Some years ago, while serving as the confirmation sponsor of a young man, I took my confirmand out to lunch to discuss the importance of the upcoming sacrament. I decided my approach would be to ask questions, both to determine his level of understanding as well as to gauge his interest.
Unfortunately, it became clear very quickly that he had virtually NO interest in the sacrament, the gifts of the Holy Ghost or the graces that flowed from them. For him, it was a “required” ceremony…required by the Church and “mom and dad.”
So I probed a bit deeper, suggesting that maybe the Church, his parents and I had a reason for this event and that it flowed from God’s love for us, Jesus’ redemptive act and the Holy Spirit’s special desire to help us. “Don’t you think you could use God’s help,” I asked. “No,” he said, “I’m pretty good.”
Here was a young man completely ignorant of original sin, his own actual sins, concupiscence, the perfections of God, the disorder of human nature and a host of other basic Catholic truths. I was saddened and perplexed. I mean how do you help someone who doesn’t believe they need it? How can you “sell” the greatness of God, when “pretty good” is good enough?
Truly, for such people, the dead-end and destructiveness of sin is likely the only thing that will turn them to God. Praise God that from Saul, a Paul was born. Still, I found in the experience some lessons for better evangelization.
First, no one should be able to advance 16 or 17 years as a Catholic and NOT know fundamental Catholic truths. As an aside, the placing of confirmation in the high school years is a major mistake that the Church should re-evaluate, but that discussion must be left for another time. Clearly, the first and most important evangelical work we can do is as catechists, both of our own children and in the other children in our parish.
Second, the good, old-fashioned works of fasting and almsgiving need to be resurrected. It is difficult, if not impossible, to convince a person who has EVERYTHING that he needs ANYTHING. Add to this the difficulty of getting an habitual materialist to appreciate the spiritual and you have a recipe for disaster. Fasting (or other personal self-sacrifices) and almsgiving not only train the person to appreciate their GOODS, but also become an act of evangelization in their own right by being examples of placing the spiritual over the material.
Okay, but what about the great mass of people, already adults, outside of catechetical structures and not disposed to recommendations to works of penance? In other words, how do we evangelize the majority of Americans who, like my high-schooler, are self-satisfied in their ignorant mediocrity?
For this, another tack must be taken and I believe the answer lies in hitting the human person in his most basic desire. Aristotle told us that all men by nature desire to know and to be happy. In fact, they most want to know how to be happy! Being aware and appealing to this most basic truth is our greatest chance of being successful evangelists.
Of course, tactics matter since rarely can you say to a person: “Hey, you wanna know how to be happy?” without it sounding strange or coming off as a bit like a lewd proposition! Rather, what I am suggesting is that we meet people where they are and where we are.
For example, if you are a lawyer, regularly in touch with other legal professionals, then perhaps asking the question “Where does the force of law come from?” or “Why is one duty-bound to follow the law?” would serve as a springboard for a greater discussion about ethics in general and eventually lead to God’s law in particular. This query would not come off as peculiar or proselytizing, but would do a world of good in spreading the gospel.
Similar scenarios could be developed for every field of endeavor. In medicine: “Why is there a duty to “do no harm”? In business: “Why is the “workman worthy of his hire”? Or in politics: “Do you think that individual rights supersede the common good?” Yes, we are going to have to develop our skills in the Socratic method as well as become experts in the ethics of our chosen fields, but isn’t that what being “salt” and “yeast” are all about?
Grace builds on nature. When it comes to spreading the gospel, let the grace of evangelization flow from the natural desire of men to know and to seek happiness.