Monsignor Richter's Bulletin Series on Evangelization by the Laity
Parishioners of the Cathedral,
In this column over the next few months I want to lay out my vision for evangelization by lay people. In other words, I want to address this question and questions like it, “How do Catholic lay people, who love Christ and are already busy people, carry out their God-given mission to bring Christ and the faith to others without them becoming busier?” Each column will continue from and build on the previous one. They will explain evangelization in a practical and understandable manner. When I am finished, I intend to put them into booklet form and distribute them. As I write them, please read them, reflect on them, put them into practice and offer feedback to me on them.
- Msgr. Tom Richter
A God-given duty and privilege
All the data from all the surveys show unequivocally that the knowledge, acceptance, adherence and practice of the faith is declining. This decline has been rather steady for the last 50 years throughout our country and beyond. The most obvious and telling statistic is Mass attendance. By conservative numbers, over those 50 years Mass attendance by Catholics decreased from 60% of Catholics attending Mass every Sunday to about 27%. If that trend continues, by 2065 about 13% of Catholics would attend Mass. When 87 out of 100 Catholics are not practicing their faith, parish life and Catholic schools cannot be sustained in any meaningful or vibrant way.
This trend must change. It won’t and it can’t, unless lay Catholic people who love Jesus in the Sacraments, teachings and life of the Church intentionally and consciously choose to evangelize, consciously choose to bring Christ beyond the doors of the church. This is the role of the laity! Not priests, not sisters, not monks. This is the God-given duty and privilege to lay people: to bring Christ and the Church beyond the confines of the church, the monastery, the Catholic institution. So, the first step of my vision is for all practicing Catholics of Cathedral TO WANT, TO DESIRE, TO ACCEPT and TO ADMIT THIS DUTY and PRIVILEGE. We will evangelize only if we first recognize our own personal responsibility to Christ to do so. Have we and do we? Let our prayer be, “Jesus, I want to lead others to you. Jesus, I want to lead others to you.”
It doesn't have to be complicated
Who carries out the work of evangelization? The primary actors in the work of evangelization are the laity. Vatican II stressed this in Lumen Gentium, its major document on the Church. So, the first step for the Church to carry out her work of evangelization is for the laity to claim and interiorize this sacred privilege and duty.
But this brings us back to last week’s question, “How do Catholic lay people who love Christ, and are already busy people, carry out their God-given mission to bring Christ and the Faith to others without them becoming busier?” Much of the answer to that question, I think, consists in this: By not making it more difficult or complicated than it is! I am convinced that the work of evangelization is resisted because in our minds we make it harder than it is. The truth is that one does not need to be a scripture scholar, a theologian, a master teacher, an apologist or have all the answers. One does not need to be Dr. Scott Hahn to evangelize. It’s not about being brilliant or preachy or pushy. An example from the gospels that I find helpful in understanding evangelization is John 1:35-42:
"The next day John was there again with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said, 'Behold, the Lamb of God.' The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus. Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them, 'What are you looking for?' They said to him, 'Rabbi, where are you staying?' He said to them, 'Come, and you will see.' So they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon. Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus. He first found his own brother Simon and told him, 'We have found the Messiah.' Then he brought him to Jesus."
When describing the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict XVI held up the story of Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth as an image that illustrates it. Mary, with the presence of Christ within her and the joy that comes from Him, brings that Presence and joy when she visits her cousin in need. That is evangelization: in daily life bringing Jesus and the Church, in simple and humble ways, to our relationships. Evangelization must be integrated into one’s daily life. It is what I call “integrated evangelization.” The Church’s vision for evangelization is not another task for a layperson to add on top of everything else that he/she is already doing; rather, it is integrated within one’s daily life. It is not to be complicated or burdensome, but simple and intentional.
In the first article I emphasized the Church’s constant teaching that evangelization is primarily the role of the laity. The ordained clergy exist to feed, teach and heal the souls of the laity so that the laity can bring Christ and the Gospel to others and others to Christ. So, the first step in a parish becoming a parish that evangelizes well is the laity accepting this mission from Jesus and being intentional about it.
The second article focused on our need to simplify our understanding of evangelization. If we don’t, we will lack confidence and desire to actually do it. We will think that we are not holy enough or intelligent enough or well-spoken enough or theologically inclined enough or have enough time, etc. But it’s not that complicated. All that is required is:
- To be convinced that Christ and the Faith are the tremendous treasure of your life, AND-
- To want others to have that treasure.
If one possesses those two, then one will naturally bring them to one’s relationships. Evangelization will be integrated into one’s daily life. This is what Andrew did in the Gospel of John in the passage I shared in last week’s article. Andrew met Jesus, became convinced that he was the messiah - the treasure - and he wanted his brother Peter to have that same treasure, so
Andrew brought Peter to Jesus.
Andrew’s evangelization was integrated into his relationship with Peter. It is not meant to be complicated.
This past week a husband and wife came to see me because they wanted to become Catholic. When I asked them what caused them to want to become Catholic, the man said that he started hanging out with one of the guys with whom he works and the guy is Catholic. He said that over time he became interested and started asking him questions. They had good conversations and eventually his fellow employee suggested that the couple call me. That’s why they were sitting in my office: because a blue collar Catholic man brought, in his own way, the treasure of faith into a relationship in his daily life. He was not preachy; he was not pushy; he was a man who was intentional about drawing another to the Faith and integrated it into his daily life. All of us can do this. May the Holy Spirit free us and teach us how to be intentional and integrated in sharing the Faith!
Our first focus should be ourselves
With evangelization, there is a message and a messenger. The more trustworthy the messenger, the more believable the message. In 1975, Pope Blessed Paul VI said, “Modern man listens to witnesses more willingly than teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” Pope Benedict XVI said, “In order to evangelize, one must first be evangelized.” In other words, a person must be converted before he can be a source of conversion for others. To put it more positively, the more I myself know and love Jesus, the more effectively my life will draw others to know and love Jesus. The more I know and love the Church, the more effectively my life will draw others to know and love the Church.
Evangelization flows from the holiness of the one evangelizing. Holiness is the force that attracts others to the love of Jesus and embracing the Church. Among other things, holiness of life is about the integration of one’s relationship with God and life of faith into one’s daily life: what we believe, who we are and how we live our lives as Catholics are not at odds with one another. In other words, we live authentically as disciples of Jesus and sons and daughters of the Church.
This is a process which requires ongoing, lifelong conversion. The first focus for one who wants to evangelize is not on converting the other, but focusing on one’s own need for deeper conversion. At this point in your life, where is that for you? With tender confidence in the mercy of Jesus, I encourage you to bring that often to Him.
Facilitating the encounter
I continue the theme of last week: the dynamic of evangelization flowing from being evangelized. The more we know Jesus and the more we are converted, the more we draw others to Jesus and into conversion. Throughout the gospels we see this dynamic in undramatic ways. The call of St. Matthew, the tax collector, in the Gospel of Matthew offers a simple but profound example:
“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him. While he was at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat with Jesus and his disciples.”
Matthew meets Jesus, follows Him, and then “at table in his house” he introduces many other tax collectors to “Jesus and His disciples.” There’s the dynamic. Matthew is evangelized and then evangelizes; he meets Jesus and then introduces others to Jesus and His disciples – the Church. It is not complicated.
It’s important that we understand what Matthew did. He simply invited them, drew them into a situation where Jesus could meet them and they could meet Him. He facilitated the encounter between the “many tax collectors and sinners” and Jesus and the Church. That’s all he did. This is much of the work of effectively evangelizing: inviting others into a space, a situation, where they can meet God.
Last week, I ended with stating that much of the work of evangelization is inviting others into a “space,” a situation, where they can meet God. I continue that thought.
As I have stated several times throughout these installments, we need to be sure that we are not making evangelization more complicated and difficult than it is. It’s the work of the grace of God; we are simply facilitators. St. Matthew had Jesus over for a meal along with his fellow tax collectors. Matthew simply facilitated the meeting between Jesus and them. Without Jesus’ visible physical presence, it is a bit more mysterious for us, but our essential role is still the same. We invite others to where the encounter between them and Jesus can most likely occur.
For example, this summer one of my engaged couples asked me to offer to hear confessions after their wedding rehearsal. So I did, of course. The entire wedding party, one by one, received this great sacrament of Jesus’ forgiveness. I was pleasantly surprised. Later that evening it was intimated to me that the engaged couple had told their bridesmaids and groomsmen that for their gift to the couple, nothing would please the bride and groom more than if they all went to confession. It was beautiful. This engaged couple saw an opportunity to invite their friends on the eve of their wedding day into an encounter with Jesus. They did what St. Matthew did—more mysterious but the same.
Here are some more concrete, simple “spaces” into which I know people have been invited and have met God in a meaningful way:
- A men’s or women’s group (there are many of these in the Catholic parishes of Bismarck-Mandan)
- Thirst Conferences of the past years
- Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism video series
- One daily Mass
- Attend daily Mass for Lent
- A school Mass for one of the grade schools
- A Cursillo retreat
- An Ignatian retreat
- The Sacrament of Reconciliation
- A bible study
- A meal
- A pilgrimage to Rome
- A pilgrimage to the Holy Land
- A Young Adults’ group
- An hour of Eucharistic Adoration
- A good book
- Lighthouse CDs
- A Catholic funeral Mass
- A special talk
- Allow a visit by a priest while in the hospital
- Wordonfire.org website
- A parish mission
- Knights of Columbus
- Catholic radio
- Society of St. Vincent de Paul
- Adult Faith Formation classes
These are only a few spaces into which evangelizers have invited others to meet Jesus. I encourage you to think of others and to prayerfully invite.
I continue the theme of evangelization as the work of inviting others into a space where God can encounter them. In order to do this, one does not have to become someone they aren’t. I think, consciously or subconsciously, many of us have this idea that in order to evangelize, I have to be different than I am. In a word, I have to be a bit weird. This idea prevents us from embracing the identity and mission from Christ to be one who evangelizes. Who, after all, wants to be weird? Thankfully, that is not the case. God wants to use the unique gifts, traits and relationships that we have.
For example, let’s look again at St. Matthew. As a tax collector, cocktail parties, perhaps, were not foreign to him. He was probably a pretty good host; he liked having people over. His social circle would have been other tax collectors, because no one else liked them or wanted to socialize with them. With those traits and within those relationships, Matthew evangelizes. He hosts a banquet at his house, which is something, more than likely, that he enjoys. He invites his tax collectors friends over—something he has done many times before. The difference, this time, is that not only does he want to socialize and have fun with his friends, but he had a further intention. He intended for them to get to know Jesus in a new way. That’s all that was different. He is being himself. He is not being someone he isn’t. He did not have to become a college professor to evangelize; he did not have to stand on a street corner and speak to strangers; he did not have to go to a third world country; he did not have to lead a bible study. He did not have to be weird. All he had to do was to have a further intention. He needed to be an intentional disciple, one who sees opportunities within his own daily life, with his own gifts, within his own relationships, in his own way, in the “spaces” of his own world, to draw and invite others to where God can encounter them.
It is important that we know how that looks for us. His gift was hosting. What is yours? His mission field was his relationship with tax collectors. What is yours? His space was a banquet. What is yours?
Free from fear and pressure
Evangelization is more of an art than a science; it is an art like the art of friendship. So, the environment in which it happens is more like the living room in a house than in a classroom. The spirit behind the exchange between the evangelizer and the evangelized is more like a conversation between friends than a classroom lecture between a teacher and students. It is the art of a particular friendship, and this art is learned from the friendship with one’s first friend, Jesus.
Evangelization is about Jesus wanting to enter into friendship with a sinner through a person who already has a friendship with Jesus. In last Sunday’s gospel, we heard how eager Jesus was to enter into a relationship with Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector of Jericho. Zacchaeus had climbed the sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, but before Zacchaeus could say a word, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Jesus wanted to enter into a relationship with Zacchaeus more than Zacchaeus wanted to enter one with Him. Evangelization flows from the continued desire and activity of Jesus, in and through one of His friends, to enter into friendship with sinners. So, that which governs the art of evangelization is that which governed Jesus’ approach to entering into friendship with sinners.
In regard to Jesus’ approach, I offer two broad parameters to guide us as we facilitate the encounter between Jesus and others. These two parameters are fear and pressure. In the gospels, we see that Jesus did not follow fear or pressure. Neither fear nor pressure motivated Jesus in His relationships with others or His encounters with sinners in the gospels. So, we can be certain that He will not motivate us by fear or pressure in His desire to encounter people through us. This is the first lesson in learning evangelization’s art of friendship that I want all of us to take to heart:
the art of evangelization does not happen within fear or pressure.
The space in the heart of the evangelizer in which evangelization takes place is a space that is free from fear and pressure. Once fear or pressure is motivating the evangelizer’s words or actions – or causing him/her to refrain from saying or doing something – the evangelizer has left the boundaries of evangelization. Thus, one of the greatest needs of an evangelizer is to be healed and freed from following fear and/or pressure in our own lives and relationships. As I have written in past installments, the work of evangelization is largely the work of inviting, and an authentic invitation must come from a heart that is free from fear and pressure.
How to get rid of fear and pressure
In the last installment, I wrote about the interior space in which evangelization takes place. It’s a space free from fear and pressure. Jesus did not follow these; He did not allow an interior fear or pressure to push Him to act. In the interior space of one who evangelizes, Jesus will not push the evangelizer to act by fear or pressure. Instead, Jesus will “push” against it. He will “push” the one who is trying to evangelize to resist doing or saying what the pressure is proposing, and to do or say what the fear is proposing not to do or say.
I concede that this is not always easy to know! For sure, this is not always clear. It takes time to learn; it takes discernment; it takes experience; it involves trial and error; it involves failure and success. What to do or not to do, what to say or not to say, when to be silent or when to speak, when to invite or not invite, is not always clear. But it is clear that one does not master an art without practicing it, and usually the practice of an art feels awkward in the beginning. One is usually not good at an art in the beginning; one’s attempts are far from perfect. But that should not prevent one from practicing an art, especially an art that is demanded by Jesus Himself, the art of evangelization. Much of the awkwardness in the beginning of learning the art of evangelization comes from the fear and pressure we experience in our hearts, due to our own insecurity. Still, we need to try. In the beginning, we need to do our best to be aware of fear and pressure and not follow them. If we don’t, it won’t be long before we stop trying.
So, I offer a few pieces of advice that can help reduce the pressure and fear.
- To understand that Jesus desires most one-on-one evangelization to take place in a friendly environment. Very little effective evangelization takes place in a heated debate environment. Effective evangelization does not often happen in the exchanges found on cable news. Knowing that Jesus does not expect us to attempt to evangelize in that environment should reduce fear and pressure.
- One needs to give oneself permission to say things like, “I don’t know. I will get back to you on that.” Being freed from some idea that I need to have all the answers reduces fear and pressure. In fact, that kind of humility can even be attractive to the other person.
- One needs to keep in mind that authentic evangelization is about offering something very good to another. Offering food to a starving person should not cause me fear or pressure. Is that how we see our faith and the practice of it? Or do we see it as a burden, a moralism? If we see it as a treasure in our own lives, then our invitation will be done out of the same interior place that we offer other gifts. To see evangelization as an invitation to receive a gift reduces fear and pressure.
- We need to accept that not everyone will accept. This is very important and very freeing. It cuts through pressure. In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus gave His Bread of Life discourse on the Eucharist, His teaching on the Eucharist as His Flesh and Blood. When He finished, the gospel states that many of His disciples left Him. Not everyone accepts the invitation. We need to accept that.
The four actions
To briefly recap, the heart of evangelization is the spirit of invitation. Evangelization is about a person, who holds as a great treasure his/her relationship with Christ and the Church, being intentional about inviting others into places, relationships, situations, events, classes, conversations, experiences, encounters, etc., for the grace of God to meet them more fully and win them over more deeply. This invitation is offered by one who is free from interior fear and pressure. Evangelization is about invitation — invitation that comes from a heart that is in a space free from fear and pressure.
Let us now proceed from the spirit behind evangelization to the actions behind evangelization. In order to intentionally and consistently live out this spirit of invitation, it often involves more than the specific moment and specific words of the specific act of inviting. In some cases, it is as easy as meeting someone and saying, “Hey, would you want to come to the Thirst Conference with me?” In some cases with some relationships, it can be that simple. However, I suggest that living the spirit of invitation
intentionally and consistently
involves four basic human and spiritual actions:
- praying about
- praying for
- reaching out (befriending)
(Do not be alarmed; this is not meant to be complicated or burdensome.)
The one who evangelizes converses with Jesus and is prayerfully attentive about the “who”. The one who evangelizes does not just decide on his own who to evangelize. He is aware that this must be done prayerfully; Jesus needs to lead this good work. As I stated in an earlier installment, evangelization is about Jesus wanting to come to people to meet, love and heal them. In His risen life, He does that through those who already have met and have been drawn near to Him. So, Jesus sends this person to me; He sends that person to you. Jesus fits the evangelizer with the one to be evangelized. Jesus is the one behind all of this. The more we can take this to heart, the more our simple encounters with people and the more our relationships with people will have a special quality with new possibilities.
A simple encounter turns into much more
Last week, I suggested that living the spirit of invitation intentionally and consistently involves four basic actions: praying about, praying for, reaching out (befriending) and accompanying. This week I will continue my thoughts on
. Developing the habit of praying to Jesus about whom He wants to send to me or to whom He wants to send me heightens my spiritual attentiveness. I can see new possibilities and purposes to seemingly simple encounters with people.
For example, a couple years ago business owners in town called the Cathedral requesting that a priest come and bless their workplace. So, as I have done many, many times, I brought holy water and the Book of Blessings and met them at their business. I had never met them before; they did not know who I was and I did not know who they were. But we connected. I enjoyed them; they enjoyed me. I said the prayers, sprinkled their workplace with holy water and was on my way. That was it. I checked that off my list—another task done, and a simple one that I have done many times. However, later that day when I prayed to Jesus about whom He wants to send to me, it was the business owners that were brought to my mind. He wanted more than just for me to bless their business. He wanted to draw them to Himself more deeply through my connection with them. So, I started just dropping in every few months to greet and see them. Now I see them at Mass.
What I expected to be nothing more than a simple blessing of a business, Jesus meant to be much more. What I expected to be a simple, one-time encounter with strangers, Jesus intended to be a connection through which they could be invited into a space to meet Him more deeply. But if one does not prayerfully approach one’s simple encounters, that which Jesus intends remains hidden.
Another example. I presented the four basic actions to our St. Andrew’s Group—a group which I think I described in one of my early installments. A couple days later, I spoke to one of the members who took my challenge to heart. She excitedly shared with me how a former classmate she had not thought of for years vividly came to her mind and did not fade away. Then, she bumped into her out of the blue. She was in awe. She became convinced that grace was behind this, so she and her husband planned on having them over for dinner.
These are new, mysterious, awe-filled, exciting things that begin to be seen and happen when we take to heart praying to Jesus about whom He wishes to encounter through us! Let’s begin to ask Him with humble faith.
Praying for others through our faith
We play a role in evangelization, and it is an important one. But it is not the primary one, the central one. The primary actor who carries out the primary role in evangelization is the Risen Jesus. We must become convinced of this! If we do, we will come to understand and experience that one of the most important and effective things the evangelizer does is to pray to Jesus for the person who was sent to him/her. This
takes the form of spiritually offering in one’s heart and mind the person to Jesus. This faith-filled act of spiritually offering to Jesus bears tremendous fruit. In a mysterious but real way, it contributes to making space for Jesus to encounter the person. It gives Jesus spiritual access to the person.
Over and over again, we see this being done in the gospels: people offering others to Jesus, people bringing others to Jesus, so that He can encounter and do great things for them. Here is one of many, many examples found in the gospels.
When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully.” He said to him, “I will come and cure him.” The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven, but the children of the kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour [his] servant was healed. (Matthew 8:5-13)
In this story, we see a person who was not able to encounter Jesus on his own. The centurion, through his faith and knowing the power and goodness in Jesus, spiritually offered and brought his servant to Jesus for Jesus to encounter him. Jesus did not even physically meet the servant. Jesus encountered the servant through the space created by the faith of the centurion. This is what praying to Jesus for others does. It enables the encounter between Jesus and the other through the faith of those who know and love Jesus. This is all part of the exciting work of evangelization. Let us put it into practice.
The paralyzed man's friends
I continue the focus on the importance of
in order for our evangelization efforts to be fruitful. Last week, I used the scripture story of the centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant without even coming to his home…and Jesus did through the intercession and faith of the centurion. This week I offer another story from the gospel that demonstrates how one person’s faith can bring another to meeting Jesus. It is the story of a paralyzed man and his four friends.
“When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”—he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” (Mark 2:1-12)
In this story, we see four people who desperately want to get their paralyzed friend to meet Jesus. They have to carry him up onto the roof of a house, open up the roof of the house and then lower him down to Jesus. The text says, “When Jesus saw
faith, he said to the paralytic…” It was the faith of his friends laboring to bring him close to Jesus that stirs Jesus. This is what praying to Jesus for those who have been sent to us does. It is laboring like those four friends, so that Jesus can be given access to the heart of those we are evangelizing. Furthermore, Jesus does not initially do what the four friends had been hoping. They were hoping that Jesus would heal the paralytic’s body, but He didn’t. He healed his soul: “Your sins are forgiven.” This is greater than the healing of the body, of course. Only later does Jesus heal his body. So, as we
, we need to remember that sometimes He answers in a way we do not expect.
This week I begin the aspect of
. Providentially, as I write this (on January 4th), we are celebrating the feast day of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. St. Elizabeth is the first American-born canonized saint, and the foundress of the parochial Catholic school system in America. Ironically, she was not a Catholic from birth; she was an Episcopalian. She was born to a wealthy family in 1774 in New York. In 1794, she married the love of her life, William Seton, a wealthy businessman. They had five children. William got tuberculosis, and in 1803 they went to Italy for a better climate and treatment of his illness. They chose to live in the same town as the Filicchis, business partners and friends of the Setons…and faith-filled Catholics. Sadly, William passed away in December 1803. Elizabeth remained with the Filicchis for several months before returning to the United States. It was the witness of the Filicchis, especially Amabilia Filicchi, the wife of one of the Filicchi brothers, that drew Elizabeth to desire to be Catholic. In particular, it was the love and devotion of the Filicchis to Jesus in the Eucharist that made Elizabeth no longer able to resist converting from her valued Episcopalian faith to Catholicism. During this time with the Filicchis, she wrote these beautiful words to a non-Catholic friend:
“How happy would we be, if we believed what these dear souls believe: that they possess God in the Sacrament, and that He remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick! O, my...how happy would I be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find You in the church as they do... how many things I would say to You of the sorrows of my heart and the sins of my life.”
Elizabeth Ann Seton returned to the United States in 1804 and was received into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church on March 14, 1805. She was led to the Faith, not by a priest, not by a nun, not by a bishop, not by a pope. She was led by Catholic lay people who lived and cherished their faith, and reached out to her. Who is Jesus inviting you to befriend, to have over for a meal, to reach out to, to show concern, to have a beer with, to say, “I’m praying for you,”? Let’s not resist…the person could be the next canonized American saint.
Who has Jesus sent to you?
I have organized the actions of evangelization into four aspects. First,
whom God wants to meet through my cooperation. Second,
r the person whom I was made aware of through the first action of praying about. The third action is
or reaching out. I have already written on the first two actions and now continue the third.
As I have often said throughout these installments, it is easy and common to make evangelization more difficult than it is. One of the dangers to avoid is to see it as another project or what may be called cold charity. Cold charity is difficult, not attractive, not enjoyable and not effective. Befriending pushes back against this attitude and approach of cold charity. By the use of the term “befriending,” I am stating that a person who evangelizes reaches out with a certain genuine, personal care for the other. I suppose one could call it a certain warmth, but that may be a bit trite. More to the point, it is reaching out with a good will and care for the person that is felt within the one evangelizing and shows itself by the way the evangelizer relates to the other. For example, it is commonly said that Mother Teresa would not let her sisters leave the convent to bring Jesus to the poor, if they were not able or willing to smile.
That touches upon what I mean by the action of “befriending.” I am not suggesting that one needs to desire friendship, in the strict sense of the term, with the other, but a certain care and even enjoyment of the other. This lifts the work of evangelization beyond the level of cold charity or a project, making it more attractive, more enjoyable and more effective. It helps open the other to receive what Jesus is trying to do for them.
In many cases, this interior gift of befriending another for the sake of evangelization does not happen automatically. It is a grace for which one needs to pray, a grace Jesus readily and generously wants to give. Who has Jesus sent to you? Ask Him to give you this grace in reference to that person.
This week I begin to address the fourth action of evangelization:
accompanying the other
. Accompanying another for the sake of evangelization can involve many things, I suppose, but I suggest that it is primarily about helping other persons recognize God’s activity in their lives. It is about helping another person name grace in their life. God is always laboring to draw each person into a closer relationship with Him; that’s the reality. Often, however, one is not aware of this reality. Helping another become aware of God’s activity is the primary focus of accompanying another person. To be sure, it may involve answering questions, catechizing, challenging a person, explaining certain teachings of the Church, recommending a book or a CD, etc.; however, the primary focus is to humbly help a person see how God is pursuing them, what God is doing for them, the love and goodness He is showing them.
This has great consequences. The more one becomes aware of and experiences God’s personal care for him and activity in his life, the more one is encouraged to tend to one’s relationship with God. Encouragement around one’s relationship with God is one of the great fruits of being accompanied by one who knows Jesus. This encouragement leads the one who is being accompanied to consider new possibilities in regards to one’s relationship with Jesus and the Church. It OPENS the person’s HEART for God to do new things for Him.
I encourage you to reflect on your own examples of someone helping you become aware of God’s activity in your life.
It's about growing closer to God
I ended the last installment stating that I was going to give concrete examples of what I mean by “accompanying.” Before I do that, I need to say more. The focus of accompanying another in faith is the relationship with God. There are very few people who don’t want to have a close relationship with God. This desire is the “hook” for effective evangelization: tapping into people’s desire to have a closer relationship with God. God desires to be closer and closer to us and us to be closer and closer to Him. In fact, growing in holiness is about growing in closeness to God. Everything in the life of faith is about serving the relationship with God. This is also true when it comes to evangelization. Accompanying a person in faith is about encouraging this desire for a closer relationship with God.
This is extremely important in a culture that resists institutional religion, doctrine, the moral law, hierarchy, authority, etc. All of these beautiful blessings serve the relationship with God. In a secular culture like ours, these blessings are often misunderstood because in people’s minds they are disconnected from relationship with God. Rules without relationship are seen as repressive. So, if they become the central focus – especially in the beginning of the evangelizer to evangelized relationship – there will be, more than likely, resistance. The one who is accompanying the other in faith needs to do one’s best to keep the central focus on growing closer in relationship with God. Everything else can then be seen more readily and more clearly as a blessing, instead of a threat or a burden. This is key! The more the other becomes convinced that the one who is accompanying them is simply wanting them to have a closer relationship with God - including more love from God, more peace from God, more hope from God, etc. – instead of trying to “make them go to church,” then Jesus can begin to sneak into their minds and hearts. Then they can experience Him more and He can draw them more, etc. The beautiful dynamic has begun.
Accompanying a person in faith is about encouraging this desire for a closer relationship with God.
Therefore, it is most important that we who experience Jesus and love Jesus and have a relationship with Jesus are able to understand and share our faith in terms of relationship with Jesus. It is one thing to say to a person that they should go to Mass every Sunday; it is another to be able to share how that brings oneself closer and closer to God and how it affects how oneself treats one’s spouse, children and friends. Effectively accompanying another person in faith calls the one who is evangelizing to humbly do this, in one’s own way without being a “church-lady,” overbearing or self-righteous. Evangelization is not about preaching or pushing, but accompanying.
What accompanying another looks like
A few weeks ago, I promised to give some concrete examples of what
looks like, and how one keeps the focus on relationship with God, with Jesus. I hope to accomplish that in this installment.
Years ago, when I was the pastor in the little town of New Hradec north of Dickinson, I was having coffee around a table with several men, most of whom were farmers. At one point, one of the gentleman asked why Catholics have to go to Mass every Sunday. Before I could answer, one of the other gentlemen sitting at the table responded. He said something like this, “For me, having to go is not the issue. I need to go, if I want to stay close to God and to keep him first in my life. If I don’t go to mass every week, if I can’t find an hour a week to worship God, then soon other things take His place. I need to go to Mass because I need and want to stay close to God.” I immediately thought, “Sign this guy up for evangelization.”
"I need to go, if I want to stay close to God and to keep him first in my life."
Look how easy that was. He did not need to quote scripture; he did not need to argue; he did not need to force anything; he simply needed to be able to speak about his relationship with God and how the Catholic faith is all about that. This is precisely what accompanying another looks like concretely. He did not say those words self-righteously or condescendingly—he simply stated from the perspective of relationship with God the teaching of the Catholic Church. It was very effective. I am confident every man sitting around the table that morning went home reflecting on his words. I don’t know if he did or he didn’t, but it would’ve been extraordinary if that same man who spoke those words, one week later, would have reached out to the man who had asked the question and invited him over for a meal or a beer or something like that.
Another example. A friend of mine who treasures his Catholic faith went fishing with a couple of guys whom he knows quite well. At one point, because they knew my buddy was involved with the Church, the conversation turned to the topics of faith and praying and Sunday mass, etc. One of the men, with a certain amount of shame, said, “Yeah, I should really go to Mass. My sister has been after me about that. But it would be so awkward walking in after all these years with people looking at me wondering, “What’s this guy doing here?” My friend said that’s not what he thinks when he sees people he hasn’t seen for a while. He said, “I’m glad to see people come back. But that isn’t even the point,” my buddy said. “The point is that God wants to be close to you and you to be close Him.” Then he tried to help the man see that his gnawing desire to go to Mass is from God trying to draw him.
My friend simply got the man’s focus off of shame, off of being concerned about the opinion of others, and on to the relationship with God and God’s desire to be close to us and our response to that. If this man simply starts saying inside of himself to God that he wants to begin again and asks God to give him the grace to do that, then beautiful things will begin to happen.
Dear people, we can do this. If we do, lives will be changed, hearts will be filled, and souls will be saved. Let’s keep working at it.
A lived relationship with God
The main “tool” one needs in one’s toolbox to carry out the work of evangelization is a lived relationship with God. A lived relationship with God is what drives and guides evangelization; a lived relationship with God makes fruitful our efforts of evangelization. Let me explain. If I was to ask a husband or wife to describe to me what the other person is like, he or she would have a vast knowledge to draw from. He/she could share how the other thinks, how the other speaks, the virtues of the other, the sacrifices the other makes for them, the goodness of the other, what makes the other suffer, what saddens the other, how the other encourages, how the spouse feels about them and how they feel about their spouse, what it is like when they are united and what it is like when they are at odds, etc. This husband or wife could do this not because they read books about their spouse, not because they heard talks about their spouse, not because they took a class on their spouse. They could do this because they have a lived relationship with their spouse. Furthermore, if they are happily married, they could share all of this in such a way that would make me want to meet their spouse!
The heart and soul of evangelization is a lived relationship with God, with Jesus.
It is the same when it comes to evangelization. The heart and soul of evangelization is a lived relationship with God, with Jesus. One who has a lived relationship with Jesus can share and do in regard to Jesus what a happily married person can share and do in regard to their spouse. So, the challenge is this: Do I have a lived relationship with Jesus? Do I live my life with Him throughout the day?
The good news – which is what evangelization is about – is this: If Jesus has given us the mission to evangelize, then He wants us to have and to experience a lived relationship with Him. Do I give myself permission to want that? Do I give myself permission to embrace Jesus’ desire to have that with me? The first and last work of evangelization is to long for that more and more and more and more and more. Let’s do that.
I want to end by encouraging us to consciously and intentionally carry out the work of evangelization, as articulated in these installments. They work. In fact, just this week a parishioner told me that he and his wife, over the past few months, have befriended a non-Catholic couple they know through work. He told me that they would like to come and visit with me about the process of becoming Catholic. Also this week, another parishioner told me that she had been a friend with a person for years without engaging the person in faith. Although a Catholic, the person has kept a certain distance from the Church. In the recent months, however, the parishioner has been praying for this person and began to consciously and gently engage the person in conversations about the faith. Much to her pleasant surprise, she saw the person at daily Mass one morning. She was thrilled and hopes that it will lead to them regularly enjoying a coffee together after Mass. These examples show that if one is prayerful, intentional, patient and caring in living out integrated evangelization, it bears fruit. The Holy Spirit begins to do His great work of stirring desires in the human heart.
To close, I want to share a most beautiful quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. It comes from a general audience he gave at the Vatican on October 21, 2009. Although his words in this quote are focused on the gift of faith, if reflected upon they shed great light on evangelization and what it is about:
“Faith is above all a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, and to experience his closeness, his friendship, his love; only in this way does one learn to know him ever more, and to love and follow him ever more. May this happen to each one of us.”
I encourage you to read this over and over and take it to heart. Pope Benedict is one of the greatest minds of the Catholic Church in modern times. But for this brilliant man, faith was far more than a heady, cerebral activity. When we understand faith in this light, it changes the way we understand what it is like to be evangelized and what it is like to evangelize. May the good work which has begun be brought to its completion, by the grace of God!