The words spoken by the young Appalachian girl evoked in me a response I had not expected. My mouth became suddenly dry as I tried to swallow and fend off the rising lump in my throat. This sweet girl had not threatened me with violence, nor had she intentionally attempted to embarrass me. But her words caught me unaware and have echoed in my consciousness ever since.
We were standing on the foundation of what was to be a new addition to a non-denominational Christian church in northeast Kentucky. I had just asked the girl if she attended services at the church. Without taking a moment for breath, she responded with astonishing ease, Yes, this is where I gave my heart to Jesus Christ.
Excuse me? I was unable to reply to the testimony she had just offered, straight from her heart to my cynical ears. As a cradle Catholic, I had never heard anyone speak about Jesus with such language, which bordered on the romantic. I would imagine that most Catholics, at least in the United States, are in a similar position. Sure, Jesus Christ is our Savior, but you won’t find us shouting it from the rooftops. But ever since my experience in Appalachia last year, I have been asking myself, Why not? Or, conversely, how is it that many Protestants are able to speak about their love for Jesus with such seeming ease?
I remember going to see the film Footloose when I was this girl’s age. John Lithgow played an extremely stern Protestant minister, who was trying to protect his teenage daughter (played by Lori Singer) from the evils of pop music and dancing. The modish rebel protagonist, played by Kevin Bacon, made it his goal to break the chains of oppression and set her teenage spirit free to dance. Frankly, I was rooting for beer, dancing and girls to win out over the uptight minister! Additionally, around the time Footloose was released, anyone who watched television could not help noticing the ubiquitous images of televangelists that filled the airwaves with talk about Jeeezus and the fires of Hell that awaited anyone who didn’t repent. These stereotypical portrayals formed my primary exposure to non-Catholic Christians, and I was completely turned off. Catholics went to church as regularly as our Protestant neighbors, but we didn’t use the terms relationship with Jesus Christ or born again. These belonged to the rantings of Jesus freaks. My experience told me that, as great a guy as Jesus was, saying something akin to I love Jesus would invite harsh glances. The message was clearjust love Jesus and be quiet about it.
Even now, as a young man in religious life, I find myself resisting any love talk about Jesus. Outside of a controlled retreat or liturgical setting, I am uncomfortable speaking about my relationship with Jesus. In public, I prefer to theologize with my mind rather than speak from my heart. I have to believe that there are many other Gen-X Catholics (or Catholics of any generation, for that matter) who feel the same way. But in spite of our fear of such language, could it be that we are being invited to something greater? Perhaps we should take notice of the non-Catholic Christian groups who are affecting many people through their honest expressions of love for Jesus Christ. If we accept our mission as Christians seriously, then we (Catholics) need to accept the bid to go out to the world and tell the good news.
Some Catholics are afraid to engage in conversations with Protestants who speak about Jesus with such gusto, because at the root of some of these encounters is a prejudicial motivation to win conversions rather than promote dialogue. This is unfortunate for both sides, as it only breeds fear and mutual mistrust. While Catholics should not have to defend their faith on every street corner in America, we should consider our own flawed history of gaining souls for God before we write off our Protestant neighbors. As we should well know, good intentions can sometimes go awry, but this should not prevent us from cultivating our relationship with Jesus Christ and speaking lovingly and proudly about it. Of course, this is easier said than done.
In the Second Week of his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius Loyola advises the retreatant to ask for the grace of an interior knowledge of our Lord, who became human for me, that I may love him more intensely and follow him more closely. Although Ignatius was a soldier in his earlier years, and even uses quite a bit of military language in the Exercises, he was not afraid to let down his macho guard and speak of his love for Jesus Christ. We Catholic Christians need to ask for this grace so that we are able to follow the one we call Lord, even to the point of personal sacrifice, if that is what is asked of us. But even more importantly, an intimate knowledge of the love of Jesus Christ serves to fuel our faith and impels us to love others. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus declares, The gift you have received, give as a gift. Once we have received the felt experience of Jesus’ love for us, the more prepared we are to give that gift to one another.
The question remains, how are we Catholics, once we’ve experienced the love of Jesus, best equipped to give that gift of love to others? I am not proposing that we start knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets, but we could begin by conversing with one another about our love for Jesus. Many Catholic churches around the country are emptied with Guinness record book swiftness after Mass, even before the procession has reached the middle pew. The concepts of fellowship and community are lost in many of our parishes. Granted, there are exceptions, but they are not the norm. If we wish to cultivate discussions about Jesus’ love for the world, then we should start in our own backyard.
Perhaps we could begin our efforts on a small scale, by initiating prayer groups, religious book discussion groups, bible studies and small Christian life communities in our parishes. These types of gatherings provide a more relaxed milieu for broaching love-talk about Jesus. Eventually inviting non-Catholic Christians to join such groups would be a significant step toward ecumenical dialogue on a topic that is at the heart of being Christian.
Of course, it is rather difficult to speak about love for Jesus unless we have cultivated it in our own hearts. A committed prayer life and the occasional retreat are important means by which we can tap into the graces that God is constantly offering us. Attempting to express something about Jesus’ love without actually experiencing it is like describing the beauty of the Sistine Chapel ceiling when you have seen only a postcard reproduction. It is important for our witness as Catholic Christians to be honest, and this will happen only if we speak from personal, felt experience.
I believe all Catholics could benefit from an examination of how (or if) we talk about Jesus, and how we respond to others who do so differently than us. The words the young girl spoke to me at the construction site that day impelled me to reflect upon my own resistance and fear about expressing my love for Jesus. It was humbling to witness someone half my age articulate her love for him with so much passion, when all I could do comfortably is parley about Christological theories. Although Catholics are not Evangelicals, we are called to be evangelists, and there is much we could learn from our Christian companions.