A decade ago, I sat in Denver’s airport waiting for a flight to Wyoming. Looking for ways to pass the time, I took out my rosary and started praying. Seeing this, a young family across the terminal waved to me, and the father called out to me with a big smile as he took out his rosary as well.
It would have been a beautiful exchange and expression of faith in a busy place, one that might have given a little more courage to other closet Catholics in that terminal, or one that might have shown others how the Church is alive and young. That moment in the terminal could have been those things, but it wasn’t.
It wasn’t, because all I did when I saw the family wave was shake my head, thinking their public display was silly.
I can tell you my reasons for shaking my head, but none of them were good. I thought of the Lord’s words, “When you pray, pray … in secret” (Matthew 6:6). I was also thinking that any form of witness this man was attempting to display would just fall on deaf ears, because the Rosary is just too strangely Catholic (see Matthew 7:6).
But these are weak arguments in this case, because Jesus’ words about praying in secret are not an excuse for an exclusively private spiritual life. If that were the case, it would be out of place for him to say things like “whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). He wouldn’t have said “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). He wouldn’t have told us to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19) and to shout the gospel from rooftops (Matthew 10:27). If he wanted us to always keep our faith secret, he wouldn’t have discouraged us from hiding our light under a bushel (Matthew 5:15).
Maybe that man in the airport was simply eager for a companion in prayer—eager for a sense of Catholic community in an otherwise spiritually lonesome place, but I judged his actions to be a superficial display of false piety.
The Expression of Faith Conundrum
Thus, I am no exception when it comes to lack of boldness in the Faith, but nor do I take full responsibility for this timidity. We’ve been taught by family, friends, and the culture to be timid when it comes to religion, and making our faith private is often seen as a virtue. Contemporary American life sits squarely on the “live and let live” philosophy. So, just as I cannot pardon myself from being a contributor to this problem, I also can’t fully blame those who have always been told to temper their zeal or hide their faith to avoid causing trouble.
Living the Faith today, we walk a fine line: if we express our faith beyond the prescribed parameters defined by the culture, we run the risk of violating the sacrosanct social more that says keep faith and politics to yourself. On the other hand, if we keep it to ourselves, we run the risk of failing to live it altogether—because Christ tells us to live it out loud.
We cannot keep our faith private because Christianity, at its very foundation, is a bold and outward faith. It cannot simply be inherited and we cannot contain it within our church walls. Christ meant for it to be spread everywhere, so despite living in a culture that wants religion to be a personal matter, we need to be countercultural, witnessing to the world that we have been transformed by Christ and are sustained through his Church.
But what does that mean, exactly? How do we convey to the world that Christ truly has transformed us?
First, let’s talk about two different approaches to evangelization. One approach encourages Catholics to find the people sinking in the mud and quicksand, and then jump in to try and save them. This is sometimes called the “gospel of encounter,” because it emphasizes meeting people where they are.
An alternative approach to evangelization is this: If a person is sinking, throw them a rope for goodness’ sake! Stand on solid ground and offer them a way out that they can reach.
If we’re honestly trying to help the lost sheep, what good is it if we put ourselves in the same situation? If I’m drowning in an ocean and people approach me on a boat, I wouldn’t want them to jump in to try and save me. I would want them to throw me a lifesaver from their boat that’s afloat.
The sacraments, the lives of the saints, the Gospels and Church teaching are the lifesavers we can offer to people who are drowning in the culture of death.
But instead many Catholics—with good and noble intentions-—wade too far into the cultural waters, oblivious to the fact that we too are sinking.
We look for random quotes or actions from celebrities that indicate a lukewarm faith at best, desperately hanging on to those expressions because maybe—just maybe—they indicate that there is still hope for our culture. We do all the cool things the popular kids do for the sake of meeting them where they are—but in their eyes we probably just look like we’re desperate for attention and acceptance from them.
Meanwhile, their souls still need to be saved.
What nonbelievers really need is an example of genuine Catholic faith. But many of us are too afraid to give it. Why?
I’ll tell you what I fear: that when I stand before the throne of God one day, he will ask me what I did to help save souls. I’ll tell him I tried to find his truth, goodness, and beauty within the secular culture they loved, and connect with souls that way. And he’ll tell me, “But I gave you the saints, the sacraments, the Scriptures and the Church. Why didn’t you tell them about these gifts?” And I’ll have to say, “Oh, well, I thought they wouldn’t be ready to digest all that.”
Not only is that condescending, it’s prodigal because it wastes what God has given us. Just as importantly, it wastes time. For we do not know the day or the hour Jesus is coming (Matthew 25:13). If it’s not the love of God that drives us to evangelize with full unapologetic vigor, let it at least be fear of the Lord.
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Proverbs 1:7).
I believe Pope St. John Paul II’s words on inculturation in Redemptoris Missio have a great influence on the gospel of encounter approach to evangelization. When St. John Paul II told missionaries to immerse themselves in the culture to whom they’re evangelizing (see RM, 53) and even embrace its good parts, he also told them to not renounce their own Christian identity:
“[Inculturation] must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith. Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community.”RM, 52
“Missionaries … must immerse themselves in the cultural milieu of those to whom they are sent, moving beyond their own cultural limitations. Hence they must learn the language of the place in which they work, become familiar with the most important expressions of the local culture, and discover its values through direct experience. Only if they have this kind of awareness will they be able to bring to people the knowledge of the hidden mystery (cf. Rom 16:25-27; Eph 3:5) in a credible and fruitful way. It is not of course a matter of missionaries renouncing their own cultural identity, but of understanding, appreciating, fostering and evangelizing the culture of the environment in which they are working, and therefore of equipping themselves to communicate effectively with it, adopting a manner of living which is a sign of gospel witness and of solidarity with the people.”RM, 53
He was echoing St. Paul who said:
“Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
They preached, by word and example, a gospel that was, is, and always will be countercultural.
So how do we present a distinct, integrated, courageous, and countercultural Catholic Faith in our parish communities and beyond?
The Do’s and Dont’s of Countercultural Boldness
1. Encourage parish life activities and small group gatherings.
3. Be a leader in the Faith, and offer an authentic Catholic vision of reality. Show that you have a tangible goal of greater holiness in the Church and the conversion of souls, not just a goal to increase event attendance.
4. Address controversial issues with transcendence, firmness, and clarity (eyes on heaven, feet on the ground).
5. Tell people to repent (Matthew 3:2).
6. Offer real-life applications of the Faith, not just words. Tell people more about ministries, communities, apostolates, and so on, so they can join and implement the ideas discussed during the programs we offer—or encourage them to start something in the Church themselves. Make the Faith incarnational.
1. Don’t chase trends while trying to figure out what our audience wants.
2. Don’t turn Jesus into a therapist who simply makes us feel better about ourselves.
3. Don’t make the Faith individualistic. It’s not about them and their problems.
Fear of Hypocrisy: A Stumbling Block to Speaking Truth
Many of us shy away from proclaiming the truths of the Faith because we know we haven’t lived up to them ourselves. Understandably, we don’t want to come across as hypocrites. But what’s worse, being seen as a hypocrite or being so self-centered that we fear what people think of us more than we care about speaking truth? Truth is truth no matter who speaks it. Should an alcoholic refrain from telling teenagers not to get drunk for fear of sounding like a hypocrite? Or is the advice not to get drunk any less valuable coming from someone who has never had a drink? No, because getting drunk is bad for you and immoral. It doesn’t matter who tells you that; it remains just as true.
A person may be crucified after saying it, but if he has a conviction to speak the truth he has to say it, no matter how much sin may be on his or her soul at the moment. It may be the Holy Spirit prompting him to do so, and if he doesn’t speak it God may hold him accountable.
Boldness Is not Bluntness
Another objection to being bold in our faith is that people have sensitivities, and if we’re too blunt in speaking the truth we may actually hurt them and push them away from the Faith. But when I speak of sharing the Faith more boldly, I’m not talking about just blurting it out without any concern for the person who is on the listening end. That would be uncharitable. We don’t need to be more blunt. We need to be more cunning and sharper. We need the refined truth. It’s not enough to just be honest. We need to study, get to the heart of the matter, and report back with sharp brevity—and speak only when necessary. The difference between a blunt response and one that is piercing with its truth is love. Most people can tell the difference. A person can usually tell when they’re not loved, but they’ll also know a loving remark when they hear one even if it pierces them.
Searching for Our Lost Shaker of Salt
Yet another thing that stymies our boldness in the Faith is the vanilla version of it that we’ve inherited. Now I like vanilla sometimes, but if I have too much of something vanilla I get nauseous. It’s good when you’re looking to mitigate a sharp flavor like chocolate, but in excess you just begin to long for the sharp flavor again. It’s like driving through the suburbs for too long and getting urban sprawl fatigue. If you go long enough on a highway without witnessing something awe-inspiring, like a beautiful mountain range or a majestic skyline, you begin to accept your environment for what it is and don’t expect anything more from it.
That is what has happened to our faith. The awe-inspiring expressions of it are too few and far-between, like that distant beautiful national park people go to for vacation, but is not part of our everyday lives. We’ve accepted a standard of faith that is enough to get by. It’s even gotten to the point where sincere acts of reverence, like kneeling to receive Communion, are seen as inconveniences. Extreme acts of piety sound great in the stories of the saints, but witnessing them in the midst of our vanilla parish life seems out-of-place. Beautiful lakes and canyons are great to visit on long weekends, but there is no place for them in the middle of a sprawling housing development.
The Church of Jesus Christ is not supposed to have a vanilla flavor. It’s supposed to be salty, but the saltiness she once had is fading in the rear view mirror as we drive back home for the week.
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.”Matthew 5:13
The unique thing about salt is how it brings out the flavor of whatever it is sprinkled on. Christ’s analogy here is very intentional and perfect, as always. Christians are the salt in a culture because they bring out all the best in that culture. They bring out the God-given flavor. I can see this good intention in a great deal of the evangelization efforts the Church is engaged in today (namely, it’s the gospel of encounter approach I spoke of earlier), but if the dish is the culture and we’re the salt on it, we’ve been sitting on the dish for too long. How long do we have to wait before it becomes clear that it is not redeemable? The dish is beginning to spoil, and we’re still sitting on the counter with it trying to bring out its flavor. That’s not what we mean by counterculture!
Standing Against Heresies
Another obstacle we encounter when trying to be bold in our faith is prevalent beliefs around us, and the subsequent temptation to succumb to them. Certain prevalent beliefs within the Church today make the Catholic Faith less relevant to people’s lives.
For example, the belief that all religions are equal makes believers think the Catholic Faith is just one among many religions, and that it doesn’t matter what religion we are—we all have equal access to heaven.
Also, the belief that hell doesn’t exist—or that it exists but hardly anyone goes there—makes believers think the salvation of our souls is less imperative than it really is, and that a life of virtue that avoids sin is laudable but not necessary.
To say that the Catholic Faith is the one true Faith and that hell does exist requires a bold and countercultural stance on our part.
Nonetheless, that is the stance we are called to take. So let’s be countercultural. Let’s proclaim the truth for its own sake, not because we feel we are worthy or qualified to do so. Let’s study our faith so we can learn how to respond to people’s sensitivities with love, but also clarity. To do this we’ll have to rediscover the salt that brought such invigorating flavor to the lives of the saints, but with God such a tall order is not impossible. Let’s stand firm against the heresies that have compromised the gospel message. Let’s be courageous. Let’s be Catholic.
When I think of a courageous Church, I think of a city on a hill that has a missionary spirit, or a bright lighthouse shining in a stormy sea. If we are bold in this way, people will see the stark contrast between us and the voice of the world. Their longing for something different, something holy, will draw them to us; and they’ll see—we’ll see—what God has wanted the Church to be all along.
Want to learn more about how you can attract people to the Church through bold witness? Keep an eye out for the new book by Marcel LeJeune from Ascension, The Contagious Catholic: The Art of Practical Evangelization. It covers how fruitful evangelization hinges on personal renewal, commitment to Christ, and readiness to become missionary disciples. Sign up here to be among the first to know when it’s available.
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David Kilby is editor of the Ascension Blog.