We visited on a hot July afternoon, pushing the baby around the grounds, mingling with other pilgrims – some Indians, a few World Youth Day participants stopping on their way to Toronto, and so on.
The church, built in 1926, is an interesting structure. It's stone on the outside, but the interior is all panels of darkly stained plywood that are gently curved when they reach ceiling height, to be reminiscent of the shape of a canoe. It was intended to be a rustic-looking church, and it is, in a very striking way. There are relics, of course, including half of Jean de Brebeuf's skull. The baby kissed a reliquary some of the martyrs' relics, and was amazingly well-behaved in the car the rest of the day. My husband remarked that he must have had some sort of a conversion experience as a consequence of his encounter with the valiant missionaries.
We climbed up the lookout overlooking Georgian Bay and saw the sights as the Jesuits would have seen it – minus the speedboats in the Bay and the air-conditioned and centrally heated structures scattered around it.
The whole experience leads me, as well it should, to contemplate the sacrifices these men and countless other women and men made for their faith – and ours. Leaving all that was familiar behind, crossing dangerous seas, trekking over unfamiliar land and opening themselves to danger of ever sort, all to share the Good News.
Would we even walk across the street to do the same?
Some of us would, but most of us wouldn’t. I’ve addressed this issue before from the perspective of those within the Church, but this time I want to look at it from the other side.
Perhaps we don’t purposefully evangelize much these days because we don’t have the answers to the questions people are asking. What are they asking, anyway?
Traditional apologetics tends to assume intellectual issues about God’s existence, Jesus’ divinity and the authority of the Church are at the center of the questioner’s concerns. For some, that is still the case, but for more what keeps them from looking seriously at committed Christian faith is a belief that it doesn’t matter.
First of all, most people don't believe that explicit, conscious faith in Christ is essential for salvation, a truth affirmed by the Church, but one that also opens the door to indifference. Most people believe that eternal life more or less just happens after you die and has little if anything to do with the quality of your life beyond a vague “good intention” or “fundamental option” towards goodness and doing the right thing
Secondly, most of us have absolutely no problem with the immanence of God. God is everywhere, accessible anywhere, so what is the point of church buildings and rituals? Is God any more present there than He is with me right now at my computer?
So, the unbeliever, either serious or casual, quite reasonably asks ( within that context) – why bother? If a reasonably good life and high intentions is good enough to get me saved, why bother to do anything more? If God is everywhere, why bother with church and its structures?
And finally, what about Hell? If I live a decent life and affirm a belief in God in my head, would I really go to Hell if I weren’t baptized or didn’t get all hyped up about Jesus?
Yes, it’s a different world from the days of missionaries convinced that the eternal fate of souls depended on the seeds of faith and drops of water they had to share.
It’s a world in which our audience seems to have already absorbed parts of what we have to say – God is everywhere, God accepts you as you are, God works through all hearts to save – and then used it as a reason to close the door, rather than open it further.
And can we blame them?
Amy Welborn is a columnist for Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic News Service and a regular contributer to the Living Faith quarterly devotional.