Warming up to evangelization

Snow on the trees, crystalline blue skies, endlessly changing patterns of light and dark on frozen lakes and streams, and branching silhouettes of trees reaching upwards: these are the hallmarks of a New England winter. But every year, despite the picturesque scene outdoors, I end up saying the same thing, “I’m not going to die here!”

Winter is beautiful, as long as you’re looking at it from inside someplace warm. Oh, I know that there’s a whole constituency out there that loves skiing and sledding, and delights in making snowmen and angels. But for me, there’s nothing that can outweigh winter’s greatest drawback. Winter is cold.

I love Pope Benedict, but I still miss hearing the prayers for “John Paul, our pope” at Mass. One of the most striking things about John Paul was his warmth. As every pope does, he wrote and spoke countless words of faith publicly. But John Paul did so in the language of intimacy. His appeal was as intensely personal as it was universal. Whenever and wherever John Paul spoke, it was clear that his message was grounded in a personal experience of love. His purpose was to share the love of his life with anyone who was open to receiving it.

On the threshold of the third millennium, Pope John Paul encouraged all of us -- clergy, religious and lay faithful -- to help bring about a springtime of new evangelization. Why? I think the Holy Father encouraged us to a new springtime because we as Church have been hibernating in winter for too long. When it comes to sharing our faith, just maybe we have been a bit too cold.

The truth is that even the word “evangelize” sends a shiver up many a good Catholic spine. For a very long time, our faith has been something we have considered not just a personal matter, but a private one. When the topic of evangelism comes up, someone invariably quotes the instruction of St. Francis of Assisi, “Evangelize, evangelize, evangelize, and if you must, use words.” Unfortunately, we often misappropriate what St. Francis meant. We don’t talk much about God, but we also fail to put into practice the mission to win the world to Christ to which St. Francis devoted his entire life. We simply avoid evangelism altogether. Why?

It’s not exactly that we’re embarrassed of God, or ashamed of Him. If someone asked the average practicing Catholic about the faith, he or she would probably have something to say. But hardly any of us will share the Gospel of Jesus Christ if we aren’t specifically asked about it. Moreover, many of us who do talk about God, often opt for the more “objective” or “theoretical” approaches that are considered more “acceptable” and less “threatening” or “judgmental.” In other words, we’ve found ways to discuss theology without venturing into the realm of the personal. The unintended result is that when we’ve talked about God, how we’ve done it has contributed to the notion that He is less personal, less intimate, and less involved with us than we say He is.

The confirmation students I work with keep reminding me of the power of personal witness. I have tried to offer them a mix of instruction, prayer experiences and faith witness. They are more open to prayer than many would suspect. But in terms of presenting material I have found them far more responsive to a personal life story of faith than to any topic a speaker can address, no matter how relevant the topic, or how well a speaker presents it. What catches their attention are stories that show that God is alive, that He is active, and that there is more to life than they can see. There is simply no substitute for the kind of personal faith witness that brought countless people to the baptismal fonts of the early Church. It seems that faith sharing is necessary for faith formation among those who have already been baptized as well.

With that in mind, our parish has recently begun an opportunity for personal faith witness. At one Mass a month, we have invited a parishioner to reflect on his or her answer to one of 11 questions that range from “Why are you a Catholic?” to “What is your favorite Bible story and why?” to “How and where do you pray?” Sure, not everyone is completely comfortable with listening to a fellow parishioner talk about his faith. But the fruit of “FaithShare” has been the discussions it has engendered about who God is, and how He is so very much a part of our lives. It is good to know that the pews are full of individual stories of faith and the experience of divine love. It may be a while before we no longer see any tension between being Catholic and being evangelical. But the sun is shining, the days are getting longer, and the groundhog didn’t see his shadow this year. Spring is coming.

Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an author, speaker, musician and serves as Faith Formation Coordinator at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Lynnfield.