Early Christians can teach us how to evangelize a pagan world, says Steve Ray

Steve Ray, a renowned Catholic radio host, author, filmmaker and pilgrimage guide, spoke Feb. 8 at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak. His talk, “Swimming Upstream: Living a Catholic Life in a Pagan World,” was part of Shrine's monthly "Live at the Basilica" monthly speaker series. (Facebook photo)

During 'Live at the Basilica' talk, Ray says modern Church can learn from example of 'average' Christians who changed the world

ROYAL OAK — In order to learn how to live and evangelize in a world that's abandoned God, turn to the example of the early Christians.

That was the message Steve Ray, a renowned Catholic radio host, author and filmmaker, told an audience Feb. 8 at the National Shrine of the Little Flower Basilica in Royal Oak during his talk, “Swimming Upstream: Living a Catholic Life in a Pagan World.”

“The Vatican, bishops and popes have been writing a lot of documents about the new evangelization,” Ray said. “These letters and these sentiments are all unnecessary — they are probably good stuff, but the reason I said that is because we don’t need to reinvent how to evangelize a pagan world. Because the first Christians already did.”

Ray’s talk was part of Shrine's "Live at the Basilica" monthly speaker series, which brings prominent Catholics to the parish to give talks on different aspects of the faith. This month's talk was originally scheduled to feature Andreas Widmer, a former Swiss Guard and author of the book, "The Pope and the CEO: John Paul II's Leadership Lessons to a Young Swiss Guard," but an illness prompted a last-minute schedule change.

Ray, a convert who was raised in a strong Baptist home (his parents discovered Christianity the year before he was born), began his talk by discussing his parents, who were married for 73 years. His father passed away 10 years ago, and his mother died last year, on Mothers Day.

As his parents were getting older, Ray made an effort to ask them questions and make a record of their lives.

“I remember my dad saying, ‘Your mom and I, we don’t like our country anymore.’ And I was shocked,” Ray said. “There were no more patriotic people in the world than my mom and dad. We never missed a Fourth of July parade; that flag was in front of our house all the time with a light on; my dad would have patriotic music playing and he would sing hymns, and he loved America.”

Ray realized that what his father meant: he didn’t like what America was becoming.

“(Our country) is changing right under our feet,” Ray explained. “My dad said, ‘It is not the same country that your mom and I got married in and had a family.’”

The world his parents knew was not one in which abortions were the norm, Ray said. In fact, he said, his mother admitted that when she was raising a family, she didn’t even know what an abortion was.

“They would be aghast if they had heard anyone say they were getting an abortion and what it was,” Ray said of a conversation with his parents before they passed. “‘And now, look at where our country is,’ my mom said. Now they are able to abort babies right up until the moment of birth.”

Ray’s example turned to the state of Michigan in the aftermath of the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

"(The overturning) turned one fight into 50 fights, and we got whacked in this state,” Ray said, referring to the passage of Proposal 3 last fall. “Now in this state you can abort a baby right up until the moment of birth. My mother said she never would have dreamed that anything like that would have happened.”

Catholics and their evangelical brothers and sisters have become a despised subculture in the United States, Ray said. As society strays further from the example of Christ, Catholics and like-minded Christians become further separated from the American mainstream.

Shrine's monthly "Live at the Basilica" speaker series brings in prominent Catholics to the parish to give talks on different aspects of the faith. (Detroit Catholic file photo by Daniel Meloy)
Shrine's monthly "Live at the Basilica" speaker series brings in prominent Catholics to the parish to give talks on different aspects of the faith. (Detroit Catholic file photo by Daniel Meloy)

“You can no longer be an American in good standing and be Catholic,” Ray explained. “What I mean by an ‘American in good standing’ is going with the flow in the culture.”

To be a real Catholic means turning and swimming upstream against the tide, Ray said, and this includes the responsibility of changing our world.

“We have to be the light and the salt and the example for our culture, which means we can't be quiet and retreat,” Ray said. “That is what the world is saying to you: ‘Catholics, shut up. You are not allowed to bring your religion and your crazy, hateful words and ideas into the politics, the marketplace and out on the streets. You can keep your crazy, silly, hateful language and ideas.’

"You are told to shut up, but I realize that we can't because if we are going to evangelize the world, we have to be vocally involved; we have to be examples and we really have to live the faith authentically,” Ray added.

The early Christians were a subculture in the pagan Greco-Roman society for 300 years and were beaten, persecuted and killed for their belief in Christ, Ray said. However, they prevailed, and Christianity soon permeated the formerly pagan empire spanning from India to modern Britain.

The early Christians lived by example and were noticeably different then their pagan counterparts, Ray continued, and as a result, the effect of Christianity can still be felt to this day, even as the world pushes back against it.

“Wherever Christianity flows in, it’s lifegiving; it is beautiful,” Ray said. “It is not perfect in society, but Christianity brings music and art and medicine and universities and equality. Western civilization is as beautiful as it is because Christianity came in.”

Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, western culture has been on a fast track toward a society more akin to Greco-Roman paganism, Ray said.

“We are still living off the capital (of Christianity),” Ray said. “We are still coasting on the capital even though we are losing Christianity in Europe, Australia, Canada and (the U.S.). The more that our country denies Christianity and freedom and free speech, we are going to be back in a new pagan society.”

If today's Christians are going to change the world, the Church must follow the blueprint laid out by the early Christians, Ray added.

“The early Christians were just like us, average people, not with a billion dollars in the bank,” Ray said. “These were simple Christians, but they changed the world.”

They achieved this despite being despised and subject to misconceptions. They were willing to die for their faith and treated even the worst of their oppressors with respect and dignity, Ray added.

“Many died for their faith in the early Church,” Ray said. “Jesus said, ‘You will be my witnesses,’ and the Greek word for witness is 'martus.' Guess what English word we get from martus? The Catechism says some of you will be witnesses with your lips, and some of you will be witnesses with your blood. Every time the blood is spilled, the seed of the Church grows.”

The Romans could see Christians were different as they died with smiles on their faces, Ray said.

“They believed (Christianity) was so true they were willing to even die,” Ray said. “And this is what Christians have to do today if we are going to change our culture. We are going to have to show the world that we really, really, really believe this; that it's not just spirituality — it is objectively true.”


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