I have an interior decorator friend who manages to strike up fascinating conversations with her clients about God. I’ve no idea how one segues from fabric swatches to the meaning of life, but my friend does it with the unaffected grace that characterizes her room designs.
We jokingly call it “soul patrol” when this friend makes design appointments, but she doesn’t set out to make converts of her clients. There is just some quality she has – an inner light or peace –that people want for themselves, and so they open up to her.
Maybe a dozen years ago or so she invited me to lead a series of Gospel reflections with a handful of women she’d gathered around her who were intrigued and wished to know something more about Catholicism. They were fun, good-natured and dynamic women, from a mix of faith backgrounds: Jewish, Protestant, fallen-away Catholic and no faith at all. I loved every one of them and several of them did eventually make their way into or back to the Church.
Maybe three or four sessions into our impromptu evangelization class, one of the women asked to speak to me privately. Candidly, although I couldn’t imagine what I’d said that gave offense, I expected a rebuke. What actually came melted my heart. First, she sheepishly admitted she had no idea where to find Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in her Bible. Then she got to her real question. Eyes welling up, she asked, “I am a recovering alcoholic who has made a total mess of her life and others’. Is there any hope for me?”
Now the tears came to my eyes, too. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Here was a beloved daughter of God who did not know how much God loves her: who had no inkling of the beauty and value of her own soul, no notion of God’s infinite mercy – his power to draw good from evil circumstances, to “make all things new.” How it must have ached her fragile heart to sit in this class hearing about the beauty of the relationship with Christ, but with no understanding that it was available to her, too. She thought she had “blown it” and must forever look wistfully in at the windows of Christianity, never to be allowed inside.
It had not prior to that moment dawned on me that any reasonably educated or sophisticated person would not know the first and most elementary tenet of Christianity: that God loves each one of us and sent his son to redeem us from our sins and bring us one day into eternal joy with him in heaven. Until that conversation I’d imagined that Westerners might not believe Christianity, but they understood its basic premise – much as I understand from a 5th grade “world religions” unit the bare essential elements of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Americans particularly (I’d assumed) would know this – if not from a social studies class, then at least from the culture that surrounds us. Who among us hasn’t had an evangelical brother or sister inquire if we’re saved? Who hasn’t seen the John 3:16 signs at sporting events?
That beautiful, humble, broken spirit taught me that it’s a bad mistake to assume anyone understands God loves him; and she showed me that it’s a waste to try to explain specific elements of Church teaching until there has been what the Church calls “first proclamation” – a presentation of the Good News of Jesus Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection.
I’m indebted to my friend Fr. Thomas Berg for this book review, in which, drawing on the work of Sherry Weddell in Forming Intentional Disciples, he reminds us that catechesis is for people who are already believers and wish to live the faith more deeply. It doesn’t do much for unbelievers, though – and unfortunately, many people who grew up in Christian households fall into that category because for one reason or another they were never taught to have a personal relationship with Jesus, and never learned to talk to him in prayer on a daily basis.
There’s no reason to be interested in how to follow Jesus if you don’t yet know him – and for most people, the way you come to know him is the way my friend’s design clients did: first they see modeled before them something lacking in their own lives that they want for themselves. That awakens first curiosity and then the kind of seeking that, with grace, may lead to conversion.
This is why for eight years Pope Benedict XVI insisted every way he knew how that we focus on the person of Christ and the joy of knowing Him. It’s why he said repeatedly that the Church’s best arguments aren’t arguments at all, but saints. It’s why every place he traveled he begged priests and bishops to preach Christ and to teach their flocks to pray. Only people who actually live in Christ and from him ever attract anyone to the faith.
It is why, continuing on that trajectory, Pope Francis is imploring Christians to do a little less arguing about the moral law and a little more witnessing to it: by living the kind of life Christ describes in the Sermon on the Mount, and telling the Good News of Christ’s love and mercy for each one of us.