A friend stopped me during my daily walk with my dog for an unexpected conversation. As she momentarily halted her vigorous weeding, her approach seemed overly enthusiastic. “Jeannie, I have to tell you something!” she squealed with enthusiasm. I responded with equal gusto, “What is it?” Apparently a book I gave her over four years ago is now one she is eagerly devouring. It’s Scott Hahn’s Reason to Believe, and I’d nearly forgotten about it until she expressed how much it convicted her.
Normally, this wouldn’t have been news to write home about, but this was not a normal situation. My friend is Mennonite, and she comes from generations of Protestants who follow this faith tradition.
“I’m getting disillusioned with the Mennonite response to modern issues in the world,” she continued as I listened attentively. “Everything I read that is Catholic is really convicting me, and I keep running into Catholic blogs and articles. They all speak to me, and I just want to share what I’m learning with everyone else!”
In that moment, I recalled an article I’d read about gradualism, and it occurred to me that this was the fruit of many years of cultivating friendship with her. Last year I read the book, Forming Intentional Disciples, and I had informally been practicing evangelization to my dear friend. Here’s how it all began:
1. Building a relationship
About eight years ago, I met my neighbor, who became a close friend. We fostered a relationship based on common interests, then our shared understanding of humanity based on our degrees in psychology, and finally, our Christian faith. We listened to each other with mutual respect and admiration, never condescending or judging. The first step to conversion begins with a solid friendship formed with this type of reciprocal respect.
2. Establishing trust
Eventually my friend trusted me on matters concerning doctrine. Because we already had the foundation of friendship, she was willing to seek my advice and perspective about cultural and moral issues through the lens of Catholicism. We discussed life issues, the Eucharist, and celibacy – all with her authentically comprehending and believing what I shared.
3. Openness to Catholicism
Last year, I became cognizant that my friend was, in fact, open to Catholicism. Her questions went from distant curiosity to genuine interest. I noticed a change in the way she saw herself, church history, apologetics, and all of the theological and philosophical applications of Catholicism in the modern day. Her heart was directed toward, rather than away from, the beauty of our Faith.
Now that my friend is reading Scott Hahn and sees the conviction of truth in her heart, I can see that she is on the journey toward conversion. From my viewpoint, this doesn’t mean verbalizing what I see to her. It means the continuation of listening to her insights, sharing when she asks, and maintaining our friendship.
We don’t have to knock door-to-door to be new evangelists. In fact, the beauty of a gradual conversion is often what draws people into the Church so that they stay. A faith rooted in rich, fertile soul is much more likely to withstand the inevitable storms that attempt to uproot it than the overzealous convert whose faith is built on rock or sand.
Maybe the point for all of us is to realize that everyone God places in our lives is a person in need of what we have to offer – hospitality, a thoughtful gift, a listening heart. If we allow God to be the One who puts all of the pieces together, we eventually discover that we were part of a beautiful tapestry – piece by piece, bit by bit – all along. Evangelization doesn’t have to be difficult. It just means we are attentive to the movement of the Holy Spirit in and through our everyday relationships.
The Easter season is one in which we recall the twelve Apostles and their commissioning – their sending forth into the world – after Pentecost. As the original Christian evangelists, they were first trained for a time, and then Jesus sent them to use what they had learned, to implement their gifts and talents in new and strange lands, but most of all, to be the heart of the Faith.
As disciples of Christ, we are also called to evangelize through the heart language, by way of encountering a person in his or her spiritual journey. We do not proselytize. We do not lead Pharisaical lives. Rather, we return to the source of our faith just as the Apostles did. We receive Jesus in the Eucharist frequently; we confess our sins regularly; and we call upon the Holy Spirit to hear and speak the right words so that every conversation might be holy.
Years have passed since I first met my dear friend. In fact, it has been nearly ten years since we first met and forged a close bond with each other. I have seen her spiritual maturity unfurl slowly but steadily. I have watched in amazement at her inner transformation based on conversations she has initiated. And, today, in this Easter season, I stand in awe at the reality that she is on the cusp of conversion. To participate so directly in one’s call to Catholicism is incredibly humbling and quite an honor.
So we, like the first Twelve, must not be afraid to engage others when they approach us. We can view evangelization as if it were door-to-door preaching, or we can see it instead as the gradual building of relationships, the mutual trust and reciprocity that unfolds as the relationship deepens. When we step back and allow the Holy Spirit to lead our friendships with others, we just might one day realize that we have been instruments of evangelization all along.