Intro: I got it all wrong
Evangelization, evangelism and evangelical are all pretty much Protestant words for most American Catholics today. I considered myself one of those Catholics for a while. Catholics did not preach on street corners, did not pass out pamphlets, and did not knock on doors to spread the Gospel. If we did anything, the most we did was toss in the collection plate a few bucks on Mission Sunday in order to donate to those religious orders who were taking the Gospel to strange lands on the otherside of the world. Not the average pew-sitter's vocation.
Evangelism is silly to many Catholics because our experience of Christianity is cultural. You were born into it. You were baptized 10 minutes or so after you were born. It is all you knew, or were allowed to know. And you did not question it, or a nun with a yard stick might light you up. Why evangelize your neighbors when you all go to the same Catholic Church right down the road? Heck, until I met them in public school, I did not even know non-Catholic Christians existed. Although I probably should have suspected their existence because I would see a lot of young boys like myself around town and never recalled seeing them at altar server training.
For other Catholics who are a little bit more committed to spreading the Cause, evangelism is a handy title they use to cover their love for apologetics, or really, their love for getting into arguments. The moral language of "spread the gospel" and "winning converts" provides adequate cover for those who are deeply invested in a pugilistic search-and-destroy effort to make non-Catholic Christians stop doing that non-Catholic stuff.
I used to love apologetics in this manner because I was good at arguing and really knew my content. I never won over any hearts, but I sure beat down a ton of arguments. I know that apologetics is all about "making a defense for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15-16), but offensive and preemptive strikes are just so much more fun! I was all shock 'n awe, backed by the (self-) righteousness of knowing that I was "evangelizing" my Protestant brothers and sisters.
The essence of evangelization, however, is none of the above.
Our Working Papers
The work of the Catholic Church is, in its deepest core, evangelical. It is missionary. This means that it is her task to go and spread the Gospel. It's sources are numerous, but the main quote from the Lord is what us fancy theology-types like to call "The Great Commission" or even the "missionary mandate" which comes from the very lips of Jesus to the Earliest-of-the-Early Church, the 11 Apostles gathered with the resurrected Jesus before He went back up to His Father. This is literally the last thing he said:
And Jesus came and said to them, "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; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." - Matthew 28:18-20
So there it is! If we are a part of the Church, we are called to "Go and make disciples of all the nations". It is the job description of every Catholic, somewhere between to "Be holy", "Go to Mass" and "Remember to contribute to the Diocesan Services Fund".
Evangelization, mission work, and being Catholic are all just synonyms. The Catholic Church is essentially missionary, therefore we, as Catholics, need to be busy about this essential work of the Church. In the words of Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, On Evangelization, he declares:
[The Church] exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection. (EN, 14)
He later goes on to say that the Church was born from evangelization, created for evangelization, and is always in constant need of self-evangelization. Jesus was the perfect evangelizer, doing so in word and deed, and we ought to act accordingly.
But if it is so essential, how come we were never taught to evangelize?
I was never trained to spread the Faith. For years of being a devout Irish Catholic, guilt-trippping myself into the Kingdom, no one ever said to me, "Hey Mike, after altar server practice tonight we have Evangelism 101 up at St. Anne's parish hall. Bring a Bible, a notebook, and a #2 pencil." No one ever told me that my task was to be an evangelizer o' the nations.
What is Evangelization?
Let us get to a definition of our Church's work called evangelization. Preaching, proclaiming, bearing witness and offering testimony, teaching, discipling, baptizing, the sacraments, and "love one another" are all elements of evangelization, and are sometimes identified with it, but that is not the full picture. "It is impossible to grasp the concept of evangelization," says Pope Paul VI, "unless one tries to keep in view all its essential elements."
First and foremost, evangelization is movement.
The General Directory of Catechesis (GDC) calls it a "process". It is not some static thing or act that we can point at and say, "Found it!" Pope Paul VI would say that it is a process composed of different "moments" or progressing stages which, altogether, make up evangelism. It is a totality, a wholeness, an entire evolving, living, growing process. I like to think of it as the Divine Procession working its way through the life of the individual human person as well as the cultures, communities, and societies in which that person lives, not stopping until it reaches the end of the world. Here is how the GDC puts it: "Those who evangelize have a 'global vision' of evangelization and identify with the overall mission of the Church."
And there it is.
The best definition of evangelization that I can get out of these documents and give to you that makes the most sense and does the least damage to its essence is this: Evangelization is the process whereby the Spirit of Jesus Christ renews all of creation.
Spreading the Good News of Christ does not stop until all things are gathered under His name. I want to be a part of that corporate mission statement! He's the one who said, "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev 21:5). This is a big deal. Evangelization is "urged by charity, impregnating and transforming the whole temporal order, appropriating and renewing all cultures" (GDC, 18).
And the craziest thing about it all is that Jesus has invited us, we weak little creatures, you and me, into this epic, cosmic, holy adventure to renew the universe and all things in it.
...well ...what are we waiting for?!