When is the last time you spoke about your Catholic faith outside of Mass? I don’t mean the last time you chit-chatted about what’s going on at the parish, or about Father So-and-So, or about some Church-related news item in the way you might discuss any current event. But when is the last time you talked with someone about what you believe just because your faith is a good thing to talk about, or simply in order to share your faith with someone else?
Can we, who have so often been taught to preach only by example, and that our faith is a strictly private matter, imagine saying what Jeremiah says in Sunday’s first reading?:
“I say to myself, I will not mention him,
I will speak in his name no more.
But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it” (Jeremiah 20:9).
Jeremiah begins by saying he made a resolution not to speak about God — a bad thing to do, of course. But how many of us would never make such a resolution simply because not mentioning God to others is our default mode? Can you imagine what it would be like to be so filled with God’s word that “it becomes like a fire burning in (your) heart”? Can you imagine God’s word becoming like a prisoner within you, trying to escape, wearing you out as it pushes to get out of you?
Some words do burn within us. For example, I have made silent retreats and led seminarians during such retreats. It’s awkward at first, passing men in the halls without saying “hello;” listening to the clinking of silverware against plates and bowls as you try to avoid significant eye contact at meals. You get over the awkwardness, and enter into the silence which allows God to speak, but most of us have some words burning within us which come out in a hurry once the retreat is over.
Imagine you were on a silent retreat. What words would be burning in you? What would you be dying to talk about by the end of the week?
Imagine you were on a silent retreat. What words would be burning in you? What would you be dying to talk about by the end of the week? ... Sports, weather, politics … everyone seems to be passionate about something, but why aren’t we more passionate about God?
I know some people whose words about their exercise routines seem to burn within them with the white-hot intensity of 1,000 suns. I know other people — OK, I’m one of them — whose words about food burn just at hot. Sports, weather, politics … everyone seems to be passionate about something, but why aren’t we more passionate about God? Why aren’t we dying to tell others how good God is, when we’re desperate to tell them how good our last cheeseburger was?
This is a complex problem, having a lot to do with cultural pressure, upbringing and education, and personal temperament. Some of the problem, I think, is about the reluctance many people have to talk about any of the more intimate parts of their lives. Another piece of the puzzle is that we don’t want to offend other people, or to put undue pressure on them. Of course, the irony is that I will tell someone “You’ve gotta see this movie!”, but won’t even suggest to the same person that there is a way to overcome sin and death, and to be happy forever.
For several years now, I have been serving as the spiritual director for a Catholic outreach named the St. Paul Evangelization Institute. From very humble beginnings in 2012, this apostolate is now active in dozens of cities around the country, and even around the world. Hundreds of Catholics have gone to the streets in places like San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas and even the Las Vegas Strip! There are multiple teams in the Detroit area, going downtown in Detroit, Royal Oak and elsewhere, as well as to parish festivals all over the Archdiocese of Detroit, to share our faith in Jesus Christ.
The approach of St. Paul Street Evangelization (an apostolate within the institute) is very simple: Two or more Catholics set up in some public place, where there will be a lot of foot traffic. They bring rosaries, literature, and a sign letting people know who they are. As people pass by, these evangelizers simply offer them a free rosary. If they say “no,” the answer is just something kind, maybe “OK, God bless you.” If they say “yes,” the conversation goes a bit deeper: “Are you Catholic?” “Would you like some information about how to pray the rosary?” “What’s your home parish?” And it often goes from there into a deep conversation about the person and the critical importance of faith in Jesus.
The simple witness of these evangelizers is bringing countless people at least a little bit closer to Christ, and some are coming much closer very quickly. I can say this without bragging, because my help has been very little, and mostly in the background. But I admire the work of our street evangelizers so much that I can’t help but do what little I can to support them. If you are interested in learning more about St. Paul Street Evangelization, they have a wonderful website, complete with online training and lots of information about the Catholic faith (www.streetevangelization.com).
St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:16, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” I’ve just named one way of preaching the Gospel — street evangelization — but that is only one way. Each of us is called to evangelize, to share our Catholic faith with others, and each of us is called to do so in a particular way. Parents can start by talking about their faith with their spouses and their children. Some Catholics are very good at finding ways to speak about their faith at work. Others are gifted in the use of technology, or art and design, or marketing, and can use those gifts to serve Jesus.
But even so, the point of this article is not to do a kind of membership drive for evangelization. The real point is for all of us to live in such a way that we won’t be able to help but evangelize. I don’t mean to say that we’ll never have to push ourselves. But I do mean that we need to become more filled with God’s Spirit and God’s word than ever, and that when God’s word burns more and more in our hearts, we will find ways to speak, even if it requires creativity and courage for us to begin.
We need to forget about the priorities of the world, as we hear in Sunday’s second reading. In a world that tells us to please our bodies to the point that we easily become numb to God’s word, St. Paul tells us to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). And we heard St. Paul go further:
“Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom 12:2).
Ultimately, turning away from what is worldly and toward God always involves the Cross. If we want to be passionate about God, we need not just passion, but the Passion. Jesus makes it clear that avoiding sacrifice is the work of the devil. We need to love the way Jesus did. We need to be willing to suffer for the One we love:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life?
Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct” (Matthew 16:24-27).
When we are willing to suffer, when we are willing to strip away everything that holds us back from loving God, then the word of God will burn intensely within us. When we pray for the Holy Spirit, when we receive the Body and Blood of Christ after really making room in ourselves, then we will be filled with God. And God never stops at filling us up. He keeps coming until we overflow, until we need to share Him with others.
Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.