I have a confession: I have over 25 years of experience directing faith-formation programs in parishes and universities, but I still squirm when I hear about our call to “evangelization.” Gulp! Is evangelization really our call as Catholics? Isn’t going to Mass enough? Or works of charity? Or walking barefoot over a hotbed of coals? Please—anything but telling others about Jesus. I mean, evangelizing isn’t really a Catholic thing, is it?
As uncomfortable as the concept of evangelization is for many of us Catholics, it is a Catholic thing. In his apostolic exhortation On Evangelization in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI wrote, “We wish to confirm once more that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” The bottom line is this: Since we all constitute the Church as the “People of God,” the call to evangelize belongs to all of us—you, me, clergy—in other words, all of the baptized.
So, here’s the deal. Even though the call to evangelize does belong to us all, it doesn’t have to be so unnerving. In fact, you may even find it incredibly lifegiving if you keep the following in mind:
- Begin with yourself: Our first call is to nurture our own relationship with Jesus through prayer, celebrating Eucharist, good works, and much more. We ourselves are always in need of being re-evangelized. Coming to know Jesus is a journey that never ends. This is important, because to meaningfully share our faith, we need a meaningful faith to share. So, begin with yourself.
- Actions speak louder than words. Evangelization is rooted in our actions. St. Francis is often reported to have said, “Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” Although it is unlikely he uttered those words, they capture a truth about him. St. Francis’ unsurpassable love (exhibited in his ministry to lepers and outcasts) attracted followers. Once followers witnessed and tasted this love, they wanted to know its source, and St. Francis, of course, shared that his love—all love—came from Christ. His model is crucially important to us all: people are often first drawn to faith through being on the receiving end of Christ-like action, which in turn creates fertile ground for people to receive Christ in word. Francis’ model also suggests that people come to faith after a relationship of trust and credibility has been established, which leads to my third thing to keep in mind.
- Meet people where they are at. What often leads to anxiety regarding the call to evangelization is the belief that if one is willing to put oneself on the line for Christ, one must be willing to offer unsolicited evangelization. In other words, witness about Christ whether people want to hear it or not. Although sharing one’s faith in an unsolicited manner may take courage, in my experience it rarely brings someone to faith. More often than not, people get weirded out. This is why it is important to start with the person, not the message. Build a relationship: what are people’s joys, struggles, favorite movies, and cares and concerns. Through coming to know persons in their totality, we are loving them—which is a starting point of evangelization. As we become attuned to persons and the context of their lives, then we might share faith by meeting them where they are at. It may start small: “When I lose something, I always pray to St. Anthony. He always helps me find lost things.” Or it may be situational: “I’m so sorry that you lost your job. When I was struggling after losing my job, my faith really helped me.” But before offering your witness, listen. We earn the right to evangelize through meeting people where they are at.
I hope these few simple principles help you feel more comfortable with our call to evangelize. All of us at RENEW International are here to help you move beyond squirming to life-giving joy!