Make the Good News sound good

Last month I had to travel to a conference in St. Louis and found myself in the “C” group for boarding on that airline that doesn’t assign seats. It might as well be group “M” since it means you end up in the middle seats. I chose the first available seat and when I asked the gentleman in the aisle seat if I could sit down, he said, “You might not want to sit here, we’re in the middle of a pretty heated discussion.” That’s when I noticed that there was a New Testament and devotional prayer book on the middle seat, and soon realized that the argument centered on religion. When “argument” and “religion” are in the same sentence you know that this is not going to be pleasant. 

When the man sitting in the window seat said, “I don’t think any religion should tell me how to vote!” I knew that the disastrous cluster bomb of religion and politics was about to explode. Fortunately, my presence in the middle seat served as a buffer zone and both men stood down. Curious about the New Testament and prayer book that was removed from my seat, I asked the aisle-seat man what the argument was all about. “Oh, well, the fellow by the window was raised Catholic and has fallen away from the Church, so I was just explaining how Catholics should be more strident in their opposition to the politicians who support.…” Really? This is what a Catholic should say when sitting next to a fallen away member of our faith? If John Milton was writing about the New Evangelization he would call his poem “Opportunity Lost!”

How should a Catholic evangelize a member of one of the largest denominations in the country — former Catholics? Here is another true story that might give us some insight. A young teacher in a public school, raised in a very religious and faithful Catholic family, no longer practiced the faith. She married a man who wasn’t Catholic and just fell away. One day in the faculty room at lunch the principal brought the Christmas “Giving Tree” in and asked the teachers if they could divide up the remaining cards since so few students had taken one. 

A discussion ensued about whether “those people” even needed these gifts, and few bothered to take cards home. The young woman was shocked and dismayed by the attitude of her co-workers, and on her way home she cried when she recalled how her family was on food stamps when she was a child because her father was a Catholic school teacher who didn’t make enough to put food on the table. Her next door neighbor was working in the yard and noticed that this young woman was crying. She asked what was wrong and when she heard the story said, “Take those cards off the tree and give them to me, our Church will take care of those gifts.” The neighbor was an active member of the local Catholic parish. She didn’t talk about God, religion, politics, sin, or obligation; she simply responded as a disciple of Christ. That day was the beginning of the young woman’s return to the Catholic Church.

Many Catholics have a deep and profound personal faith, with emphasis on personal. The gentleman whom I encountered on the plane was a man of deep faith. I asked him why he was so interested in religion and he said something very profound. “I am at an age when I realize that eternity is much longer than the life I have lived.” His spiritual preparation to unite with Christ is transforming him for a larger purpose. No matter what we do to prepare ourselves spiritually; it is never for our own benefit. As St. Paul told the Galatians, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” 

Evangelization is not a campaign, but is simply sharing the faith that we love. When the opportunity for one-on-one conversation comes up, the best thing we can do is follow Jesus’ lead. Jesus debated religious practice and doctrine in the public square, but responded with mercy and love in private conversations. He healed the blind man without speculating on the cause of his condition. Jesus forgave the thief on the cross without chastising him for the crime that got him there. 

The next time God sits us next to a person who needs to hear the Good News, be sure to make the news sounds good. Put away your politics and proselytizing, and take time to hear their story. We should not worry about what to say, because their life, with all of its hope and anxiety, will help to release the Christ Who lives within. 

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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