In my last article, I discussed the importance of evangelizing in ways that speak to the needs of the human heart. This is especially important, because the culture at large is too often allowed to control the conversation by insisting that the message of Christianity, Catholicism in particular, is one that is ultimately at odds with the deepest needs of the human heart.
There is perceived to be very little about the Catholic faith – except some beautiful architecture – which can truly be said to speak to man’s heart. The rest of Catholic expression is looked upon with fear and suspicion, as if it were simply a slavish system of moral restrictions aimed at extinguishing joy from the life of man out of a fear of hellfire at the hands of a vindictive judge.
This perception is not widespread because Catholicism is, in fact, oblivious to man’s desires. Hardly. This perception is widespread, rather, because of a failure on the part us as Catholics to adequately expound the Church’s teaching about man, how that teaching corresponds with the Church’s genuine concern for man, and how that concern is harmonious with the Church’s moral demands, many of which are labelled as proof-positive examples that the Church is in the business of snuffing the life and joy out of people’s hearts.
To combat this false perception, our efforts at evangelization require some different foundations. The world at large needs to see that there is something in Catholicism that is admirable and attractive. It needs to be reflected not only in our teaching but in our lives, in the way we interact with others and the way we present our message.
Rather than evangelizing, too often today we are in a defensive stance in an attempt to defend the Church’s position on a myriad of heated issues. This is, unfortunately, all most people know when it comes to the Faith. We are required, for sure, to defend the faith, but we are required even more to share it.
To do this we need to start at the basics, the root of all our teaching, the realities of the faith that has made it attractive to so many for so long. Those basics are found in this seminal teaching: we have all been created in God and for God, and our ultimate fulfillment is found in Him.
Firstly, evangelization demands that we recognize in our fellow men and women that they are always searching. Despite the pull of materialism and “fashionable world-views” that might bring temporary reprieve from our restless searching, we all have an ache that impels us to question “the meaning of things and [our]very existence” (Gaudium et Spes, 10; Fides et Ratio § 1).
Everything we desire and hope for, everything that causes us pause in quiet moments or keeps us up at night thinking, has its answer in God. This is the fundamental message with which the Catechism begins its exposition of Catholic doctrine, namely, that God has “created man to make him share in his own blessed life” (CCC, 1).
Man has an innate hunger for God. By beginning the conversation with these insights, we can meet our fellow man at the fundamental ache in his or her heart. We can show that the life of the Church ultimately exists to answer this need of the human heart, the need for union with God.
Following upon this we must then endeavor to show that, having been created by God with an ache for God, we are thereby in possession of a nature that is fixed, that is subject to a natural law. Along with the ache for God in our hearts, there is also present in our hearts this natural law that is “immutable”, and is the “foundation on which man can build the structure of moral rules to guide his choices” (CCC 1958; 1959). Effective evangelism requires showing this relationship between the moral life rooted in natural law and the happiness that God wants for all men.
God seeks to soothe the ache in our hearts, and it is only through living in accordance with the natural law placed in our hearts in union with Him that that ache can be healed. The demands of the moral life, rather than being some kind of obstacle to happiness, are in fact a necessary component to happiness, and these demands are recognizable in through the same voice of the heart that calls in to relationship with God. In this way it can be shown that the moral demands of that faith are not accretions invented by men, but are the foundation to true happiness.
Evangelization is a complex endeavor. It often requires striking a delicate balance between being approachable and gentle but also firm. The Lord asks us to pursue this balance – we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16 RSV).
For the baptized Catholic who is endeavoring to evangelize others, the beauty is that truth itself is both gentle and firm – one is not committed to choose one over the other. Likewise, there is no conflict between faith and reason or happiness and morality. Therefore, the primary task for those of us seeking to take our mission to evangelize seriously is to recognize that we must not allow ourselves to be coerced into thinking that we must make a choice between gentleness or firmness, happiness or moral strictness, etc.
The task for all of us is, rather, to learn how to wed these concepts together in our work of evangelization; to learn how to strike the necessary balance in our presentation of the faith, and to begin our efforts at evangelization by giving others a reason for hope.