Fr. Mike Schmitz: Don't turn friendships into projects

Credit: DGLimages/Shutterstock.
Credit: DGLimages/Shutterstock.

.- Authentic Christian friendship requires intentionality and a willingness to be vulnerable, Fr. Mike Schmitz told attendees at a Catholic leadership conference last week.

“Discipleship must be rooted in friendship,” Fr. Schmitz said. “It has to be this thing called virtuous friendship.”

Fr. Schmitz spoke at the Student Leadership Summit in Chicago on Wednesday night. Known as SLS, the summit is hosted by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) every other year. It aims to train student leaders and other ministers with tools for evangelization and missionary work, largely on college campuses. Wednesday night was Day 2 of the event, which centered on the theme of “Authentic Friendship.”

Fr. Schmitz is known for his catechetical online videos through Ascension Presents, and serves as a college chaplain in Duluth, Minnesota. He began his talk on friendship with a quote from Ecclesiastes: “Two are better than one. If one falls, the other will lift up his friend. But woe to the one who has no friends, for if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:10).

Fr. Schmitz said it may be easy to get a faulty impression of FOCUS’ goal in developing friendships with those whom they evangelize, saying it may sound like “it’s about manipulating people through a relationship.”

“Sometimes we can get into this mindset that says that when I look at people I see a project, not a person,” he said. “That’s not true, because discipleship must be rooted in friendship.”

“It has to be this thing called virtuous friendship, or else it’s not going to work,” he said. “Friendship that is not incidental, but is intentional.”

The kind of friendship for which Catholics should strive arises from a common purpose and a desire to imitate the traits of the other, he continued, pointing to David and Jonathan in the Old Testament as an example of virtuous friendship.

The Book of Samuel recounts Jonathan and his armor-bearer making a surprise attack on the back of the Philistines’ camp, trusting on a sign from God to determine whether to advance or retreat.

Fr. Schmitz highlighted the courage of Jonathan in making this decision. Similarly, he said, David shows courage and a passion to defend the honor of God when he volunteers to fight the Philistine champion Goliath.

“When Jonathan sees this, he sees himself. This is virtuous friendship. This is ‘I see something in you, that I also have in me,’” the priest continued.

“In order to have virtuous friendship, you need to be someone pursuing virtue. Someone not pursuing virtue is incapable of pursuing virtuous friendship.”

Fr. Schmitz said that a problem can arise with college students who want to spread the Gospel, but find themselves surrounded by so many opportunities that they are pulled in many directions at once, and thus encounter indecision in what path to follow.

“Friendship can’t grow unless you commit,” he emphasized. However, this type of commitment requires a risk because it demands vulnerability.

And vulnerability is more than just transparency, Fr. Schmitz continued. “Being transparent is like being in a fishbowl. But being vulnerable is like letting people get in your fishbowl,” he said. “It’s letting them help you. It’s letting them challenge you. And it’s letting them hurt you.”

He told the story of one of his former students, named Anne, who began following a Christian lifestyle while living with members of her sorority. Because of this, her roommates stopped wanting to spend time with her, but she offered up this heartbreak to God for the conversion of friends. Soon, she found opportunities to be there for her roommates in times of trouble.

“One after one, the others just turned to Anne, because they knew her. She had let them see her heart.” Fr. Schmitz said that all five roommates eventually joined her Bible study, and three became Catholic.

Fr. Schmitz spoke to CNA about potential pitfalls that may arise when pursuing this vulnerability, warning against sharing too much of oneself too quickly.

“It’s not a race to vulnerability. It has to grow,” he said.

He also talked about the changing nature of evangelization, the task for which SLS is designed to equip attendees.

“The Church has always had mission as its heart,” he said, referencing Pope Paul VI. However, the way this mission takes shape has seen a shift in recent times.

Whereas most work of evangelization previously relied on “professionals,” at a time when people were “born into a culture that (was) also Christian,” evangelization now takes place “in a culture that is post-Christian.” For this reason, he said, we are all being called to be missionaries.

Fr. Schmitz also said that many people in the Church have received the sacraments, but have not been properly catechized, and so they often fall away.

Going forth from conferences and gatherings like SLS, Fr. Schmitz told CNA that he sees the Church responding to a renewed call for evangelization.

The future of the Church will be “Christians, Catholics, coming to know the Lord in a deeper way, allowing the Lord to move their lives in a new way that looks different from the rest of the people around them, and then having to go through the fires, and go through the water, and go through the valleys, and go through the mountain passes and peaks, and saying, ‘This is how you actually follow Jesus’ in a radical way,’” he said.

“It’s going to look totally normal, and yet entirely unique.”

Tags: FOCUS, Catholic News, Friendship, SLS

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