Recently, I have witnessed a rather disturbing trend on social media, and in comboxes at the end of articles, that suggest Christians really do not understand their purpose at all. Profanity. Condemnation. Humiliation. Arrogance. Pride. The whole matter is quite troubling. And I am only referring here to the Catholic Christians!
New Evangelization Run Amuck
In 1983, Pope John Paul II first used the term “new evangelization” in his encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, when he challenged the faithful to reach out to fellow Catholics:
“… entire groups of the baptized have lost a living sense of the faith, or even no longer consider themselves members of the Church, and live a life far removed from Christ and his Gospel. In this case what is needed is a ‘new evangelization’ or a ‘re-evangelization.”
At that time, the Internet was not being utilized as a form of social media. But by the Third Millennium, and with polls showing that only 23-percent of Catholics in the United States attend mass regularly, the new evangelization found its digital legs.
The Internet opened the door to a cacophony of apologists and evangelists, who view this cyber-medium as sort of a virtual shore on the Jordan River; millions of people sitting at their computers, willing to engage in apostolic dialogue. However, based upon recent observations, Catholics, who are the original Christians, should be setting the standard instead of lowering it. Of course, not all Catholics are guilty of “New Evangelization Run Amuck”, but there are a significant number of offenders that warrant examination and discipline.
The Cast of Characters
Despite the best of intentions, evangelizing on the Internet is tantamount to walking on hot coals barefooted, blindfolded and with little hope of getting to the end without second or third-degree burns. This assessment is simply based upon the nature of the beast. People often conduct themselves differently on the Internet in ways that they would not otherwise behave in-person. Dialogue is void of voice/tone/inflection and facial expression, leaving huge gaps for assumptions and misperceptions. (Emojis are a saving grace.) Furthermore, in this digital age where texting abbreviations is preferred over carefully selected words, and eloquently written prose, it’s a wonder that people can communicate effectively at all.
Based upon observation, there are three distinct characters in the world of Internet Evangelization.
Character #1 – Skilled Apologist
These well-educated, often recognized apologists serve humbly with a more holistic approach. They are typically slow to anger, able to navigate through conflict and theological minefields strategically while leaving little or no casualties.
Character #2 – Humble Evangelist
These gentle, modest bloggers are self-taught evangelists who enjoy sharing their life experiences, while witnessing gently and joyfully in a selfless effort to encourage others.
Character #3 – Bloviating Antagonist
These self-imposed authorities have built a reputation as the “Sam Kinisons of Apologetics”. They blog and bloviate in a combative approach; rants, personal attacks, name calling, and dropping an F-bomb or two! (There is no cursing in evangelizing!) Their arrogance precedes them, often leaving a hefty body count of casualties in their wake.
(I would offer an extensive list here, but I’m afraid that I might overlook the respectable ones, and I certainly don’t wish to publicly shame the worst offenders.)
Mutual Growth, Not Victory!
All Christians are all called to be Disciples of Christ. We are all different personalities. We all come from different walks of life. We all have different levels of theological training. Yet, the sheer intrinsic beauty of evangelizing is that regardless of our level of education, or personality type, we have the ability, the Divine gift, to serve in a Christ-like manner.
Peter offers us the most eloquent Scriptural testimony of what is expected from us [1 Peter 3:15-16]:
“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.”
How many genuinely give testimony in gentleness and respect, especially when someone challenges them and doesn’t agree with their testimony?
Engaging in evangelization on the Internet seems to equate to some type of self-imposed competition. It’s about who is right, and who is wrong. Isn’t it? There seemingly always has to be winner.
In 2004, the Secretariat for Evangelization for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published “The Catholic Evangelization: In An Ecumenical and Interreligious Society”, a compilation of keynote presentations made by various individuals at the USCCB’s Committee of Evangelization in March 2003. Although the primary focus of the publication concentrates on evangelizing to other religious denominations, many of the key points are just as applicable to new evangelization for apologetics within our own ranks. Without a doubt, this book should be required reading for all Catholics before they even begin to think about engaging in a faith-based dialogue with anyone.
Dr. Margaret Ralph, Director of M.P.S. (Master in Pastoral Studies) Program at the Lexington Theological Seminary, offers a compelling point of reference by saying, “The desired fruit is mutual growth, not victory.” It is not our purpose to convert someone to our way of thinking on the spot. It is not our purpose to “save someone’s soul” – God already sent someone to do that. However, it is our purpose to plant the seed of knowledge and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.
They Will Know You By Your . . . Love?
Scripture tell us that we will be recognized for who we are by how we treat others. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” [John 13:35] Witnessing the conduct of the worse offenders on the Internet, it’s doubtful anyone can identify them as followers of Christ.
Here a brief quote that should help us remember our mission. St. Thomas Aquinas once said, “To convert somebody go and take them by the hand and guide them.” Note he said “guide” – not guilt! You are to invite – no intimidate!
Bloviating that you are a more faithful Christian to another Christian, Catholic or Protestant, isn’t going to guarantee you a ticket of the Heaven Train. Your arrogance doesn’t reflect God’s love. This behavior only demonstrates that you are a pompous, arrogant hypocrite and really don’t give two-prayers about anyone else. That is not the evangelization that Christ asks of us. That is not the new evangelization that the Church asks of us. Actions speak louder than words…even on the Internet. And actions on the Internet are possible when you use your words thoughtfully and carefully, and listen before writing. (It also benefits you to know when to stop talking.)
Archbishop Fulton Sheen often told a story about a conversation that he once had with Mother Theresa. Knowing that she had been responsible for converting tens of thousands of men from the gutters of Calcutta, he asked her, “How, after dragging these poor mortals to your hospice, could have ever evangelize them and teach them the gospel?” She responded, “I didn’t. When I took care of them and showed love, I would say to them, ‘Would you like to hear about Christ?’ And they would say, ‘Is Christ like you?’” Mother Theresa would say, “No, but I try to be like him.” And without a word of Gospel spoken the man would respond, “Then I want to be a Christian.”
As the “The Catholic Evangelization: In An Ecumenical and Interreligious Society” clearly outlines, you have to know your audience. What is their story? What have they suffered? How are they struggling? One approach does not suit all situations.
The Door of Faith
My life’s journey has taught me to value humility. I recognize that faith is something that is given, experienced and shared – not to be worn as an award.
We are all the walking wounded. Each one of us have a story to tell – a history. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Each and every one of us has scars from life. We can aid one another in growth and understanding of God’s more effectively by communicating with the grace and joy that we have received. With each encounter that we have with another, we have two options; to hurt or to heal.
One of the most compelling quotes that attests to this approach was made by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei for the Indiction of the Year of Faith (2012-2013):
“The “door of faith” (Acts 14:27) is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and offering entry into his Church. It is possible to cross that threshold when the word of God is proclaimed and the heart allows itself to be shaped by transforming grace. To enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime . . . Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love received and when it is communicated as an experience of grace and joy.” [#7]
Therefore, the question is when you share your faith do you invite or intimidate someone to enter through the “door of faith”? Are you communicating with love, gentleness and joy in your heart, your thoughts, and words, or waiting for the moment to slam the door in their face, because you deem them unworthy?
Endeavoring to walk in the Light of Christ instead of our own pride and arrogance offers us a better chance for success – both as Disciples of Christ and has human beings.
Peace be with you.
Avoid Arrogance While Evangelizing (Dr. Scott Hahn)
Catholic Evangelization in an Ecumenical and Interreligious Society. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2004. Print.
Kendzia, Mary Carol. Catholic Update Guide to the New Evangelization. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
“New Evangelization.” New Evangelization. United State Conference of Catholic Bishops, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. <http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/how-we-teach/new-evangelization/index.cfm>.
Vogt, Brandon. “Pope Benedict’s Tips for Evangelizing Online – Brandon Vogt.” Brandon Vogt. N.p., 24 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. <http://brandonvogt.com/pope-benedicts-tips-for-evangelizing-online/>.
Ratzinger, Cardinal. “Cardinal Ratzinger on the New Evangelization.” Cardinal Ratzinger on the New Evangelization. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. <https://www.ewtn.com/new_evangelization/Ratzinger.htm>.