by John J. Boucher
At one time, my wife and I were contributing authors for a book called Keeping Your Kids Catholic. Just before its release, our oldest son Charles returned home from a summer art workshop with long hair and body piercings. That night he stood up at dinner and announced, “I don’t believe in all that God stuff and will not be going to church anymore.”
Dumbfounded, I stumbled through something like, “Charles, we still love you and God loves you! Please sit down.” Later on, grief and a sense of failure gripped my heart. I called the editor of the book saying, “Please delete our chapters. What we wrote doesn’t seem to be working in our family.” The editor laughed and admitted that not all of his children were churchgoers either. He said, “We can do things right and teach Jesus to our families, but we are not God. We can only do our best to hand on the faith — and must leave the rest up to the Holy Spirit.”
Many times, since then, we have realized that when someone we love stops going to church, God offers us three new gifts wrapped inside the pain of loss and helplessness. The first gift is a burning zeal for the Gospel rooted in our baptismal call to follow Jesus. Zeal increases the desire to communicate God’s loving presence in every way possible, even though we make mistakes.
The second gift is an invitation to be part of the New Evangelization — that renewed Church-wide effort to reach out to all inactive or marginal Catholics (as well as to the unchurched) with the confidence that God offers faith to every human being.
And the third gift is an opportunity to learn how to evangelize in our everyday lives, sent and empowered by the Holy Spirit. This means embracing four basic skills: prayer, care, share, and dare to invite.
Jesus himself combined prayer to the Father with bringing God’s kingdom from town to town. Our ability to reach out to others increases when grounded in the gift of evangelizing prayer. Such prayer sharpens our ability to notice God’s presence and prepares us to receive new compassion about another’s needs. It means deliberately asking Jesus to show us what he is already doing in someone. Then we trust God to reveal new possibilities for that person to meet Jesus in a new way. My daily evangelizing prayer list includes each of our nonchurchgoing children and family members. I also pray for people I meet each day like Cassie, who lost a leg, Garett, who is homeless, and Chris, who has stomach cancer.
This habit of intercessory prayer bore unexpected fruit when I dislocated my thumb and was introduced to a hand surgeon. “I have never met a hand surgeon,” I said. “How did you choose to become one?”
She told me how the tragedy of 9/11 in New York City in 2001 awakened a call to make a real difference in the world and ultimately led her to become a hand surgeon. She pulled my thumb into place and splinted it.
I thanked her and quoted Sir Isaac Newton: “In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.”
When I went for a follow-up visit, one of the nurses present at my first visit recognized me. She exclaimed, “Oh, you are the one who talked about God. Our whole staff has been talking about God ever since!”
Being sensitive to people who are in need is a never-ending task for the follower of Christ. Responding to someone’s needs with Christ-centered compassion, listening, and concrete action, are primary ways we begin to evangelize. Our goal is to befriend people who are experiencing needs, stresses, and transitions. Our prayer is that God intervene and multiply our love, as we offer a “witness of life” that reflects Jesus Christ, the ultimate answer to all human needs. (See St. Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi, Evangelization in the Modern World, 21, 22.)
Every day at bedtime, my wife’s 90-year-old grandmother, Jeannia, shuffled down the halls of her nursing home, tucking people in, and giving them a kiss goodnight on the forehead. When we asked her why, she said, “There are a lot of old people who have no one to visit them.”
George, an office manager, evangelized through his willingness to listen to each person who came into his office for at least 10 to 15 minutes without butting in or giving advice. Gloria helped start a food kitchen to serve those in need in her town. As the numbers coming to the kitchen grew, she helped found an interfaith coalition, working to end the causes of hunger and homelessness.
Conversations and listening are the primary ways we connect with others. We need to begin with a kind of listening that evangelizes. Sherry Weddell, author of the bestseller Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus (Our Sunday Visitor, 2012), reminds us that “there is no way of knowing what a particular person’s journey has truly been and where the person is now until we earn the right to hear his or her story and then listen carefully and prayerfully.”
This means discarding labels and asking someone how they came to be where they are. Garett is homeless. He often begs on streets. He suffers from PTSD and can’t seem to hold a job. And he is wounded by the death of a loved one. As I listened, over time I learned that he is a Baptist, which makes him my brother in the Lord Jesus Christ first and a homeless person second. This kind of “slow evangelizing” is challenging. It takes great patience and willingness to face our fear of being rejected. Evangelizing conversations may also include telling our faith stories and the Christ story when the time is right. St. Paul VI calls this sharing the “witness … to … the word of life” (see EN, 21, 22).
Christian living is magnified when we share how Jesus helps us, and how “He is living at [our] side[s] every day to enlighten, strengthen, and free [us].” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, 164, adapted)
EVANGELIZING THROUGH DARING TO INVITE
Prayer, caring, and sharing build relationships and lifelines of love between us. Confidence in the Holy Spirit, who changes hearts and minds, helps us watch for opportunities to invite others deeper into a lifelong relationship with Jesus, who is our constant companion. We can also depend on God’s guidance about when to invite someone to join us in spiritual activities, groups, and events in the Catholic Church. We can search out the spiritually poor and homeless, welcoming them to faith communities, where the door is always left ajar for the stranger.
We might invite others to:
- Serve the hungry, homeless, and poor.
- Participate in programs and projects that include invitations to conversion.
- Attend parish activities, small groups, or Masses.
- Make a commitment to Christ when the time is right.
- Consider joining or rejoining the Catholic Church.
For many, it takes several invitations before a person can commit his or her life to Christ. So, gently invite inactive Catholics and others more than once and ask how this invitation strikes them.
Alicia prayed unceasingly for her brother Juan to come back to Jesus and the Church, until one day, she decided to “just love him like a sister” and leave the rest to God. She began to call her brother once a week. When Juan felt safe to talk about the emptiness in his life, she invited him to come with her to a parish retreat. He came, met Jesus in a new and personal way, joined a small group, and today is an active leader in his parish.
What about evangelizing parish programs and projects to reach nonchurchgoers? Some parishes run specific programs and projects to reach inactive Catholics and the unchurched. You might inquire about where these are happening in your area. But keep in mind that there are limits to such evangelization programs. They are simply tools that can create an environment where conversion to Jesus and the Church can take place. And they are only one aspect of what it takes to build a fully evangelizing parish.