Dear Pope Francis,
Evangelization – it’s become a bit of a buzz-word lately. People are talking about how important it is to talk about faith with other people. I’ve been thinking about this whole idea of sharing my faith with other people. It’s not that I have a problem with sharing my faith with people. I realize that I will be talking about faith with people for the foreseeable future, since I am studying theology and hope to get into ministry professionally after I finish school.
My challenge with evangelization comes with how I share my faith. So often when people think of Christian evangelization, they think of the stereotype of a gentleman on the street corner shoving pamphlets at you, or perhaps the mega-church pastor standing on a stage yelling into a microphone that Satan is alive, and the thousands of people listening need to know Jesus in order to be saved. I’m all for public speaking, and talking to people on the street, but about the other person’s faith life and their need to be saved? Not so much.
My hesitation to start the conversation in these contexts is not that I want Christianity to be exclusively for a few people, and more to do with the fact that I don’t think faith is something that can be forced on someone. That is precisely what I feel is happening when someone is shoving pamphlets at people or yelling into a microphone. At best, it seems they are trying to cajole people into having faith, or worst, it may seem like forcing the faith down someone’s throat. I hope the people listening don’t choke and spit the faith out entirely.
Recently, I came across one of your quotes, which said: “The Good News is no mere matter of words, but a testimony to unconditional and faithful love: it is about leaving ourselves behind and encountering others, being close to those crushed by life’s troubles, sharing with the needy, standing at the side of the sick, elderly and the outcast.” Your idea, makes evangelization action-based, not word-focused. This is a method of evangelization that I can relate to. It’s not about forcing people to come to my faith before I will talk with them, it’s about being with other people, helping them as best I can in their struggles.
What I like best about this understanding of evangelization is that I don’t necessarily have to say a word about Jesus, my actions and way of being with the person will speak louder than any words I can say. Again, it’s not that I am avoiding the conversation about faith. Instead, I can let the person whom I am working with open the conversation, if they feel so inclined. If they do, my words will be backed up by actions, and I will have an existing relationship with the person, which can help the other person be more open to what I say. This also leaves room for the Holy Spirit to work in the person. I cannot force the work of the Holy Spirit to convert a person, but I can be open to how the Spirit is working in someone and in my relationship with them.
Another important element of this understanding of evangelization is that it doesn’t dictate how and when the Holy Spirit will work and/or the conversation may arose. If the conversation can only happen in the mega-church’s worship service or on the street corner, than we ignore the valid work that the Holy Spirit is doing in school hallways, the mall, and the car. This brings to mind a lengthy, anonymous* quote that made the Facebook rounds last winter. I tried to paraphrase, but the original is so powerful:
“We need saints without cassocks, without veils – we need saints with jeans and tennis shoes. We need saints that go to the movies, that listen to music, that hang out with their friends. We need saints that place God in first place ahead of succeeding in any career. We need saints that look for time to pray every day and who know how to be in love with purity, chastity and all good things. We need saints – saints for the 21st century with a spirituality appropriate to our new time. We need saints that have a commitment to helping the poor and to make the needed social change. We need saints to live in the world, to sanctify the world and to not be afraid of living in the world by their presence in it. We need saints that drink Coca-Cola, that eat hot dogs, that surf the internet and that listen to their iPods. We need saints that love the Eucharist, that are not afraid or embarrassed to eat a pizza or drink a beer with their friends. We need saints who love the movies, dance, sports, theater. We need saints that are open sociable normal happy companions. We need saints who are in this world and who know how to enjoy the best in this world without being callous or mundane. We need saints.”
Although the quote talks about the need for saints, I think we can substitute some form of ‘evangelism’ for ‘saint’. I like this quote so much because it captures the importance of practicing your own faith, but also the importance of being part of the culture. I’m not saying that we need to embrace everything in the culture, but I do think that in order to evangelize to this culture, we need to be open to where the Holy Spirit is already working. We cannot have a conversation about faith, especially with people who may not believe at all, without recognizing that there are cultural influences.
As a person going into ministry, I need to balance my theological education with a cultural one. I need to make sure that I pull my head out of my books and prayer long enough to go live: watch a movie or the latest episode of my favourite show, read a book or blog post completely unrelated to face, or go for a hike (this is starting to sound like my post about getting out of my Catholic Bubble). This doesn’t mean that I throw away my faith entirely, but it does mean that I engage the culture through my faith, and then my life becomes evangelization.
Choosing a new (non-theology) book to read,
*Author’s Note: The quote has been attributed to both Pope Francis and Saint John Paul II, but I can’t find a reliable source attributing it to either. I have also seen it described as a poem.