I attended a meeting yesterday where we were kicking around slogans for a series of classes on the Catholic Faith. Among our more off-the-wall ideas: “Catholicism: We’re Right and Everyone Else is Wrong;” and, “The Catholic Church: We’ve Got the Keys; What Have You Got?”
Of course, we wouldn't actually use slogans like that. Not only does that kind of uncharitable approach rarely work, it's not my style.
The way I see it, there are two ways to attempt to persuade someone. One is to stay on your “side” and shout, “I'm right and you're wrong! Walk over here into the light!”
I see this a lot. Speakers stand on podiums and announce that they're going to, essentially, rip the audience's beliefs to shreds. Arguments are frequently punctuated by, “That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard,” and, “How could you believe something so ridiculous?”
Believe me, there's no way that kind of approach would work in my apostolate, especially on a subject like chastity. If I stood up in front of several thousand teenagers and said, “I don't believe in sex outside of marriage,” they'd look at me as if I were some kind of freak from a galaxy far, far away. And if I said, “I'm gonna make you believe the same thing,” they'd conclude that I'm trying to make them freaks and take them back to my freaky galaxy. This is not a good start.
I've found a different approach. Instead of shouting at them from where I am, I come to over their side. I say, “Hey, nice side. Kind of like mine. I like what you've done with the walls. But have you ever noticed how tough it is to read in here, what with it being so dark and everything? How could we get some light in here?”
If they don't believe that I honestly understand their experience and their point of view, I might as well stay home and watch Seinfeld. My motto, therefore, is, “Keep them nodding.” I focus on the areas where we agree. I start with, “Dating sure stinks sometimes,” and, “It's sure tough to find real love in this world.” Then I move on through, “Here's why sexual activity forms an incredibly strong bond,” and, “This is why the breakup of a sexual relationship is extremely painful.” All the while they're still nodding, and before they know it, I'm saying, “Sex outside marriage doesn't lead to love,” and they're still nodding. I didn't cram the conclusion down their throats. I just led them to it.
I'm not a belief-changer. I'm simply an information-giver. My job is to show them (whoever “they” happen to be at any given time), in the nicest way possible, what I've learned and why I think it's cool. Then I let them make up their own minds. And, as a result, they often do change their minds — not because I've done anything extraordinary, but because the information is good, and I gave it to them in a respectful way. Effective evangelization is precisely that: sharing the good news respectfully.
Of course, the main reason that works is because what I share is God's truth, and “the truth shall make them free.” God works on their hearts. He causes the change. But He wants us to bring them the truth in love and in sincere enthusiasm, not in righteous indignation. Our egos only get in His way.
So I think I have a new slogan for the series: “I'm Catholic and You're Not: And I'd Love to Discuss Your Reasons.”
Mary Beth Bonacci is an internationally known speaker, author and syndicated columnist. You may visit her website at www.reallove.net.
(This article previously appeared in Envoy magazine, a leading journal of Catholic apologetics, and is reprinted here with permission.)