The church has been given a mission. . . . The work of evangelization. . . . [This] work of evangelization is not an individual activity; it is essentially ecclesial. Accordingly, when the humblest preacher, catechist, or pastor is preaching the gospel, . . . he is acting on behalf of the church and his work is united with the evangelical activity of the whole church. . . . It is the whole church which evangelizes [and] has the responsibility of spreading the gospel.
-- Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, December 8, 19751
In Catholic thinking, outreach is another name for evangelization. In fact, Pope John Paul II declared that the decade of the 1990s was the "decade of evangelization," a time for Catholics to reach out to others. Following his predecessor's pronouncement, the pope called upon all Catholics to reach out and share their faith in every way possible, whether by a kind word, education, personal reconciliation, or witnessing. Such a call is a challenge, especially in light of the modern world's emphasis on individualism, personal aggrandizement, and secular happiness. Yet, it was a duty and a responsibility all Catholics had, according to this pronouncement.
What makes the statements of Paul VI and John Paul II so interesting in Mississippi was that the church in the diocese of Natchez-Jackson had been evangelizing or reaching out throughout its history. Given its missionary character and the highly Protestant environment it consistently lived in, the Catholics of Mississippi had, in a sense, no choice but to evangelize. Every time they shared their faith with fellow Christians of other denominations or opened their schools to the children of their neighbors or worked for the poor and helpless in their communities or cared for the sick in their hospitals or through their religious and laity, they were reaching out, sharing their faith, and evangelizing in the sense that the Holy Fathers had been calling for.
The diocese of Jackson, in fact, even today remains so committed to this call that Bishop William Houck, on May 18, 1990, issued his pastoral plan and mission