In these pages in the spring of 2004, John C. Haughey, S.J., noted that many of his non-Catholic students are not shy about making personal faith statements, both in the classroom and outside. Catholic students, on the other hand, seldom do so (“Church-ianity and Christ-ianty,” 5/24/04 ). These Catholic young people will talk about church issues and controversies or about moral values, but not about their relationship with Christ or about how they recognize God’s action in their life. Father Haughey suggested some reasons for this phenomenon: a cultural bias against evangelicals, fear that such professions of faith may become mere formulas or the belief that one’s actions (attending Mass, treating people with care) are the best ways to express one’s faith in Christ.
My own experience working with parishes to help parisoners develop an evangelizing ministry convinces me that Catholics in general, not only students, are reluctant to give verbal expression of their faith in the presence of others. While I agree with Father Haughey’s analysis, I believe there are a number of other reasons that explain why Catholics tend not to share their faith.
These reasons are historical. When Catholics in the United States emerged from their immigrant experience, they did not easily forget the discrimination their parents or grandparents had to endure in this country in earlier generations. Now, having received a quality education and desiring full acceptance into the professional and corporate worlds, “evangelization” or “Christian witness” were far from the minds of second- or third-generation Catholics. They were hesitant to acknowledge their Catholicism, much less to share it with peers.
Most Catholics, moreover, have come to accept the American value of pluralism: “Live and let live.” It seems socially ungracious and theologically unacceptable to “talk religion” around the water cooler or at the bowling alley. This attitude is reinforced when Catholics encounter the kind of “in your face” evangelism of some Christian evangelicals or Jehovah’s Witnesses. And there is a further reason for the reluctance to share faith: many contemporary Catholics have grown up without clear knowledge of their beliefs and what underlies them. So they feel inadequate to explain or defend them if challenged. Add to this the fallout from the sexual abuse scandals, including the loss of credibility of church authorities, and you have a multitude of reasons why Catholics find it daunting to share their faith in public ways. And anyway, isn’t one’s religion a private matter?
But the Gospel will not let us off so easily. According to Matthew, Jesus gathered the disciples together and gave them what is often called “the great commission,” to go into the whole world and make disciples of all the nations (Mt 28:18-20). The words are similar in Mark (16:15-16) and in Luke (24:46-49). Jesus makes it clear that the church does not exist for its own sake. It has a mission, a purpose. It must not let the world forget Jesus Christ. It must continue to make him known and to proclaim his teachings everywhere until time is no more.
The first Christians took this mission very seriously. Nonbelievers were struck by the joy and love rippling through this new community, with the result that “every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). What was the process whereby this happened? My own speculation goes something like this. The first Christian converts lived their newfound faith, not in an ostentatious way, but in ways that were convincing. Their Jewish and Gentile neighbors observed how the Christians were devoted to their families, were conscientious in their jobs, did not go along with the immoral sexual practices of the time and reached out in care to those who were poor or sick. And they did all this with a spirit of joy and peacefulness.
At some point the Jew or Gentile neighbor would say: “You’ve changed. What’s happened to you?” The new Christian would say, “You’re right—I’ve come to know Jesus Christ, and it’s made all the difference.” “Well, tell me about him.” And the Christian would tell the story of Jesus. If the other person were ready (and touched by divine grace), he or she would say: “That’s what I’m looking for. What do I need to do?” The Christian would then introduce the person to the community and later to the catechumenate. I do not think there were many mass conversions after Pentecost. Rather, most people found their way into the church through the authentic witness and one-to-one connections with believing Christians.
This same basic process is relevant for today. For the past 15 years I have been teaching a course in parishes that I call “How to Share Your Faith Without Being Obnoxious.” As with those first Christians, the starting point is living our faith before we talk about it. We need to be prayerful persons who nourish our faith by reading Scripture and participating in the Sunday Eucharist. We are devoted to our families and are conscientious in our work. We treat people with dignity and respect. We share our time and resources with the less fortunate. We do not engage in negative speech or back-stabbing. We try to create a positive and peaceful attitude in our environment. This is what Pope Paul VI called “the wordless witness of your life,” the very first act of evangelization. He went on to say that this witness raises questions in people’s minds; it prompts them to wonder what motivates and inspires us. They may be moved to ask us. And at that point we need to be ready to share our faith.
Most often this will not take the form of answering direct questions, but rather of sharing worries or problems. People will sense they can talk to us. So the next skill in sharing faith is the ability to listen well. A variety of scenarios can be imagined. Someone confides a worry about health problems. A parent is upset about a son or daughter’s behavior. A spouse is troubled by tensions in marriage. Someone is worried about rumors of downsizing in the company and possible layoffs. Someone is grieving over the loss of a loved one or a broken relationship. A teen is feeling left out of a peer group. Instead of giving some easy advice or pious cliché, we listen carefully and respond in an empathic, nonjudgmental manner. Perhaps we ask a few questions to clarify the situation, so that the person feels understood and accepted.
This is already a healing and evangelizing action. But often we can go further. Scripture exhorts us, “Should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours, be ever ready to reply, but speak gently and respectfully” (1 Pt 3:15-16). The simplest, most direct form this can take is to share our own story. We do not need to have an abundance of biblical texts handy in order to evangelize or share our faith. Our greatest resource is our own spiritual experience. All of us, if we think about it, have had moments in which we knew we were in the presence of God, were touched or helped or encouraged or healed by God, were brought up short or deeply comforted by hearing or reading a Bible passage or listening to a Christian song. Often the encouragement or help came through some person; yet we were convinced it was really God who brought it about. That is what we share with the one who has opened up to us: “You know, I’ve been through something like that in my own life. And what helped me most was my faith in God (or Jesus).” Then we go on to explain briefly what happened.
The beauty of this approach is that it is simple and non-invasive. We do not argue. We do not boast. We do not “talk theology.” We simply share our own experience. When we are finished, we give the other person a chance to respond. Perhaps this is as far as that person is willing to go at this point, which is fine. The questioner has had a good experience of being listened to and understood. In encounters like these, we give people something to think about. We can promise to pray for them, invite them to talk again, exchange phone numbers. If they show interest in learning more, we can invite them to a church service, a Bible study group, maybe even to a meeting of inquirers as part of a parish’s Christian initiation process for adults. If they have a question we are unable to answer, we offer to find out for them. Whatever the outcome, a seed has been planted. There has been a graced encounter.
We Catholics keep hearing that we need to move beyond our reticence and our habit of “keeping our faith to ourselves.” We are called to be more mission-driven, more willing to risk some degree of discomfort in order to further the message of Christ. But we have not been taught that there are ordinary, simple ways to share our faith. There are large numbers of people who, while not practicing any particular religion, are nevertheless searching for some higher purpose, for something to believe in. Our Catholic faith is a treasure that we are able to share with such seekers. Despite all the church’s problems, Catholicism continues to have an appeal, to be almost fascinating, for many people. This is true even of nonpracticing Catholics. While some want nothing more to do with the church, the majority have just lost their connection with Catholicism. The faith still slumbers within them and may be reawakened. Some research has found that at least one-third of inactive Catholics would like to reconnect with the church, but they are reluctant to make the first move. They are waiting for an invitation, for some sign that they will be welcomed.
The approach described above provides an easy entrée for people who are searching. It assumes, however, that the seeker will initiate the conversation by sharing some problem or concern. Sometimes faith-sharing will require a more assertive approach. I have met Catholics who do not hesitate to initiate spiritual conversations, though not in a heavy-handed way. They will say to one or several people, “We had a special program at Mass last Sunday,” and then go on to describe it. Or, “Our church had an interesting speaker the other night.” “Did you read that article (or watch that television program)” about some spiritual topic?
The purpose of all these gestures is not to “make converts” or “fill the pews.” It is simply to open doors, to let others know that our faith has made a positive difference in our lives, and that God’s love and saving help are available to them as well. Above all, we share our faith because it is a gift entrusted to us by the Lord Jesus. It is an act of faithful stewardship.
I remember a cartoon of the ascension of Jesus. As he is returning to heaven, the apostles are looking up and saying, “Lord, what if we fail? Do you have a back-up plan?” And the risen Christ answers, “No—all I’ve got is you!” That is not a joke. It is a sobering—and exciting—reality.