Dr. Wallenfang, OCDS, Emmanuel Mary of the Cross, is a Secular Discalced Carmelite and Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. Dr. Wallenfang specializes in Catholic theology and philosophy, Carmelite spirituality, phenomenology, and metaphysics. His newest book, co-edited by Professor John Cavadini, Motown Evangelization: Sharing the Gospel of Jesus in a Detroit Style, invites readers to contemplate the meaning of the New Evangelization within the disorienting context of the postmodern and post-pandemic world of today. Through the contributions of several of the leading scholars on Catholic evangelization in the 21st century, Motown Evangelization offers readers practical suggestions for sharing the Gospel of Jesus with friends and strangers alike with renewed vigor, urgency, and vitality.
Dr. Wallenfang also hosts two podcasts as part of his online apostolate: The Catholic Fragments Podcast, where he features expert commentary on Catholic excerpts of Catholic theological tradition, and The Shoeless Podcast, co-hosted with his wife, Megan, where they offer candid discussion of marriage, family life, and Catholic spirituality.
How did the book Motown Evangelization: Sharing the Gospel of Jesus in a Detroit Style come about?
Edited by Professor John Cavadini, the McGrath-Cavadini Director of the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame, and myself, “this book originated with the 2019 symposium of scholars hosted by Sacred Heart Major Seminary at the Westin Book Cadillac hotel in Detroit, entitled Enter through the Narrow Gate: The Urgency of the New Evangelization in the Third Millennium. The chapters of this book are derived from presentations given at that symposium as well as a couple of additional essays to round out the collection. Authors include one bishop, two Jesuit priests, and seven laypeople. This demographic distribution of the essays is indicative of the resurgence of the lay vocation in the Church today, as well as the Jesuit impetus of missionary evangelization. The essays are divided into five groups, under five headings: (1) Merciful Evangelization, (2) Urgent Evangelization, (3) Sacrificial Evangelization, (4) Diversified Evangelization, and (5) Sanctified Evangelization.”
What does it mean to evangelize in a “Detroit style”?
To evangelize in a “Detroit style” signifies the perpetual motion of sharing the Gospel of Jesus. Motown evangelization means a Gospel with wheels, a Gospel with soul! Good news on-the-move, on-the-go! Reminiscent of the portmanteau of “motor” and “town,” and the successful Motown music movement that emerged from Detroit in the 1960s, Motown evangelization expresses the 21st century renaissance of Catholicism in Detroit and beyond. This is what is called the New Evangelization. In a similar vein, the vibrant history of the automotive industry in Detroit serves as a vivid analogy for Catholic evangelization—an itinerant and bold missionary adventure of leading souls to Christ through the global inculturation of the Gospel. Because the hidden meaning of the French word Detroit is “strait”—a narrow, constricted passageway—evangelizing in a “Detroit style” contemplates and cooperates in the Holy Spirit’s desire to be at work in the most desperate and restricted sectors of human existence. Two paradigmatic figures of Motown evangelization are Blessed Solanus Casey and the late Deacon Alex C. Jones Jr. In his 2006 book No Price Too High: A Pentecostal Preacher Becomes Catholic, Deacon Jones writes, “It is a tremendous hindrance to tell someone seeking the truth to stay where he is.”
In your book, you talk about the urgency of evangelization. What makes it more urgent now?
It is a paradox to say that evangelization is urgent today. There has never been a day or night that evangelization was not urgent since the resurrection of Jesus. Evangelization is urgent by definition. From its Latin root urgere (“to press, urge”), the urgency of evangelization incessantly presses on our collective conscience of the Church to “go make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) and to “be his witnesses to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This urgency reminds us that “now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2) and that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of authentically inculturated evangelization. There is a paradox evident in the term “New Evangelization” as well since there is a perennial newness of the mercy of God and conversion of heart. On what day are we not called to deeper conversion? When do we experience the mercy of God as moribund, rusty, passé, or obsolete? Instead, we profess that “the LORD’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; they are renewed each morning—great is your faithfulness!” (Lam 3:22–23).
In the writing of your book, what did you come to learn or appreciate about the Black Catholic experience?
On Jan. 23, 1943, Duke Ellington performed his jazz symphony Black, Brown and Beige at Carnegie Hall in a bold effort to raise American jazz music to a level of respect and rigor equal to European classical music. This composition aimed to challenge and reform normative racist attitudes rooted in the American collective unconscious. Something similar is at work within the New Evangelization of the Catholic Church: a summons to racial justice anchored in the truth that we are one body in Christ (1 Cor 12) and renewed by the “vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (Rev 7:9). Chapter 6 of Motown Evangelization features the powerful essay “Race in the Catholic Imagination” by Black Catholic theologian Cary Dabney. Prof. Dabney was a consultant for the late Jesuit Bishop George Murry (Diocese of Youngstown), who began serving as the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops Chair of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism in 2017, advising Bishop Murry on racial justice issues in light of the growing tradition of Catholic social teaching. Prof. Dabney’s essay continues to instill in me the truth that “the human race is rooted in the loving, creative act of God, who made us and called us to be a family, one human family, made in God’s image and likeness. There is no basis to sustain that some are made more in the image of God than others” (105).
What particular hurdles are evangelizers facing in the post-pandemic/postmodern world?
In a word, fragmentation. Chapter 8 of Motown Evangelization presents my essay “Cor Quietum: Saint Augustine and Saint Teresa of Ávila on the New Evangelization,” in which I reference French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 diagnosis of postmodernity with its defining characteristics of (1) skepticism toward metanarratives, (2) computerization of society, (3) commodification of knowledge, and (4) spiritual and relational fragmentation. In our era, we are witnessing “the fragmentation of storylines. The fragmentation of personhood and community. The fragmentation of knowledge. The fragmentation of the body and the soul . . . The nuclear family, as well as the extended family, have been fragmented to the point of nonrecognition” (132). Effective evangelization needs a pastoral strategy to find common identity markers that unify the fragmentation of the plurality of parts in people’s lives. Evangelizers must remain students of culture, conversant in those trending tropes of meaning that bear potential to gather and reunite scattered souls within the hull of the Church. More concretely speaking, Motown Families of Parishes need buses to go out, pick people up, and bring them into the fold of faith.
What inspired you to start the Catholic Fragments and The Shoeless podcasts? Is your listening audience different from your reading audience?
These two podcasts are part of a larger online apostolate that I began with my 14-year-old son, Callum, in April of 2022 called My Interior Castle (myinteriorcastle.com). At that time, I sensed the call to evangelize on the “digital continent.” The website houses links to my books, an original blog, free self-paced online mini-courses, theological and spiritual advising, and two weekly podcasts. I promote this content through social media, and I have witnessed it touching many lives, facilitating new encounters with the Risen One. The Catholic Fragments podcast features expert commentary on various writings from Scripture, the saints, and Church teachings. The Shoeless podcast is co-hosted by my wife, Megan, and I and is framed as a candid conversation about marriage, parenting, and living Catholic with abandon. New topics are published weekly for both podcasts. The growing audience is similar yet different from my reading audience, with people listening from 36 countries worldwide.
What Church theologians or philosophers do you wish were more integrated into the mainstream?
All of them—including children. Catholic thinking is inherently anthological and symphonic. It avoids ideology and renounces intellectual reductionism, whether in the forms of fundamentalism or relativism. It listens with both ears that extend from both sides of the head. There is a reason that we have two ears and one mouth. Authentic Catholic theology and philosophy remain ready to learn from the mouth, pen, and meaningful work of the other, no matter if the voice is old or new, veteran or juvenile. The pedagogical genius of the child must be regarded as on par with the abstract sophistication of the adult. A theology of childhood must be brought together with a theology of adulthood. For Catholic thought, the end is the beginning because in the beginning is the end.