By Jennifer Neville Of The Catholic Virginian

During his presentation at Immaculate Conception Parish in Hampton June 17, NBC Senior Vatican Analyst George Weigel suggested that we are living through one of the five great moments of transition in the history of the Catholic Church, one that calls for evangelization and a friendship with Christ.

He was speaking as part of the parish’s Bishop Keane Institute Lecture Series which strives to bring the leading voices in Catholic thought, ministry and education to Hampton Roads.

Mr. Weigel, a distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, is considered one of the world’s leading experts on the Catholic Church. He is the author of 22 books including the biographies on Pope John Paull II: “Witness to Hope” and “The End and the Beginning.”

In his presentation, Mr. Weigel suggested that the five great moments of transition in church history are the Early Church, the Church of the Fathers, Medieval Christendom, Counter-Reformation Catholicism and what John Paul II called New Evangelization. Throughout those transitions, it has been the same Church because it’s the same Lord, the same faith and the same baptism, but the Church evolves to meet the challenges of the new cultural circumstances to be better able to proclaim the gospel, he explained.

The first of these transitions came in about 70 A.D. at the time of the first Jewish-Roman War and the destruction of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem. What became Christianity began to separate itself definitively from what became rabbinic Judaism, he said.

“That’s the Church, the ‘Early Church’ as it is usually called, that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles and whose struggles we get a sense of from some of St. Paul’s letters,” he said.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in 313 A.D. Roman emperors Constantine and Licinius issued the proclamation Edict of Milan which established religious toleration in the Roman Empire.

After the Edict of Man “brought Christianity out of the catacombs,” the Early Church “gave way to even as it gave birth to what we call the Church of the Fathers: Patristic Christianity, the Church of Ambrose and Augustine, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great,” Mr. Weigel explained. He added that this was a Church “formed by its encounter with the late classical world and a Church that saved the intellectual and literary heritage of the West in its monasteries during the so-called Dark Ages.”

“We still learn from its spiritual riches in the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of Hours,” he said.

Near the end of the first millennium, the church entered Medieval Christendom, the Church of Dominica and Francis, Catherine of Siena and Bonaventure, which had a form of Catholicism that “created perhaps the closest synthesis between Church and culture in our 2000 year-long history,” Mr. Weigel maintained, adding that Medieval Christendom “found its greatest physical expression” in great Gothic cathedrals.

In response to the Reformation in the early 16th century, Mr. Weigel said a new form of being Catholic emerged, especially from the Council of Trent, the 19th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Council of Trent, which was held in three parts from 1545 to 1563, clarified Catholic doctrine and called for immediate reform. For example, the council proclaimed that Christ is entirely present in both the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine in the Eucharist, accepted the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed as the basis of Catholic faith and issued doctrinal statements on holy orders, matrimony, purgatory, indulgences, and the veneration of saints, images, and relics.

Mr. Weigel, describing this way of being Catholic as “a Church of simple, question-and-answer catechesis and devotional piety,” said Counter-Reformation Catholicism brought Christianity to the Western Hemisphere and “successfully resisted the political assault on the Church from the French Revolution through Nazism and communism.”

Pope John XXIII  called for the Second Vatican Council, known informally as Vatican II, which convened in the fall of the years 1962 to 1965. Mr. Weigel said Pope John Paul II called this way of being Catholic the New Evangelization.

“This way of being Catholic started to come into clearer focus at the special Synod of 1985 where the bishops described the Church as a communion of disciples in mission,” Mr. Weigel said. “Then John Paul II gave that idea of the Church an even sharper, evangelical focus when he wrote in the 1990 encyclical “The Mission of the Redeemer” that the Church doesn’t have mission; the Church is mission.”

This evangelical Catholicism of the 21st century calls Catholics to return the first chapter of Acts, to go to make disciples of all nations,” Mr. Weigel said.

“That’s addressed to each one of us. It’s addressed to us in baptism, in the quality of our discipleship,” he said. “In the years and decades ahead we will be measured on how well we have heard that great mission, made it our own and attempted to live it out in our lives.”

Often missionaries are perceived as courageous men and women who “went to weird parts of the world” and “often died in extremely unpleasant ways.” He explained that evangelizing can be as simple as inviting a friend to go to Mass or hosting a DVD party where guests watch a religious education or inspirational video.

“Mission territory is your kitchen table; it’s your neighborhood. It’s your workplace. It’s your life as a consumer. It’s your life as a citizen,” Mr. Weigel said.

To evangelize, he said, it is essential to have strong prayer life. Through prayer, reading the Bible, participating in the sacraments, spending time in Eucharistic adoration and reading faith-based books, an individual can have a daily encounter with the Lord, he explained.

“The fundamental reality of the Church is friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ,” Mr. Weigel said. “ That’s why each of us is here — because at our baptism we became a friend of Jesus Christ.”

He added that this friendship with Christ is not just “a me and Jesus thing,” but rather being a friend of Jesus means being incorporated into his body: the Church.

(The next Bishop Keane Institute lecture series will be Sept. 23 by Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Men Walking: The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty that Sparked a National Debate” and “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.)