"Post-modern people are much more intrigued by our hope than our doctrine. Until our existential hope, our serenity, our wholeness, our love, our sanctity is visible, they won't listen to our propositions." ~ Sherry Weddell, Catherine of Siena Institute
I found this to be wholly true while working in young adult ministry. Whilst sitting in a coffee shop intentionally loitering, I once had a half hour conversation with a young woman I "loitered into" who said she had left the church because she never found Christ there. It is shocking to think that people can step into a Catholic Church and not find Jesus. What she found were people who were obsessed with getting out of Mass on time, rude to one another, unconcerned with their neighbors, and complaining about church altogether.
Her question to me was direct. "Where is the joy?" If we believe the gospel message to be true, where is our joy? Where is our hope and enthusiasm? Where is our love for one another? Where is our thirst for more of Christ? Those were great questions for me to consider both as a minister and as a disciple. If we are not setting ourselves apart from the rest of the world in an attractive way (and by this I mean not just arguing about sexual morality), what draws and woos the nonbeliever toward the heart of Christ?
When I think of the faith I hope to pass on to my children, it doesn't involve a list of dos and don'ts. What I wish for them is a deep and abiding friendship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I hope that they take with them a intimate understanding of how beloved they are, how much their God loves them in and through anything, no matter how dark or dirty - that their Father in heaven waits for them always with arms outstretched ready to dust them off and pick them up when they turn to Him. Anywhere. Anytime. Forever. I hope that this understanding leads them to heed His word and commands, because they are made in love for their good.
Another friend once lamented that he wished that when people heard the word Catholic, they thought of compassion, mercy, and love instead of rules. I found that to be such an insightful and sad statement about my family. After all, we are a family in Christ. It cannot be denied that our family is known more for its rules and restrictions than the love we show the world. We have become the Church of No. It is heartbreaking, especially given that the Church is the largest provider of social and charitable services throughout the world.
There are usually two responses when I bring this up. One is a disposition to put the blame on the seeker. "Christ is most fully in OUR church. They are just ignorant." Another is to blame the church. "Well if the Church would get with the times, this wouldn't be an issue. The Church needs to get over itself." Both leave gaping holes and fail to address the issue, in my humble opinion. Where do I think the problem lies? I think it lies with me. For that matter, I may also think it lies with you. Sorry. You're not off the hook.
I don't love lavishly enough. We don't give abundantly enough. My God is a lavish Lover. He waits to pour out His mercy, His love, His joy, His hope into the hearts of every person on this earth. I'm too wrapped up in myself to help make that happen. I see limitations. I get embroiled in the struggles of daily life. I put up walls to protect myself and hold back. I make judgments on who I have time for and who I do not.
Gaudium et Spes, one of the many documents to come out of the Second Vatican Council, instructs us very clearly on this matter. In it, the Council fathers wrote,
The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. GS, 1
How do we then begin to shift public opinion about the Catholic Church? How do we make sure that when people think of the Church they experience Jesus? We take on the joys and sorrows of the world. We go about our Father's business. We lead with love. We reclaim the beatitudes. We approach one another with "Blessed are you. . ." instead of "woe to you. . ." We return to an active participation in the Works of Mercy, both spiritual and corporal. We never let ourselves to be so filled with sorrow that we forget the joy of the resurrection (thank you, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta!).
This is not to say that the Truth is not important. It is simply to say this: If we are so focused on the morality of the church that we forget to proclaim the person of Christ, we ourselves have missed the point. If we forget that we are not here to win people over to "our side" but to lead souls to the heart of Christ, we may accomplish neither. If we are so scandalized by the secular that we fail to engage it, we will never woo anyone to the Lover of every soul.
How we live and what we say should help a person to come to know that the God of the universe, the Creator of every star in the sky and every drop in the ocean, who is magnanimous, omniscient, and omnipotent, took on human flesh in all its frailty, out of love for us, in the person of Jesus Christ, and offered it back up again in death so He could lead us back to eternal life with the Father.
What does all this mean? While there is not a one-size-fits-all approach, here are a few suggestions based on my experiences and interactions with non-believers and non-Catholics (and having been one!):
1) Live with authentic joy. This doesn't mean a plastic cheeriness in all things. It means that at the end of the day, even in our greatest sorrow, we live with confidence and hope in a victory that has already been won.
2) Tame your tongue. Speak only words that lift up and encourage. Avoid the temptation to be judge, jury, and jailer. Lead people by example to the freedom that lies in following Christ.
3) Lead with love. Help people to fall in love with Jesus. Show them how much the Father loves them in and despite the condition of their lives. Serve them. Pray for and with them. Grieve with them. Suffer with them. See them when they feel invisible. Love them when they feel unlovable. Notice the little things and rejoice with them. Let others know they are not alone.
4) Engage others where they are. Find common ground and language to help them begin to see how God is working in their lives and through their experiences.
5) Seek after Jesus. Deepen your own life in Christ, and live it out loud. Pray before meals. Read the Bible in public. Walk away from gossip. Let your example create curiosity, and invite others to seek Christ with you.
Together, we can re-brand ourselves from a Church of No into what we truly are: a refuge for all of humanity to encounter transformative love in the person of Christ so we can all be reunited with our Creator in the eternal Kingdom. How do you introduce people to the person of Christ?
We've got some work to do. Let's get out there and love 'em like Jesus (all the way TO Jesus)!