faith.
Through his writing, speaking, podcasting, and other work, he’s helped countless people come home to the Catholic Church. That’s what the New Evangelization is all about, and that’s exactly what this book will help you do, too.
“The ‘door of faith’ is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church.”
— Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei