Q: What do you get when you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Catholic?
A: Someone who knocks on your door and says nothing.
It’s no secret that Catholics aren’t renowned for their evangelistic prowess or missionary zeal. This is despite the fact that the last several pontiffs, including Pope Francis, have written and spoken extensively on the subject, which has become a renewed priority for the Church.
In Matthew 28:19, our Lord enjoined the apostles, “[G]o therefore and make disciples of all nations.” In Mark 16:15, Jesus commands them, “[G]o into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation.” This is what is referred to as the Great Commission. Sadly, for many Catholics, the Great Commission has become the Great Omission.
Why is this so? Why don’t Catholics as a whole evangelize?
Lack of encounter
Evangelization in essence, like Christianity, is about an encounter with the risen Christ that results in a life transformed. The reason why so many Christians in general—and Catholics in particular—fail to evangelize is because they have yet to encounter the Lord for themselves.
Pope Benedict XVI reminded us of this important truth in his apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini: “The Christian life is essentially marked by an encounter with Jesus Christ, who calls us to follow him” (VD 72). Again, in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, he writes, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (DCE 1).
At its core, Christianity is about an encounter with the risen Christ that results in a life transformed. This encounter gives us a vision that inspires and directs our lives and impels us to share the gospel with others. “From this loving knowledge of Christ springs the desire to proclaim him, to ‘evangelize,’ and to lead others to the ‘yes’ of faith in Jesus Christ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 429).
Those who have been evangelized go on to evangelize others. Those who encounter the living Christ are in turn compelled by him to “go make disciples.” As Pope Paul VI puts it:
[T]he person who has been evangelized goes on to evangelize others. Here lies the test of truth, the touchstone of evangelization: it is unthinkable that a person should accept the Word and give himself to the kingdom without becoming a person who bears witness to it and proclaims it in his turn (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 24).
In other words, it is inconceivable that someone should encounter the risen Christ, experience the grace of conversion, and not be filled with what the Church calls the zelus animarum—the zeal for souls.
There is a fundamental principle at work here, one summarized by the old Latin axiom Nemo dat quod non habet (“No one gives what he does not have”). One cannot share Christ if one has not first encountered Christ, or effectively share the gospel without experiencing its power in his own life.
Not everyone who self-identifies as a Catholic has necessarily experienced this encounter with Christ. There are many cultural Christians who go through the motions of faith yet have no true and lasting commitment to live as intentional disciples, which by definition involves responding to the Great Commission.
Those involved in ministry and leadership in the Church can no longer take for granted that those who are registered in our parishes, who fill our pews at Mass on Sunday, who participate in our programs, and even who volunteer to assist us have encountered the Lord and understand their sacred duty to know, live, and share the Faith with others.
Beyond the lack of encounter with Christ, there are many reasons why Catholics tend not to evangelize, but I believe these reasons generally fall into two categories: fear and ignorance.
If you were to survey a group of Catholics about what holds them back from sharing the Faith, the No. 1 response you would get is “Fear.” Fear paralyzes many believers from living out their faith and sharing it with others. Here are three of the most common types of fear that inhibit evangelization.
1. Fear of inability
Many of us do not evangelize because we fear we aren’t qualified to share the Faith. We view ourselves as lacking in the ability to be used by God to draw others to him. It’s the “You’ve got the wrong guy, Lord” syndrome.
We must remember that God is able to use anyone he wishes, so long as that person believes in and trusts him. Scripture is replete with individuals who were called by God to fulfill a mission yet feared themselves to be ill-equipped for the task—Moses, Jeremiah, and Simon Peter, to name a few. Each of them recoiled from his calling because of fear, yet God confirmed the fact that he can use anyone to accomplish his purposes, in spite of one’s shortcomings. With him, nothing is impossible.
What we learn from the example of these at-first reluctant prophets and apostles is that God does not always call the qualified, but he always qualifies those he calls. God is not interested in our ability but in our availability. By virtue of our baptism and confirmation we have been given the gifts and tools necessary for evangelization. In other words, we’ve been equipped and qualified by God to fulfill the mission he has entrusted to us.
All we need to do is call upon and cooperate with the Holy Spirit, who is the principal agent of evangelization. We must trust that he can use us, in spite of our weaknesses, when we surrender to him in faith. Through him nothing is impossible.
2. Fear of rejection
Deep down inside every one of us there is a natural fear of being rebuffed when sharing our faith. Our Lord was well acquainted with rejection during his public ministry. Luke recounts that Jesus was rejected and even persecuted after preaching his first sermon in his hometown of Nazareth!
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. The people rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong (Luke 4:28-29).
Jesus understood rejection full well. This is precisely why he prepares his disciples for what they would certainly encounter as they preached the good news of the kingdom:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you (John 15:18-19).
Our Lord reminds his disciples repeatedly of the persecution that they would endure for the sake of the gospel and the promised recompense for those who endure to the end:
Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt. 5:11-12).
As disciples in mission, we always run the risk of being rejected by others, and even persecuted for the sake of the gospel. This is the cost of discipleship that simply cannot be avoided. It is the cross that we each have to bear as Christ did: with great faith and humility.
3. Fear of failure
Many of us fear that our efforts to share the gospel will come up short. We think we won’t be able to convince anyone of the truth claims of our faith. So many believers are paralyzed by the fear of failure that they end up never sharing the good news.
I remember struggling with this fear shortly after my personal encounter with the Lord. During that time, I came across something that Bl. Mother Teresa was fond of saying: “God does not call us to be successful; he calls us to be faithful.”
Those words were liberating. They helped me to realize that I am not called to be a successful evangelist, one who converts the hearts and minds of everyone I encounter in life. What I am called to be is faithful to the mission that I have been entrusted with: to know, live, and share the gospel with others by my words and my example, and to entrust the rest to God.
Ultimately, it is God alone who changes hearts and minds through the power of the Holy Spirit. Pope Paul VI reminds us of this:
Evangelization will never be possible without the action of the Holy Spirit. . . . It must be said that the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of evangelization: it is He who impels each individual to proclaim the Gospel, and it is He who in the depths of consciences causes the word of salvation to be accepted and understood (EN 75).
As Christ himself teaches, we are sowers of the seed, called to scatter the gospel as generously as possible. But it is God who causes the growth; it is he who brings forth new life. We must place our firm trust and hope in him.
One of the things I have learned throughout my many years in ministry that not all Catholics have a clear and proper understanding of what evangelization is. Misconceptions have conditioned many to make excuses for not sharing the Faith. I have identified seven of the most common excuses Catholics give for not evangelizing.
1. “I’m Catholic. Evangelization is what Protestants do.”
Most Catholics tend to associate evangelization with the work of evangelical Protestants and fundamentalist Christians and pseudo-Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, but certainly not with Catholics. And yet, as the Catechism reminds us, evangelization is thoroughly Catholic. In essence, to be authentically Catholic is to be missionary and evangelistic:
The Church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all times. She is “missionary of her very nature” (CCC 868).
2. “I don’t force my religion on anyone.”
When some people think of evangelization, they envision the over-the-top televangelist or the pushy preacher, the so-called “Jesus freak” who wants to force his beliefs on you. We recoil from those kinds of encounters and we always run the risk of being rejected by others, and even persecuted for the sake of the gospel. This is the cost of discipleship that simply cannot be avoided.
As the popes have repeatedly reminded us since Vatican II, the Church never imposes the Faith but always proposes it. Pope Paul VI makes this clear in Evangelii Nuntiandi:
It would certainly be an error to impose something on the consciences of our brethren. But to propose to their consciences the truth of the Gospel and salvation in Jesus Christ, with complete clarity and with a total respect for the free options which it presents—“without coercion, or dishonorable or unworthy pressure”—far from being an attack on religious liberty is fully to respect that liberty, which is offered the choice of a way that even non-believers consider noble and uplifting (EN 80).
3. “Evangelization is Father’s job.”
Some Catholics have a mistaken notion that evangelization is somehow the exclusive domain and sole prerogative of the clergy. In the minds of these Catholics, evangelization is “Father’s job.” This is the problem of clericalism.
Vatican II did much to renew our understanding of evangelization as the mission of the entire people of God—laity, religious, and clergy alike. We see this point reiterated repeatedly throughout the council documents (cf. Ad Gentes 35, Lumen Gentium 17).
In his recent apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes:
In virtue of their baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples. All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church, or their level of instruction in the faith, are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients (EG 120).
More than 99 percent of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide are laity. The ordained clergy or ministerial priesthood comprises only a fraction of 1 percent of the Church. It is the common priesthood of believers that is responsible for sanctifying the temporal order and evangelizing the culture. It follows that one of the fundamental duties and responsibilities of the clergy is to awaken the missionary consciousness of the faithful. Then and only then will we see the New Evangelization take root—when the sleeping giant that is the laity of the Catholic Church is finally awakened.
4. “There are two things you don’t discuss in polite company: politics and religion.”
Many of us grew up hearing this popular admonition, which is reflective of our secularized culture, a culture that seeks to push God and religious faith to the margins of our society. This antipathy towards religious faith, coupled with an exaggerated sense of political correctness, has conditioned many believers to view their faith as something private that they should keep to themselves. The result has led to the creation of what author Sherry Weddell calls “the Culture of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Our Sunday Visitor).
Yet we must ask ourselves: How does this philosophy of political correctness square with our sacred duty to fulfill the Great Commission? Jesus makes it abundantly clear that evangelization is bound up with our salvation. The Catechism states: “The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it. . . . Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation” (CCC 1816).
“For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul declared (1 Cor. 9:16). The “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to the Faith is antithetical to the Christian ethos and roundly condemned by the Lord and his Church. As Catholics, we should be defined not not as those who don’t ask, don’t tell but rather as those who live to show and tell.
6. “Your religion doesn’t matter. Whether you’re a Christian, a Buddhist, or a Hindu, we’re all praying to the same God. Ultimately, all roads lead to heaven.”
Religious indifferentism—the belief that all religions are equally efficacious—short-circuits evangelization. If all religions are essentially the same, why bother sharing the gospel? If all roads lead to heaven (which happens to be the heresy of Universalism), what’s the point of sharing and spreading the Catholic Faith?
Jesus nowhere in the Gospels asserts that he is merely one of many ways to the Father or that his truth is merely one truth among many. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me,” he declares in John 14:6. In Acts 4:12, St. Peter says, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts to rest the lie that “all roads lead to heaven”:
Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt. 7:13-14).
As Catholics, our duty is to charitably share, explain, and defend these inconvenient yet necessary truths of our Faith against the widespread religious and moral relativism that continues to sow confusion and endanger untold numbers of souls.
7. “I don’t share my faith because I’m not trained or knowledgeable enough to do it.”
Finally, there are many Catholics believe themselves unprepared and ill-equipped to share their faith. Because they lack formal education in theology or training in evangelization, they feel unsure of themselves.
While formation is certainly important, our lack of formal training and education should not prevent us from giving simple witness to our faith in Jesus Christ—a witness born of a genuine encounter and friendship with him. Pope Francis sums it up best:
Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus: we no longer say that we are “disciples” and “missionaries,” but rather that we are always “missionary disciples.” If we are not convinced, let us look at those first disciples, who, immediately after encountering the gaze of Jesus, went forth to proclaim him joyfully: “We have found the Messiah!” (John 1:41). The Samaritan woman became a missionary immediately after speaking with Jesus and many Samaritans come to believe in him “because of the woman’s testimony” (John 4:39). So too, Saint Paul, after his encounter with Jesus Christ, “immediately proclaimed Jesus” (Acts 9:20; cf. 22:6-21). So what are we waiting for? (EG, 120).
That’s precisely my point: What are we Catholics waiting for?