I gave a talk Sunday morning to the men’s club of a large Atlanta Methodist church at the request of an old friend. When he asked me to speak to this group several months ago, I responded with a question which I would ask him repeatedly every time we got together: “They know I’m Catholic, right?” I engage one-on-one with people of other faiths almost every day and always enjoy the dialogue, but this was very different as I would be going on their turf to deliver a talk. I let nagging self-doubt creep in and began to regret my commitment over the last several weeks.
I speak to groups fairly often and this should not have been a big deal, but speaking to a large group of Protestants was pushing me way out of my comfort zone. How would they respond? Would they ask me questions I couldn’t answer? Would they start quoting scripture and maligning the Church? What if they insulted the Blessed Mother? Would they criticize Pope Benedict? What would I do?!
My friend tried to reassure me with what he thought were encouraging words: “Don’t worry; most of them are former Catholics.” Good grief! Not only was I speaking as a Catholic in a Methodist church, but I was speaking to a group of former Catholics who had left the Church. How nice. It would be just my luck if everyone there had lingering issues which they would love to take out on me. Then I had an epiphany a few days before I spoke and remembered three important things:
- I needed to stop worrying and start praying. I needed to give up my fear and anxiety to the Lord, trust in Him and ask for strength and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
- This was an unbelievable opportunity to share the joy of my Catholic faith with my Christian brothers…many of whom were once Catholic.
- I know my friend and he would not put me in a negative situation like the one my overactive imagination had cooked up. I needed to have faith and trust in our friendship and his good intentions. I needed to avoid giving in to unfair stereotyping, which I would resent if it was directed at me.
Before I share with you what happened at the talk, let’s take a brief time out and reflect a little on giving witness and ecumenical outreach. Do you recognize that I just illustrated the fear and anxiety many Catholics feel about sharing their faith? I have heard countless times that we must be careful here in the “Protestant South.” We may get questions about the Virgin Mary, or why we have priests hear our confessions or why we pray to saints. There is a fear that they could pounce on us by using Scripture to attack our beliefs. My caution to all of us is that a fearful and insecure Catholic often becomes a quiet Catholic, but Jesus expects more from us. If we only share our faith and witness with other Catholics or worse, keep it to ourselves, how will the Church grow and spread Christ’s message of love? “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:37-38).
In my professional life, I encounter new people every day. Since my conversion to the Church in 2006 I have been very open and transparent with others about my faith. In all of my numerous encounters with people of different faith backgrounds, I have had very few negative experiences. I find people to be curious about Catholicism, not adversarial. I am not naïve and I recognize there are people who have strong negative feelings towards the Church, but they may be doing so out of misguided intentions, misunderstandings or a lack of know.
We have an opportunity during these encounters to explain our Catholic Faith, dispel the rumors and refute the myths. So many times in these conversations I have observed that we are more aligned than either of us realized and that often language and misunderstandings are the biggest barriers to agreement. But, first we must know our Catholic Faith before we can explain it to anyone else: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame” — 1 Peter 3:15-16.
Now, back to that talk at the Methodist church. The prayers worked and the Lord gave me the peace and strength I needed. The group could not have been more kind or welcoming (is there a lesson here?). I actually felt very comfortable when I rose up to speak and trusted in the Holy Spirit to convey the right words. I started out by sharing my faith journey into the Church before launching into a talk titled “Priorities and a Life Filled with Meaning” where I outlined my life priorities and the practical actions I was taking to ensure that I stayed on the right path. They heard quotes from saints and popes and lots of Scripture and Catechism references. I hoped they would see me as a father and husband struggling with the same things they did and how keeping my focus on serving Christ and putting Him first in my life kept me on the right path. The audience applauded loudly when I finished and many of them came up after to say that I really connected with them. They asked for a copy of the talk which I was glad to provide them. Many others asked if we could have coffee in the weeks ahead to discuss why I was so joyful about my Catholic faith as they were eager to learn more.
I didn’t do anything extraordinary and I am not a particularly gifted speaker. The Holy Spirit worked through me, a Catholic, to reach these Protestant men in their church on a Sunday morning. Many of us will likely have numerous encounters in our lifetimes with people of different faiths. We are blessed as Catholics to possess the truth and the fullness of the faith. All it takes is our willingness to share our joy, a little courage, humility, transparency, and prayer to give a powerful witness for our Lord. Consider the words of Frances Fernandez from In Conversation With God:
On our part we are called upon to be good channels through which His grace will flow and to facilitate the action of the Holy Spirit in ourselves, in friends, relatives, acquaintances and colleagues…If our Lord never gets tired of giving His help to everybody, how can we who are only instruments ever become discouraged? Once the carpenter’s hand is firmly placed on the wood, how can the tool ever have any reservations about doing its work?
Are we willing to let the Carpenter work through us today?