Allison came up to me after my talk. She was distraught. Her co-worker Christina was a fallen-away Catholic, and nothing Allison said or did seemed to help her return to the Faith. For years, Christina was indifferent to her religion. She wasn’t anti-Catholic; she just thought there was no purpose to Catholicism. Allison had been inviting her to Mass, encouraging her to go to confession, and giving her Catholic books to read. But to no effect. Allison asked me what more she could do. My answer shocked her.
“Perhaps it’s time to shake the dust off your feet, Allison.”
What did I mean? she asked.
“Some people are just not open to God. Jesus himself told his apostles that if someone doesn’t listen to your words, then you should shake the dust from your feet as you leave that house (Matt. 10:14). He meant that there is a time to move on and stop evangelizing.”
“But Christina is my friend! How could I let her reject the Faith?”
I understood Allison’s pain, and my advice did seem to go against one’s natural instincts. But it was well in keeping with what our Lord asks of us as his disciples.
There is a danger for those of us who are serious about sharing our faith. We come to feel as if we are responsible for another person’s salvation—note how Allison said, “How could I let [Christina] reject the Faith?”—as if she were responsible for Christina’s faith life. If we don’t say the right thing, or give the right book, or make the right invitation, then the other person might never become Catholic. And if the other person doesn’t respond favorably, we get anxious. We believe that perhaps we said the wrong thing, or didn’t say what we should have. So we dive even deeper into our evangelization effort.
This attitude, though understandable, ignores the first principle of evangelization: you can’t convert anyone. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job, not yours. Your job is to be the Holy Spirit’s instrument. And sometimes, the Holy Spirit decides it’s time to move on.
This is hard. Does it mean that God has rejected this person forever? That he or she is destined for hell? Not at all. Consider the story of the Rich Young Man (Matt. 19:16-22). After Jesus told him what he needed to do to be saved, the Gospel tells us that “he went away sad” (v. 22).
First, note that Jesus does not run after him, urging him to change his mind. He lets the young man walk away. But a pious tradition has it that later in life, this rich young man did convert to Christianity. Even though Jesus let him walk away, that doesn’t mean he gave up on him. He just knew that the young man was not ready to fully receive his message at that time. Further urging would do no good —indeed, it might turn him off.
Although shaking the dust off our feet might on the surface seem contrary to the parable of the shepherd who abandons his flock to save the one, it’s consistent with a fundamental truth about the human person: God gave us free will. God is love, and love assumes the free will of all participants. God doesn’t push himself upon anyone; instead, he invites us into his life.
Imagine a human relationship where one person is pushing himself upon the other. Perhaps a young man has a crush on a lovely young lady. He asks her out, and she declines. He persists, yet she declines again. In fact, she already has a boyfriend. Should the young man continue to push himself upon her? Would that be loving? Would it be respectful of her free will? The fact is that many people today are already “dating”—they are dating the world. They are not interested in God, and no amount of insistence will change that fact.
So how do we know when it’s time to shake the dust off our feet? The best way is simply to be a good reader of a person’s reactions. Have you given your friend a book and he hasn’t read it? Have you repeatedly invited your sister to your parish and she always declines? Have you tried to bring up religious topics with a co-worker and he always changes the subject? These are all indicators that it’s time to cease and desist. Take a break and allow the Holy Spirit to work in other ways in the other person’s life. (And continue to be a good friend, or brother, or daughter, witnessing to Christ by silent example.)
It might also be time to move on if your evangelizing has become mostly arguing. There is a time and place for arguments in evangelization, but if your interactions consist mostly of tense debates about Catholicism, that’s perhaps a sign that your friend isn’t really open to the truth right now (or maybe that you’ve become too obsessed with being right). If any mention of a Catholic teaching results in a defensive rejection, it’s likely you are dealing with a closed heart. At that point, it’s best to put on the brake.
Even after you’ve shaken the dust off your feet and ceased explicitly evangelizing your friend, remember that you should still be charitable in everything, and continue to pray for his salvation. It might be that your continued prayers bring someone else into his life who can lead him to Christ and the Church. Someone’s salvation isn’t finally determined until death, and so there is always a chance for conversion, no matter how closed off the person might be right now.