By Jan Alkire
Originally appeared in “Catholic Digest”, April 1993
For many of us, the word evangelize conjures up pictures of television preachers shedding large tears before an invisible congregation; or perhaps we think of the people who stand on street corners shouting, “Repent, you sinners!” And then we breathe a sigh of relief. Our religion, we tell ourselves, does not ask us to risk humiliation by talking publicly about our faith.
But the Catholic Church does ask us to talk about our faith with others, including those who do not know God and those who have left the Church in anger, sadness, or despair. The trouble is, we have a million good reasons why the call to evangelize doesn’t seem to apply to us personally:
“My faith is private.”
“Evangelizing is a special gift that I (thank God) don’t have.”
“I don’t know enough about my faith to share it with others.”
“I have other tasks within the church.”
“I don’t want to impose my beliefs on someone else.”
Yet, when Jesus invited Peter and Andrew to follow him, (Mt 4:19) and promised to make them fishers of men, he was speaking to every future disciple as well. But knowing that you and I are called to this service is one thing; knowing how to do it is another. Here are a few ways to succeed as a modern-day Peter without offending others or embarrassing yourself.
1. Keep developing your own relationship with God.
You can only offer others what you yourself possess. This is a lifelong challenge. God calls us to ongoing conversion—a journey of discovery of ourselves and of our Savior. The closer we draw to God, the better we can pass on the faith to others.
2. Pray for divine guidance.
God doesn’t call many to street-corner evangelizing. Usually we are asked to share our faith one-on-one with others. But which others? When? Answering these questions before we leap into a conversation will keep our feet out of our mouths and help us know that Jesus is at our side.
3. Be especially aware of opportunities to share your faith inactive Catholics.
Syndicated columnist Jimmy Breslin once wrote that there is no such thing as a former Catholic. Let such a person have one chest pain, he claimed, and they fly back to the sacraments with breathtaking speed. Indeed, Breslin was describing his own cardiac/spiritual experience.
4. When talking about spirituality, limit your conversation to your own experience.
Stick to “I” statements and share how much you gain from your faith community. Talk, for example, about how the sacraments console you, or how loving the people are. In doing so, you avoid stepping on someone else’s personal life.
5. If an inactive Catholic wants to talk about negative church experiences, be a sympathetic listener.
People sometimes leave the Church after a painful event, yet beneath their pain or anger may lie a longing for reconciliation. It can begin with a good listener.
6. If the grievances of an inactive Catholic are based on misinformation, gently provide better data.
I once met a woman whose husband had filed for divorce after abandoning the family. Assuming that excommunication automatically came with every divorce, this poor woman hadn’t been to church in years. After assuring her she had misunderstood Church law, I invited her to consult a priest and come back to church. She began to weep. It was, she told me, her happiest moment in 15 years.
7. If an inactive Catholic has been wronged, apologize in the name of the Church.
I remember a man who said he left the Church after a priest embezzled money from his parents. I listened deeply and sympathized with his pain. Finally I said, “On behalf of the Catholic Church, I would like to ask your forgiveness for the wrong this priest did to you and your family.” Outwardly the man did not respond to my apology, but the bitterness in his voice noticeably diminished. Perhaps a seed of reconciliation had been planted.
8. Help those who are interested in exploring or re-entering the Church.
Asking people to come to church is a form of Christ’s hospitality. I usually say something like, “Please come—we’d love to have you.” I offer them a deeper experience of God, as though I am inviting them to a banquet. (And I am!) If they live out of town, I encourage them to search for a vibrant faith community in their area, one that can build them up. Evangelizing members of your own family is tough. “A prophet is only despised… among his own relations.” (Mark 6:4) Reach out to your loved ones, but realize that usually it’s others who will need to bring them into the faith. A positive role-model is often the best form of evangelizing within the family.
Catholics who have been away from the faith for a long time can benefit from a class that brings them up to date. I remember an elderly man who said he was Catholic, then added that he hadn’t been to Mass for 60 years. Wow, was he in for some surprises.
We are all laborers in God’s vineyard, pickers of spiritual fruit that will decay on the vine if someone doesn’t gently pluck it when it’s ripe. So please say yes to sharing your faith with others. The fruits of your efforts will amaze you, and the benefits will last for all eternity.