My beautiful and all gracious wife and I were married last month. The best part of the reception is when the two of you stand in the back and watch as family and friends end up mingling, drinking wine and dancing like clowns fighting ‘for laughs’. It was an escape to Heaven. And they were angels in ecstasy.
My friends thought the opportunity held promise for me, too. Especially, the ones I hadn’t seen for some time. And what do you do with a woman who has that look? they said to tease me. I felt guilty as if I was accused.
But they were even more amazed by the obvious Catholicism of the ceremony, which took place in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Norwich, Connecticut. I had converted to Catholicism around the age of twenty. (I’m 39 now). It was nothing new to anyone, but few expected faith to take center stage on this day that was officially dedicated to my wife and me.
Even those I had been closest to in recent years were surprised by the lack of subtlety. My social background had remained, after my conversion, socio-liberal – I had never been part of the circles of young Catholics since my conversion had come after my college years. And quite simply living my conversion, I never encouraged my friends to stick their nose in it. I think (hope) I’ve earned a quiet respect there over the years.
I learned enough when we went out together what they thought of Catholicism. In any case, I have seen enough of it in the media.
But they loved me much more than they hated my religion. Everything that was good for me was good for them. So they were able to appreciate my faith on a therapeutic level, as if it were no different from yoga class or starting a hygienic diet. Catholicism was just another element in terms of my personal well-being, while still being something they considered a bit painful.
And so our deeply Catholic marriage was a shock to them, just as if I had gotten married in a yoga studio and expressed my thanks and congratulations to the Yogi Master.
“You were always so worried,” an old friend told me at the reception. I think religion has been a good thing for you.”
It was true. Previously I was really like a house to renovate. So I accepted the compliment.
“I knew you had converted to Catholicism,” said another, “but I didn’t know you were really Catholic.”
“I wasn’t hiding it,” I say.
“But you weren’t walking around with a big cross hanging around your neck or stuff like that,” he says?
“And the rosary on my rearview mirror, does that count?”
“Anyway,” he said. You look good. I’m happy for you. With that, he hugged me tightly.
Since joining the Church, I have preferred the “show, don’t tell” method of evangelism. “Preach the Gospel at all times, use the words when necessary,” St. Francis of Assisi is said to have said, though it’s hard to imagine him resorting to such syrupy jokes.
It’s a beautiful feeling, though: that we should aspire to live the gospel so convincingly that we can circumvent reliance on the rational approach. It’s also deeply impractical (I’m not holy enough to do that) and hardly acceptable. If we never say who we are, the temptation to lead a double life is too strong.
Preaching by example also avoids the responsibility of explaining the difficulties of our faith. Even sticking to the basics – we owe our existence to a Creator who, like a good father, both respects our freedom and loves us madly – takes preparation, practice and effort.
For decades, American Catholics, myself included, have preached by example so conscientiously that they have made an entire generation Catholic illiterate. The one thing most young men know about the Church is that they hate it.
They understand that by the word God we are referring to a cosmic Saint Nicholas who is content to satisfy the wishes of people who cross themselves before meals. Or to a Freudian projection of satisfaction (disbelief in God fulfills this function more aptly for a sin-prone species). Or to an updated Odin, a Great Being among other Great Beings battling in space.
Just a month ago, popular philosopher Sam Harris tried to disprove the existence of this particular Straw God, pointing out that we couldn’t see him with advanced telescopes.
People like my friends have no idea what we mean by “Christ” either. They think that Jesus – assuming he ever existed – was an ancient precursor to the modern fighter for social justice (and possibly a zombie who they think is “cool”). Nor do they know what differentiates the Catholic Church from the Presbyterian or Baptist Church. They couldn’t tell the Holy Spirit from the Spirit Airlines.
Why ? Because Catholics like me didn’t explain it to them.
Alright, that’s all. It’s time to preach the gospel and use words more often, especially for those of us who have many friends and acquaintances in the secular world.
Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating that we start every conversation with “Have you heard of the Good News?” Nor that we redirect any conversation towards an explanation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
But only to keep a closer eye on gospel opportunities when they arise. That, when in conversation the door opens ajar, we help others to keep it open so that the light can spread inside.
And as far as I’m concerned, to begin with, it would be good to start from the reaction of my friends to my Very Catholic Marriage.
I could explain to them that I don’t practice my faith for therapeutic reasons, although it contributes to my good health. In fact I do not practice my faith for incidental reasons, but always as an end in itself. Because dying in the Light is the only rational act. Because every time I think I have understood Christ or felt the fullness of His embrace, a new chasm opens up and swallows me up. Because Catholicism is bottomless in its truth and beauty.
But above all, because I’m in love. And because, inexplicably, the Light is also in love with me.
Maybe I’ll tell them that. And maybe that’s what I just did.
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Preach the Gospel: Use the Words More Often – France Catholique
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