The silence speaks volumes.
Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples, relates the following story about Sara, raised by a non-practicing Catholic mother and Jewish father in New York. At age 28, a powerful experience of God’s presence moved her to an intense exploration of Catholicism. After completing RCIA, she was received into the Church at Easter 2010. Sara shared part of her experience with Weddell:
"About six weeks into the [RCIA] program, I met with Sister and told her that I thought maybe I was missing something because we didn’t seem to be talking much about getting to know God or Jesus. I didn’t feel like I had a good understanding of who Jesus was to me. I assumed that this was because I was coming from a non-Christian background and everyone else already ‘got it.’ … I had to go out and ask Catholic friends to talk to me about these things, one-on-one. Some were willing to tell me sort of — but all but one of them also got visibly upset first and didn’t know why I’d want to know about their experiences. I had a sense that they resented being asked."
Sara, unfortunately, had come face to face with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” culture so pervasive in too many Catholic parishes: don’t ask anyone about their faith life, interior life, experience of Christ, and certainly don’t share your own faith experience with anyone. “We’re Catholics: we don’t do that; that’s a Protestant thing — you know, to talk about ‘Jesus’.”
Sadly, this is what generations of baptized Catholics have had bred into them. And when generations of Catholics see their forebears being silent, this just perpetuates the silence. Nor should we forget that there are, tragically, plenty of Catholics out there who don’t even know or believe that a personal friendship with Jesus Christ is possible — it’s just never been part of their experience of Catholicism.
In large part, this explains Catholic unease with sharing the faith verbally, and deliberately, the unease with talking about Christ to others. True enough, much of the witnessing to the faith that we are called to do as Catholics is non-verbal: our works of charity, our soup kitchens, our aid to the homeless, to those in need. Whether the adage is actually attributable to St. Francis of Assisi or not, it is true: we are sent out to preach (and if necessary to use words!).
Fair enough. But too often this “Catholic way of witnessing to the faith” becomes a copout. Words are necessary. The world needs to know (and hear from us) that we are disciples of Jesus Christ (and not merely “nice” people helping out at the local soup kitchen).
Of course, such verbal witness to Christ does not require us to stand on a soapbox in Times Square. For starters, our deliberate witnessing to Jesus begins in the home: praying as a family, before meals, at bedtime, or an occasional family Rosary. We can even give a witness by wearing Christian jewelry — something that might provoke a conversation with a friend (“Why do you wear that gold cross all the time?”).
Certainly, there will come the tougher situations where we are called on to witness, with friends, fellow students, neighbors, relatives, or colleagues at work. These are the times when we have to muster all our conviction and love of God, and be ready to explain why we are not going to the bachelor’s party in Atlantic City, why we do not wear certain kinds of very immodest clothing, why we do not watch certain movies, why — no thanks — we are not going to look at certain videos one of our buddies just downloaded on his computer, and so on.
“Sorry, I don’t do those things because … I don’t believe it’s Christian to do those kinds of things. I know you disagree. Maybe we can talk about it sometime.”
And then, of course, we have to be ready to bear the ridicule, scorn, dismissiveness or even anger that our words might provoke. But if we have succeeded in planting the seed of faith in someone’s heart, despite their reactions — is that such a high price to pay?
Such witnessing to the faith becomes much easier and natural if we do it on the impulse of fidelity: being faithful to my Friend, to Jesus. Witnessing will be tepid if our relationship with Jesus is tepid. Witnessing — verbally — will make more sense to us, will become easier, and a cause of profound peace and joy, to the extent that it is a natural expression of our friendship with Jesus. All the more reason to keep working on that friendship.
Rev. Thomas Berg is Professor of Moral Theology and Director of Admissions at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, NY. This article originally appeared on his blog.