The other day I read the beautiful document on evangelization that was recently released by the Holy Father and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As I read, a particularly striking passage caught my attention:
"…there is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to talk to others of our friendship with him" (CDF, "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization," 7).
"Evangelization" is something we Catholics are all called to do. And yet, Evangelical converts to the faith have a unique perspective on this subject, having been on the receiving end of the Good News twice, first as an Evangelicals and again as Catholics.
Ironically, my earliest impressions of the Church were formed not by "professional" Catholics such as clergy and apologists. Rather, my preconceptions and misgivings about the Church crumbled like a proverbial house of cards because of the patient, humble efforts of ordinary brothers and sisters in Christ who took to heart the admonition of St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words." They include:
The Catholic college friend who continued to support my mission work in Senegal even after she discovered that I thought she wasn't a "real" Christian.
The Catholic mother of a school friend who visited me in the hospital and figured out how to wash my hair for the first time in many weeks.
A Catholic boyfriend (I write about him in greater detail in the upcoming March/April issue of Canticle) whose example made me search out for myself whether Catholics are, in fact, "saved."
I write these things not to minimize the importance of sound catechetics and apologetics. Once my heart was open to receiving the fullness of the truth, my mind soaked up the books and tapes of Scott Hahn, Karl Keating, and (in my case) Sheldon Vanauken. However, my heart was wooed and won by the patient, unfailing love of these ordinary Catholics who lived their faith simply, humbly, and with amazing grace.
Ordinary, Extraordinary Grace
In his recent letter on evangelization, the Holy Father acknowledges that this important work is about much more than imparting dogma. He writes: "… to evangelize does not mean simply to teach a doctrine, but to proclaim Jesus Christ by one's words and actions, that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world" (CDF, "DNSAE", 2).
This brings me to the second half of my reflection on evangelization, namely, my experiences of evangelism (i.e., my efforts to bring others to Christ as an Evangelical Christian).
I had nearly completed my Bible school studies when a certain guest lecturer addressed my class on the importance of "church planting." Soon the idea caught on, and many of my classmates made exalted plans to form teams and go off to the most remote parts of the world to start a church (in most cases, having never started one here at home).
This didn't make sense to me. I decided my time was better spent teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to local immigrants. I said as much to one of my professors, who actually patted me on the head and said, "That's OK, Heidi. You go ahead and teach English … the rest of us will get on with God's work!"
Although his comments irritated me, I was sure I was on the right track. I wasn't comfortable with the strong-arm tactics of some of my classmates (and a few of my teachers), who came back from "witnessing" declaring proudly how they had silenced their opponents with their own finely-honed arguments. They had stripped away lies and exposed falsehoods, lobbing Bible verses like so many Molotov cocktails.
Listening to them, I wondered: Is the point of evangelism to silence opponents, or lead them to Jesus? If the latter, doesn't this require the kind of relationship you just can't develop by making another person feel like an idiot? Doesn't it require building a relationship over time, built on trust and respect?
When I raised this point, however, they silenced me as well. "Don't you know, Heidi, that while you're teaching nouns and verbs and ladling soup, souls are going to hell every day? Don't you know that, because you have not shared the Gospel as clearly and forcefully as you should, YOU are responsible for their fate?"
Squirming at the possibility that they might be right, I began to take a more direct approach in my ESL classes, spending part of each "lesson" trying to persuade my students to accept Jesus. The sense of urgency began to border on obsession. What if this was the last time I ever saw these people, and they died that night without ever praying the Sinner's Prayer? Would they one day (at the Judgment Seat) accuse me of not trying hard enough to show them the truth?
There was another problem as well: I had become so preoccupied with the state of other people's souls, I did not give much thought to my own. I had already "accepted Jesus," you see — and so there was no need to worry about the state of my own soul. I was going to heaven. Gossip … resentment … anger … even manipulation. None of it mattered, or so I thought; the blood of Jesus covered me.
Years later, as I went through the RCIA program, I was struck by the fact that no one — not even the director of the program — used any heavy-handed tactics to persuade me to become Catholic. "Don't worry, Heidi," she consoled me when I confessed a few weeks before the Vigil that I still didn't "feel at peace" about joining them. "If you decide not to enter the Church at this Vigil, God may have other plans for you. Obviously you love God and want to do His will. Relax, and let things unfold a bit more. There is no hurry … God has all the time in the world."
It was precisely what I needed to hear. The knot in the pit of my stomach unraveled, and I went to my first sacramental confession knowing that — whatever else happened to me — God knew my heart belonged to Him.
"… every activity of the Church has an essential evangelizing dimension and must never be separated from the commitment to help all persons to meet Christ in faith, which is the primary objective of evangelization: 'Social issues and the Gospel are inseparable. When we bring people only knowledge, ability, technical competence and tools, we bring them too little'" (CDF, "DNSAE", 2).
Church Girl Runs Home … to Rome
This is the title of my conversion story, part of which I have already written about here. It has been a little disorienting, at times, to encounter Catholics who — with all the best intentions — "defend" Christ and His Church with the same zeal I used to encounter in the Evangelical camp. I have to remind myself that zeal has its place, that truth sometimes does cut like a sword, that the "faith warrior" has an important place in the Kingdom of God. And yet, there is room for the more cautious among us as well; for medics as well as soldiers, mothers who nurture as well as fathers who lead.
In His Mercy, God has given me glimpses of certain spiritual pitfalls so I can avoid them, and maybe help point them out to a few souls along the way. I know how important it is to depend on God's grace to carry on the work He gives me to do with a measure of humility and prudence, and how easy it can be to fall. I thought of this again when I read:
"Indeed, since the day of Pentecost, the Church has manifested the universality of her mission, welcoming in Christ the countless riches of peoples from all times and places in human history. Beyond its intrinsic anthropological value, every encounter with another person or culture is capable of revealing potentialities of the Gospel which hitherto may not have been fully explicit and which will enrich the life of Christians and the Church. Thanks to this dynamism, 'tradition, which comes from the Apostles, makes progress in the Church by the help of the Holy Spirit'" (CDF, "DNSAE", 6).