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Graham Osborne

How should we share our faith? With love

Voices April 16, 2018

Fra Angelico’s St. Peter Preaching in the Presence of St Mark. We must examine our intentions for sharing the faith and make sure we are sharing our faith out of love for others, writes Graham Osborne.  (Wikimedia Commons)

I write this column primarily to try to explain the truths of the Catholic faith in a clear and convincing way, both to encourage and strengthen people in their faith, and hopefully, to help give them confidence to share it with others. But my hope is that it will also help foster Christian unity, which is so important to evangelizing the world around us (recall that Jesus said it will be by the “perfect” unity of his followers that the world will come to know that the Father sent (Jn 17:17-23).

But a natural question arises: who exactly should be the evangelizers of our world and culture today? Who is it that should be sharing the Catholic faith with others? I will let one of the Church’s greatest evangelists answer this question. St. John Paul II wrote, “This … mission … cannot be left to a group of ‘specialists’ but must involve … all the members of the People of God.” Those who have come into genuine contact with Christ cannot keep him for themselves, they must proclaim him. A new apostolic outreach is needed. He then adds Christ must be presented to all people with confidence.”

One thing that leaps out is that St. John Paul II emphasizes sharing the faith is not a job reserved just for “specialists” – bishops, priests, deacons, theologians. It is the responsibility of “all the members of the People of God”, all “who have come into genuine contact with Christ.” So this responsibility falls to every Catholic!

But a logical question follows: how should we share our faith, especially when it comes to our Protestant brothers and sisters? While I often address various tough questions that Catholics might get out there as we move in the world and share our faith, sometimes what we have to say is not as important as how and why we say it!

First, we must examine our intentions for sharing the faith and make sure they are pure. Foremost, we must share our faith out of love for others! St Thomas Aquinas defined love simply as desiring the good for another. If you take this to its logical end, the greatest good for another is heaven.

This must be our intention when sharing or even defending the faith – the desire of heaven for the other person. It’s not to win arguments, or to prove another wrong, or to reproach or correct someone out of anger because we have been offended. Ultimately, we want people to know who Jesus is – and the truths he left to his Church – to help them get to heaven.

Our first Pope sets the stage perfectly: “But in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to make a defence (apologia) to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence; and keep your conscience clear (1 Pt 3:15-16).

Sharing the faith must always be done with gentleness and reverence. The quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi captures the spirit of St. Peter’s words beautifully: “evangelize always, use words if necessary.”

Our Christian example of love, even to those who persecute us or treat us unkindly, will be our most powerful testimony. So we must be careful to detach ourselves from any form of pridefulness when we share or defend the faith. These are God’s truths, not ours. Our call is simply to share these truths with others – to explain them, and charitably defend them if necessary. But it is never about winning arguments or pummeling someone with the truth.

When we feel our face flushing, our hearts racing, maybe even our voice rising and our patience waning, we must check ourselves. These are sure signs that pride is stalking close by.

And remember, if you come up against a question you can’t answer – and you will – don’t guess. This is usually a veiled form of pride, where we don’t want to admit that there is something we don’t know. This can do more harm than good, especially if it is serious matter and we are wrong!

It is better to simply and humbly admit that you don’t know the answer, but that you will get back to them. Doing this shows humility, gives a chance for another meeting, gives you time to look into things and learn your faith more deeply, and most importantly, gives you time to pray for the other person.

And prayer is essential. It is the Holy Spirit that must work through us in all of this. Apart from him, we can do nothing (Jn 15:5]). And how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. So ask! Pray! More than anything, an evangelist must be a person of love and prayer. Knowledge, though very important, is secondary.

Let me illustrate these above points collectively with two examples, one good, one not so … Both happened at World Youth Day in Toronto on the same day, but with very different results...

The first involved a debate over whether Peter was the head of the Christian Church or not. One man insisted that it was not Peter, but James who led the Church, and took me to Acts 15 to try and prove it. “I’ve got him!” I thought jubilantly, as I nodded my head vigorously. “Yes, let’s go there!”

We turned to the Council of Jerusalem, where Paul and Barnabas come down to Jerusalem to decide a key doctrinal dispute in the early Church: whether gentile converts to Christianity needed to keep the Old Testament Mosaic Law or not (things like circumcision, various dietary restrictions, etc.) Certain Jewish converts (known as Judaizers) were insisting that Gentile converts must keep the ceremonial Mosaic Law if they were to be saved.

My “opponent” took me to where St James stands up at the first recorded Church council and gives four recommendations, claiming that in doing so, James was acting as the head of the Church. But I quickly pounced on his error. Flipping to Acts 15:7-12, I read aloud: “‘Brothers … God made his choice among you that through my mouth the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and believe … We believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.’ The whole assembly fell silent …”

“Why was the council called?” I demanded. “What was the doctrinal question?” Before he could even answer, I literally shouted: “The doctrinal question was, how are the Gentiles saved! Who gave the authoritative answer?! It was Peter! Peter answers the question that the council was called to address. Not James! James addresses some secondary matters. It’s Peter who answers the question! And when he does, the whole council falls ‘silent’!”

The man tried to counter, still weakly insisting that James led the council. But I kept interrupting him, repeatedly asking: “But who answers the main doctrinal question the council was called to address? It’s Peter!” I cringe just thinking about it.

It was one of the worst examples of sharing the faith that I could have ever imagined! By the end, this poor fellow no longer wanted to talk to me. At some point, I realized my terrible error and started to apologize profusely, trying to bring him back to a gentler discussion, but he would have none of it. He held his hand up as if to say, “enough!” And walked away. I literally felt sick to my stomach, ashamed at my un-Christian example. But it was a grace-filled moment – and one that taught me a painful but powerful lesson.

Now fast forward to “Big Joe” – a house-sized 6’7” African American that I had met on two earlier occasions that week. As tens of thousands of young adults poured out of the Papal Mass, Joe’s crew of six guys handed out extremely anti-Catholic tracts to all the young Catholics they could.

My heart sank as I saw several young adults poring over the pamphlets in animated conversation. “What should I do?,” I prayed desperately. Still stinging from my recent “victory,” I had learned my lesson, and an inspiration came immediately. Without hesitation, I walked over to Joe and greeted him cordially. Unlike my earlier experience, we had already built a great rapport from our earlier meetings. I had at least done this right!

Now typically, before I begin addressing the multitude of specific topics that Protestants and Catholics can disagree on, I normally like to lay a ground work that shows the authority of the Church in sacred Scripture and the writings of the early Church. But there was no time for that now. I knew I had to do something, and do it quickly.

“Joe, you believe that when a person dies, they cease to exist, and then God basically thinks them back into existence at the final judgment. Is that right?” “Yes,” he confirmed. “Well, in 1 Peter 3:19-20, it says that when Jesus died, he ‘went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient.’ Who are these people, Joe?” I gently asked. “They are people who have died, and Jesus descends to proclaim the Gospel to them. They haven’t ceased to exist at death as you thought.”

I paused a moment as he thought this over. “Joe, Jesus said that it would be better to have a millstone tied around your neck and thrown into the sea than to lead one of these little ones astray. You’re wrong on this point, and you are wrong on several other things in this tract as well. Please don’t hand these out to these young people,” I pleaded. “You’re endangering their souls – and your soul too.”

Joe stared at me for a moment, unsure of how to respond. Leaning into my face, he thundered, "Do you have any idea who I am?" he erupted, shaking a massive finger threateningly, inches from my nose. “No, Joe, a … a … a big black guy …” I stammered, with a sheepish, but good-natured grin.

Joe paused for what seemed like an eternity, digesting all I had said. Then, with a weak smile, he bear hugged me and waved to all his guys to pack up. Throwing their boxes of flyers into their van, they all got in and drove off. I sat there stunned.

We must realize that most people who question or even attack Catholic teachings misunderstand them. They sincerely believe Catholics to be in serious error, and so, they are often actually working from a position of charity – they very well may be concerned for our immortal souls! This is profound common ground: fellow Christians who sincerely love us! If we can keep this perspective, it should radically change our attitude when sharing our faith, especially with other Christians.

Ultimately, through all of this, we must grow in holiness if we want to be effective evangelizers. Without it, all the knowledge, eloquent arguments, and Scripture quoted from memory may simply fall on deaf ears if our intentions are wrong. Remember, Jesus said that even Gentiles can be kind to those who are kind to them! How is a Christian to be different? “Love one another.” “Pray for those who persecute you.” If we do this first, our faith-sharing efforts will bear fruit.