“The task of preaching, teaching, growing and living the Catholic faith in our time, in this country, belongs to you and me. No one else can do it.” (Archbishop Charles Chaput at the Los Angeles Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Sept. 18,2012)
On October 11, 2012 we officially begin the celebration of the Year of Faith, as promulgated by Pope Benedict XVI in his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei. The Holy Father has declared that the Year of Faith is “a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world”. His hope is that this commemoration will “arouse in every believer the aspiration to profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope.” If you’re Catholic, there’s a good chance that the Holy Father’s words about professing the faith will make you a little uncomfortable. Why?
Catholics are known for many things, such as novenas, devotions to saints, love for the Blessed Mother, and abstaining from meat on Lenten Fridays. One thing that generally doesn’t come to mind when we hear the word “Catholic” is evangelization. To be totally honest, the vast majority of Catholics view evangelization as a negative thing. There is a belief among many Catholics that our relationship with God is a highly personal matter and that “we shouldn’t impose our religious beliefs on others”. I must admit that I felt this way for many years. Even though I went to Mass every Sunday, talking about God to others was something for Protestants and “Jesus Freaks”. I considered it offensive to tell others how they should believe. Furthermore, I didn’t want others to think I was strange. Evangelization is “not something that Catholics do”. To take it a step further, many Catholics don’t feel the need to learn or understand their faith, let alone share it with others. While that may be a common opinion, is it really what the Church teaches? Not at all! As Catholics, we are not only called to study and understand our faith, but we are mandated to evangelize.
Now that I’ve either piqued your curiosity or caused you to suffer a panic attack, let me present some evidence to support my claim and give you some simple and painless ways to fulfill the Church’s instructions. On December 8, 1975, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Exhortation entitled Evangelii Nuntiandi (EN), which addresses evangelization in the modern world. In this document, the Holy Father explains the importance of Christian evangelization:
…the presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation. (EN, Paragraph 5)
The above paragraph spells out the importance of proclaiming the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. It is not something that is “nice to have”, but is necessary for people’s salvation! That’s all well and good, but isn’t evangelization the job of priests, religious and deacons? Not exactly…
Thus it is the whole Church that receives the mission to evangelize, and the work of each individual member is important for the whole. (EN, Paragraph 15)
In other words, evangelization is not only the responsibility of the religious and clergy; it is a requirement for the laity as well. Every member of the Catholic Church is personally responsible for sharing the gospel message with others. The Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, teaches that all baptized Christians “must profess before men the faith they have received from God through the Church and participate in the apostolic and missionary activity of the People of God”. This profession of faith involves both actions and words. While it is crucial to set a good example, the Church teaches that we must also share our faith verbally.
…even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified – what Peter called always having “your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that you all have” – and made explicit by a clear and unequivocal proclamation of the Lord Jesus. The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed. (EN, Paragraph 22)
Now that we know what is expected of us, do we need to stand on street corners and hand out Bibles? Are we required to preach at the office and quote scripture all day long? While there is a time and a place for that approach, there are simpler and less threatening ways to “get our feet wet” in the world of Catholic evangelization. Here are some simple ways to get started:
1. Learn – We need to learn about the Catholic Faith. There is no way that we’ll ever be able to share what we don’t know. There are many great online resources to assist you in learning about the Catholic Faith. Among them are the USCCB and Vatican websites. Additionally, my Recommended Resouces page lists many authentically Catholic websites and books, all geared toward individuals with a basic or intermediate understanding of the Faith.
2. Witness – Christian witness lays the foundation for evangelization. Avoiding foul language, making the sign of the cross and saying grace before meals, having a positive disposition, and avoiding gossip are all ways that can be used to set a positive example for others. These techniques can be used anywhere: in the workplace, at school, in the home, even at the grocery store. People may notice that there is something “different” about us and could begin to ask questions. This provides the opening to share our “secret”, which is the Catholic Faith.
3. Share – There are many painless (but effective) ways to verbally share our faith with others. We can offer to say a prayer for a coworker who is sick or in a painful situation. We can explain how our faith comforts or sustains us in time of need. We can casually relate a message heard in a homily at Sunday Mass. This technique not only gives us the opportunity to share a positive thought, but it also sends the message that we attend Sunday Mass. Non-threatening techniques such as these are often very effective because they do not involve “beating people over the head” with our Bibles.
4. Pray – The most important step in being an effective evangelist is often the most neglected. We should always remember to pray, especially for an increase in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Everyone who is baptized and confirmed has received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but we need prayer and grace to help them grow. Prayer and frequent reception of the Sacraments will allow these gifts to grow and will ultimately lead to greater success of our efforts. We should also pray for the individuals to whom we are evangelizing.
As we begin to follow the Church’s command to spread the gospel in the world, there are a few things that are important to remember. We should not become impatient or discouraged if our efforts don’t appear to be effective. The Lord never asks us to be successful, instead He asks us to be faithful. In the end, any success we have should be attributed to God alone. Also, we must never forget to be charitable when sharing God’s message with others. Our goal must be to win souls, not arguments. Turning to Sacred Scripture, St. Peter provides an excellent one sentence summary of what is expected of us as Catholic evangelists. Staying faithful to his instruction will ensure that we are fulfilling the Lord’s command of charitably spreading the gospel to all nations:
“Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15)