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Outspoken atheist and comedian Penn Jillette—really the last person you’d expect would have something good to say about religion—recently made a very startling statement:
If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward . . . how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?
I mean, if I believed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe that truck was bearing down on you, there is a certain point where I tackle you. And this is more important than that.
This is a strong statement, particularly from an atheist. While I’m not sure how many people have had success tackling someone into the faith (and no, please don’t try this at home), there are clearly other ways to respond to God’s call. Jillette’s point does underline, however, both the urgency of our time here on earth and the gravity of the situation. We want people to convert not for superficial reasons, but because it truly is a matter of eternal life and death. Even a cursory glance at testimonies of the saints about hell, like St. Teresa of Avila who was shown the place the devil had prepared for her because of her sins, are enough to motivate anyone to roll up their sleeves. As confirmed Catholics, it is, in fact, our duty and our responsibility to pass on the faith to others.
A lot has been written about evangelization, but the one element Pope Francis makes clear is that evangelization is the fruit of a mature faith. You simply cannot give what you don’t have. And while it may seem that if you just said the right thing to your teenage son or could get your neighbor to read the right book, they would convert, these simple things, while they could have some effect, most likely will not be enough to truly bring them a deep and abiding faith. No quick tips, tricks, or gospel tracts will do. Just wishing and hoping that your grown daughter will return to the Church will not make it happen. If you desire to make converts, you first must convert yourself.
As Pope Francis explains:
This is why we evangelize. A true missionary, who never ceases to be a disciple, knows that Jesus walks with him, speaks to him, breathes with him, works with him. He senses Jesus alive with him in the midst of the missionary enterprise. Unless we see him present at the heart of our missionary commitment, our enthusiasm soon wanes and we are no longer sure of what it is that we are handing on; we lack vigor and passion. A person who is not convinced, enthusiastic, certain and in love, will convince nobody.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a convert, priest, and blogger, has written about how most Catholics don’t live with the expectation that their faith can “do” anything for them. “They have been taught to fulfill their duties and say their prayers, and they give at least lip service to the beliefs that confession really absolves them of their sins. . . . But they don’t expect the daily surge of God’s power in their lives.”
How, then, can someone who is lukewarm about his faith live with any expectation that others should live with it as well? Living the life of a lukewarm Catholic has no attraction because their hearts are not open to God really doing something in their lives.
Moreover, Pope Francis warns us that “[t]hose who speak as Christians, but do not act as Christians, do harm to the faith.” Christians, the pope explains, need to examine their words and actions to ensure that they are sincere, especially speaking about the faith: “[A] Christian word without Christ at its center leads to vanity, to pride, power for the sake of power.”
“If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love,” the Holy Father explains, “we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence.”
So, if you are not attending Mass and going to confession regularly, you should consider putting this book down for several months, get your sacramental life back in order, and then pick it up again. This book is full of tools, and all tools, even spiritual tools, can be dangerous if not used properly. If you aren’t living the faith, how can you expect others to?
We all know how hard it is to change ourselves, but it is much easier to change ourselves than another person. And sometimes the changes we make in ourselves can be the spark of grace to help others change.
Can the Blind Lead the Blind?
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asks the very simple question, “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39) While chapter six will discuss the important role of education in evangelization, what I believe Christ is getting at here is more to the heart of the issue: the why behind a conversion.
I’ve seen many relationships in which the husband converts for the wife, or vice versa, but the hearts of both are still cold. While some of these cases have come to good effect, more often than not they don’t. Why? Because you can’t give what you don’t have. If you don’t love God, love the Church, or know Christ, it is going to be very difficult to inspire that in another.
Take, for example, one couple I know, Seamus and Abigail. Seamus had a tepid faith, leaning mostly upon his family’s traditions and habits. His fiancée joined the Church to please him and his family. But what happened was that Abigail not only was better catechized than Seamus, she also began to really believe in what the Church taught. She joined other women once a week in a prayer group led by a priest, during which they engaged in rich conversation in addition to prayer. Over time Seamus became resentful of Abigail’s faith and her conviction about the Church’s teachings, especially on premarital sex. It didn’t take long for the tension in their relationship to become too much for Abigail to continue to fight. Ironically, she had to choose between the Church and him. Without a strong enough foundation or the tools to pass along her own faith to her fiancé, Abigail abandoned her living faith for Seamus’s comfortable corner of cafeteria Catholicism.
Living in Community
There once was an old woman who stopped going to church. She decided it wasn’t really doing anything for her, so making the effort was no longer necessary. She would just pray at home. Her parish priest noticed her absence. Concerned that perhaps something was wrong, he went to her home to check on her. She let him in, assured him all was fine, but explained that she no longer needed to go to Mass. Sitting down in front of a fire, the priest fell silent and the two sat and watched the flames lick the sides of the fireplace for some time.
After a long silence, once the flames were reduced to embers, the priest went over to the fire and took out one large, red burning coal. He set it out on the hearth and sat back in his chair in silence. As the two watched, the embers in the fire continued to glow red and orange, while the solitary ember on the hearth quickly lost all of its color and was reduced to a clump of black ash. Soon thereafter the priest left. And a few days later he saw the old woman once again in the pews. His silent message had been clear: The Church is the fuel of our faith. Without it, the heat and zeal of faith can only burn so long.
Statistically, because fewer people are getting married and staying married, more and more people live outside anything resembling a community (and no, dogs don’t count). This reality of isolation is a source of great loneliness and unhappiness. So many opportunities to love and receive love from those God has put into our lives are missed.
Pope John Paul II wrote extensively, particularly in The Theology of the Body, about the sincere gift of self, and how only when we give ourselves away do we truly find ourselves. It is a profound mystery, one of those secrets hidden in plain sight for those with the eyes to see.
Pope Francis reminds us of the importance of engaging in relationships and serving those beyond our own tight and small circle of friends and family. Frequently, he explains, “believers seek to hide or keep apart from others, or quietly flit from one place to another or from one task to another, without creating deep and stable bonds.” Without such bonds, we can never find an authentic source of self-giving. We will likely find plenty of “me time” and be surrounded by a lot of stuff, but a deep and abiding happiness will be missing.
Looking at history, healthy cultures understood this essential key not only to personal happiness, but for flourishing as a community (even if it wasn’t always acted upon or openly articulated). The gift of self, or on a broader scale, “our lives for theirs,” has animated history for centuries. Think of the building of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which the early masons knew would never be finished in their lifetimes. It can be lived out within a family, a parish, a city, and a country. It is when a culture ceases to see the value in the gift of self for others—when it decides “their lives for mine,” like we currently see in abortion and embryonic stem cellresearch, for example—that a society will approach rapid decline.
Evangelization Is Essential
Evangelization is part of the idea of “my life for yours” and the gift of self. Someone wise once said, “Evangelization is one beggar telling another where to find bread.” At the heart of it, we are all beggars. We need other human beings for our survival, while we are also radically dependent upon God for our existence. All of us can point to someone who has passed along the faith to us, through word and deed or simply by example. Our faith is not meant to be kept under a bushel; it’s meant to be shared. It is essential not only for others, but for our own continued spiritual growth. If we do not share what we have been given, then the gift was never truly received. Every gift given is meant to be passed along.
`As the pope explains:
When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfillment. For “here we discover a profound law of reality: that life is attained and matures in the measure that it is offered up in order to give life to others.”
Pope Francis challenges us to also see evangelization as an essential part of our own spiritual growth. The benefits are not just for the other person, but like so many gifts of the faith, have a reciprocal effect when we act in relationship with someone else. Their good is also our good, which can be difficult to discern when we live by the mantra of “What’s in it for me?”
“Every authentic experience of truth and goodness seeks by its very nature to grow within us, and any person who has experienced a profound liberation becomes more sensitive to the needs of others,” the pope explains, adding, “As it expands, goodness takes root and develops. If we wish to lead a dignified and fulfilling life, we have to reach out to others and seek their good.”
Living with Joy and Peace
So many of us think, “I would be a much better Catholic if I didn’t have to deal with X. X is a real stumbling block for me.” Saints, however, are not made because they didn’t have to deal with a lousy boss, or a particular illness, or whatever your cross may be; they are saints because they did deal with these things, and frequently much more. Sts. Anthony of the Desert and Padre Pio frequently spent the night fighting demons, who would bloody them to a pulp. Being a true witness doesn’t mean living with the absence of conflict or turmoil; it means facing all of it with the virtues of Christ, particularly a joyful and peaceful heart.
The pope encourages us to be joyful witnesses:
[A]n evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that “delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ.
Sometimes living joyfully or as a faithful witness is the hardest of all. It is difficult to remember that our actions speak so much louder than our words. And even more so if our actions are angry, gruff, proud, boastful, mean, or sad. Yes, the world is a heavy place, but we can’t be all cross and no resurrection. St. Teresa of Avila used to say, “May God protect me from dour saints.” After all, there is nothing more attractive than the face of joyful holiness, for, as Pope Francis wrote at the start of Evangelii Gaudium, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus.”
For those people who just can’t do joy, whose temperament simply isn’t going to be joyful, there is another clear hallmark of holiness that can be a strong witness: peacefulness. For a long time, I thought about these words of Christ during the Mass: “My peace I give to you; my peace I leave with you.” (John 14:27) Christ is very clear on this. He has already given us his peace. It is there for the taking. Our charge is simply to use it. He has left it, so it isn’t going anywhere.
Our world is characterized by chaos, when simply reading the news can give you emotional whiplash. So an individual or a family remaining calm and peaceful in the midst of great turmoil speaks volumes.
Do All Things in Christ
A wise priest I know once asked God in prayer why the evangelization of the world happened mainly in the Western Hemisphere, with very little foothold in Asia. In his heart the aged priest heard the Lord tell him that people stopped evangelizing in Christ. They did things for Christ and with Christ, but not in him.
Every Sunday at Mass and every daily Mass, these words are heard during the Consecration: “Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever. Amen.” Let these words be a reminder to us today and always as we try to renew hearts in Christ.
by Carrie Gress
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We all know someone—a parent, sibling, aunt or uncle, coworker, grandparent, child, neighbor, or friend—who has either left the Church or never discovered it. We want them to know the joy and peace we’ve discovered, but the last thing we want to do is to force our faith on them. So how can we bring our loved ones back to the Church?
Jesus was the first and greatest evangelizer. As his disciples, we’re called to share in his mission—to spread his message to others. But going outside your comfort zone to engage the disengaged in meaningful conversations about Catholicism can be overwhelming. Fortunately there are common patterns that are easy to follow once you recognize them.
In Nudging Conversions, Carrie Gress unveils those common patterns and offers a practical roadmap for reaching out to friends and family. You’ll learn the art of asking questions, when to speak and when to keep quiet, basic tools for talking to others about Jesus, how to answer questions about the faith, and more.
Conversion doesn’t happen overnight—sometimes all it takes is a little “nudge.”
Back to Nudging Conversions (Paperback)
Author description goes here...
Product Type Media Books
Author Carrie Gress
Publisher Beacon Publishing
Number of Pages 112
Book Format Paperback
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