A few people have inquired how my life and writing incorporates into the New Evangelization, and my answer always varies. After Sarah’s birth, my life took on new meaning and purpose. The Holy Spirit infused a renewed exuberance into my fairly arid heart. It’s not that I neglected my faith – it was quite the contrary actually – but my expression of faith had hit a crossroads in those weeks preceding Sarah’s birth.
Sarah is a silent witness of the New Evangelization simply because of her physical differences. Somehow she draws people out of their stagnancy as strangers notice her craniofacial and limb differences. Instead of the proverbial awkward moment, most people respond to her warmth in kind. Her extraversion and joy break the ice in a sterile, frenzied world, and she is a very natural conversation starter. Whether we are waiting in a doctor’s office or simply standing in line at the grocery store, people notice Sarah. They talk to her and then to me. In so doing, I always mention the grace and goodness of God in our journey with Sarah’s rare condition. These are conversations with people I otherwise would never have if it weren’t for Sarah’s natural interest in people.
Sarah draws me out of my preferred and inherent introversion into a world of engaging others. In the past, I would have been contented to remain cocooned in my secluded prayer life, often lived apart from others. Since Sarah has entered our family, I have stepped outside of my interior hermitage and into a society that often isolates and rejects everything I deeply value.
Yet no one can exist in a vacuum, but rather one must bear witness of God’s love to one’s community.
When we step outside of ourselves and encounter others, we move from independence to interdependence. This is how the New Evangelization unfolds in my family’s life. It’s nothing extraordinary. Rather, it is through our ordinary encounters with every person God places in our daily lives that we transform and are transformed.
We are all living testimonies to our shared joy, hope, and love as Catholic-Christians.
I recently heard a quote from Pope Francis’s book, The Joy of the Gospel, that seems to punctuate my point:
“Enthusiasm for sharing the joy of the Gospel is based on this conviction: We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint.”
To illustrate this truth, my family lives in a sleepy northern Indiana town that very much resembles Mayberry. It’s very difficult to be a recluse in such a place, where complete strangers are privy to personal details about our family – through neighbors and friends who also live in our small town. One such neighbor is a sweet young lady whose family moved two houses south of ours about five years ago. When Alayna (now a seventh grader) learned about Sarah’s condition from a mutual friend, she immediately hovered around our house nearly every day after school ended. She offered to play with Sarah and help us care for her, and she was fascinated by Sarah’s post-operative wound care and weekly physical therapy appointments.
At first, Ben and I were a bit annoyed and irritated by Alayna’s presence. We primarily maintained our daily routine around her, yet we felt a bit awkward having a near-stranger enter into our personal space. I often repressed my negative feelings and surrendered them to Jesus, somehow aware that He was using our time spent with Alayna for a grander purpose than what we could cognitively entertain.
One of the reasons we dissuaded Alayna’s daily visits is that she tended to arrive shortly before we shared our evening meal, which we coveted as sacrosanct family time. I always courteously offered Alayna to partake in our meals, and she declined, yet would sit with us at the dinner table. During those meal-time conversations, Alayna received a snapshot of our family’s inner soul – what we valued, our moral and spiritual underpinnings, and the importance of connecting with each other at the end of a hectic day. Alayna once sadly shared with us that her family does not often share dinner meals, because they are all going in different directions. Ben and I knowingly nodded, as it seems this has become more the rule than the exception to family life these days.
Alayna has been coming around our house for almost two years. The dialogue we exchange is ordinary and, at times, mundane. We’ve never overtly discussed politics or religion. We never incited controversial discussions with Alayna. Instead, Alayna has become a sort of extended family member. She sees the reality of how the Ewings live – the happy days, the messy days, and even the neutral days of monotony and routine.
Last week Alayna stopped by our house after school and brought a friend with her. This wasn’t unusual, so I welcomed the girls and prepared dinner as I offered them a drink and a snack. Alayna’s friend began chatting with me about a topic their social studies teacher had introduced: religion.
Almost immediately, Alayna blurted out, “What would it take for me to become Catholic?”
Taken aback, I responded reticently, “Why do you ask?”
Her eyes sparkled as she smiled. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and I feel drawn to the Catholic Church. Since my parents don’t go to church, and I really want to go, I’d like to see if I can go with you.”
Not wanting to reveal my excitement, I thoughtfully replied, “You are always welcome to go to Mass with us, Alayna. Have you spoken about this with your parents?”
She shook her head – almost in disappointment at my question – so I encouraged her, “It’s wonderful you are interested in learning more about Catholicism. We would be happy to share with you whatever you’d like to know. I just think you should talk about your interest in the Catholic faith with your parents.”
The remainder of the conversation was blurred with a flurry of Catholic apologetics questions being hurled earnestly at me by both Alayna and her friend. It was clear they were hungry for the truth and that their school lesson had opened a long-awaited door for them to freely explore the eternal questions about the meaning of life and God’s transforming love. Once they left, I wasn’t sure what happened. But I was certain of one thing:
This was the New Evangelization. It was a stirring of the Holy Spirit, followed by an encounter and then an awakening. It all happened over the course of time, without explicit evangelizing. The evangelizing occurred within the framework of our family vocation. We were the witnesses, and God moved Alayna’s heart to yearn for what we have and therefore to seek it with all of her heart.
The New Evangelization is an awakening to love. When we encounter Jesus, our hearts burn with His love, and this is evident to everyone we meet along our life’s journey. We are all called to be evangelists as we open our hearts and risk sharing the joy of the Gospel with others who may be like I once was – reluctant, emotionally barricaded, and afraid.
Let us remember this message from our Holy Father when we hesitate to be living testimonies of His light and love in our jaded and bleak world: “No one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord. The Lord does not disappoint those who take the risk.”