A man I know was sitting on a boardwalk bench several weeks ago watching the ocean and thinking about nothing special. Two young men, maybe 18 or 20, came up and sat down beside him. The one nearest him leaned over and said:
“Excuse me, sir, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
He was very polite and seemed slightly nervous. The older man smiled and shook his head, indicating that he had no objection to being asked.
“If you were to die right now and find yourself standing at the gate of heaven, what reason would you give God for letting you in?”
The man thought for a moment, then replied: “Because I’ve been baptized, because I believe Jesus Christ is my redeemer, because I believe in the mercy of God.”
The young man seemed a little surprised. Maybe he’d expected an argument. Turning to his companion, he said: “He says he believes Jesus Christ is his redeemer.”
Then to the older man: “Thank you, sir, for your time.” And the two young men got up and headed for the beach.
The man sat there thinking about what had happened. He supposed the young fellows were members of some evangelical Protestant group. You wouldn’t catch many Catholics doing that, he thought. And that’s a shame.
I agree — it’s a shame. Some people would say the young man’s technique was naïve and clumsy. No doubt. But clearly he was motivated by love of God, and now and then a pitch like his will open someone’s heart to grace. Which is all God asks of us or needs.
So why don’t Catholics do it? Several reasons come to mind.
One is that many have bought into the belief that religion is strictly a private affair.
There’s a sense in which that’s true of course, but in its contemporary form it usually expresses American individualism in a religious context.
Another reason is the fear that if they raise the God question with a stranger, the stranger will laugh in their face. Or call them a fool. Or tell them to go you-know-where. How embarrassing!
Finally — and this is a very Catholic reason — many lay people take it for granted that one-on-one evangelizing is a priest’s job, not theirs. That’s clericalism at work.
Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both have spoken repeatedly about something they call the “new evangelization” — rekindling faith in places where it’s at risk of dying out. Hearing that, people may suppose that the new evangelization will have to take the form of a big, complex, organized program, probably with lots of media thrown in.
Very likely that’s part of it. But more crucial to the success of the new evangelization than any organized program, with or without media, is what individual Catholic lay people do — or fail to do.
There are two simple steps any lay person can and should take right now to be part of the new evangelization, without waiting for the Pope or the Synod of Bishops or their pastor to give them their marching orders.
The first is to be exemplary in living out the faith with courage and conviction — not just on Sunday but every day of the week. People of faith attract attention nowadays, sometimes favorable, sometimes not. That’s evangelization.
The second is to study the faith to be able to explain it intelligently and defend it when it’s attacked. That also is evangelization. If you aren’t already doing these two things, start now.