I recently started reading Bishop Robert Barron and John L. Allen Jr.’s book To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age. I’ve read quite a few of Bishop Barron’s more theological books and I own both the Catholicism series and the most recent Pivotal Players series. He approaches evangelization in a deeply human and intuitive way. Many of his experiences are similar to my own. He emphasizes the beauty, depth, and richness of our Catholic Faith.
As I’ve written here before, beauty has had a foundational and significant impact on not only my reversion, but my spiritual journey as a whole. All of these experiences of beauty are grounded in Christ, most especially through an encounter both body and soul with Him in the Holy Eucharist. Barron leads with the beauty of the Faith fully realized in an encounter with Jesus Christ. It is a message that is so desperately needed in a culture that largely does not know how to relate to the beautiful, the good, and the true.
For Catholics one of the biggest mistakes we make in evangelization is getting too caught up in the culture wars. I made this mistake for a few years after my reversion. I thought: “If only we could explain Theology of the Body to people, then people would stop contracepting, ignoring Church teaching, the young would come back to the Church, etc.” Theology of the Body did have a profound impact on both me and my husband, but it didn’t cause my reversion. It took me a while to understand what took place within me that led me to give my life over to Christ and fully accept what the Church teaches.
The answer quite simply is that I had a real and tangible encounter with Jesus Christ. I saw Him through the beauty of the Mass. I wanted to give my life to Him because He had pierced me utterly at the deepest levels of my soul. I fell in love with Him and His Church. Only then was I ready to say: “Here, Lord. I give everything to you, even my sexuality.” Far too often, we lead with the Church’s doctrine and it doesn’t work. People are not converted by great moral theology, they are converted because they fall in love with Jesus Christ. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it best in Deus Caritas Est:
Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and decisive direction.
Those of us who are actively following Christ as disciples did not become Christian or remain Christian because we fell in love with ethics and the moral law. Instead, we fell in love with Christ and came to understanding all the demands placed upon us through Love. When we love others, we seek to empty ourselves. In our relationship with Christ, we are not only turning to Him in self-emptying love, we are conforming ourselves to Him, we are becoming more like Him. It is this self-emptying and desire to be in conformation to Him that leads us to throw our birth control pills away, give up lying and cheating, seek chastity, stop stealing, turn away from materialism and the lies of the culture in order to repent.
The most common approach Catholics take today in evangelizing the culture is engaging in the culture wars. This is well and good as far as it goes. Certain voices are adept at engaging intellectually with the culture on issues related to human sexuality especially since these are the most prevalent issues of our day. We need those voices. Our culture is obsessed with sex and in turn we have allowed ourselves to become obsessed with it, so much so that people only see the Catholic Church as a list of rules limiting how people can engage and live their sexuality. We cannot effectively evangelize from this vantage point and it is an error we all seem to make across the board.
Bishop Barron’s approach to evangelization is the same approach used by the Apostles. It is to declare the Good News of Christ risen from the dead and to lead people to an encounter with Our Living God. Our Faith is about Jesus Christ. He is the center of our Faith. He is the reason for our Faith. He is the One we love even to the point of death. We must draw people into this dynamic relationship between God and humanity. To do so, we must introduce people to the beauty of our faith and we must show them Christ. We ourselves must be actively living holy lives and seeking day-in-and-day out to lay down our lives in love to God and our neighbor.
Our example is one of the most effective evangelical tools at our disposal. Joy is infectious and people will begin to be drawn in because they will see Jesus Christ alive within us.
In order to evangelize effectively we also need to make sure we understand the centrality of our faith: Christ. Have we become obsessed with sex, the Liturgy wars, politics, etc. to the point that we are a stumbling block to others? Are our own preferences or even destructive ideologies getting in the way of our ability to lead others to Christ? Social media is a cacophonous din of competing ideologies. We cannot possibly help people encounter Christ if all we are doing is screaming at one another about pieces of the puzzle that is Catholicism, a good part of which is merely our own preferences.
Are we leading with Christ? Not in a beating people over the head with morality sort of way, but rather, with the gift of salvation that He wants to offer to all peoples. We have far too little faith if we assume that people must understand the Church teaching on sexuality first. No. People need to know Christ first. Only then can they give up those disordered desires in love to the One Who made them. It is our job to plant seeds. The Holy Spirit tends the garden. We cannot possibly help people who are struggling with certain sins if we come at them in attack mode all of the time.
Yes, the moral teaching of the Church matters. We must proclaim it boldly in all of its truth, beauty, and depth. It is a gift and it helps lead us to the happiness we are made for: beatitudo. We must always remember, however, that the moral teaching of the Church comes from Christ Himself through an encounter with Him. It is a relationship. One that is dynamic, exciting, and life-giving. We ourselves must be living the great adventure of holiness and drawing people on the path, not because we primarily want people to submit on sexuality, but because we want people to live the joy they are made for. The joy that can only come from loving God and accepting the gratuitous love He pours out on us each day. A love that leads us to abandon our lives to Him, even our sexuality. Let’s put Him at the center of our evangelical mission so that the world can hear the Good News.