Perhaps one of the best things about the new evangelization is that those things you hate most about the concept is probably the wrong thing to do anyway. One story that I told this past weekend at Mass (so if you were at that Mass you may skip this paragraph) was about my mother and I taking the bus when I was a young ‘un from our small city to the big downtown in Akron to do some going-back-to-school shopping. A guy gets on the bus at some point and turns to the person in the most forward bench and says, “Are you saved? Unless you are saved you are going to hell!” I like to think he was sincere and that he was hoping to save souls and it took a lot of courage but it was a miserable failure. He turned everyone off on the bus. By the time he was half way back people would just put up their hands and refuse to talk to him.
That is NOT an example of the new evangelization.
The new evangelization is first and foremost about one on one relationships. We can use a similar conundrum for an example. Living in a city you come across people begging for money. People often throw money at them because they feel guilty. The beggars often stand at highway exit ramps or busy corners so just about all the time you have is to stick your hand out the window with some money in it and hear a thank you before the light turns green and the guy behind you honks the horn. The flip side to the guilt is wondering if the person is really being helped by the donation. That is what I like so much about organizations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society, or Catholic Charities, or Catholic Relief Services (and subsequently where I put money.) They do not just throw money at a problem. The go out and meet people, get to know them, asses their need, assist where they can, and give guidance on how not to end up in the same place.
The evangelizer on the bus was akin to throwing money at beggars. The new evangelization, on the other hand, is about getting to know people, listening to them, and discerning their need. It is about inviting, not commanding. It is about telling your story and not telling others what their story should be. It is about patience and trusting in the Holy Spirit. It is about being a joyful person which makes you attractive and points others toward your faith. It is about prayer. It is about not expecting someone to be as deeply on board as you are right away and supporting them on their journey. It is about supporting and encouraging. It is about being natural about your faith. It is about being comfortable saying, “I can tell you what works for me.”
Yes, this is very vague. But it has to be.
Maybe one more example might help. My Dad was an avowed not-a-God person who lost his faith, near as I can tell, during WWII. He invested heavily in life, believed in the human spirit, the power of his own body, and living life to the fullest. It kept him distracted more than gave him joy but saw him through over 80 years of his life. Then he ended up in the nursing home unable to tend much to himself. Everything he counted on in life was failing him. He would say to me, “Help me.” Most of the time all I could answer was, “All I got is prayer Dad.”
He wasn’t exactly an atheist, but when I said that I was going to become a priest he said, “Religion is for weak people, but at least you will be a leader among weak people.” So as you can imagine, religion was not a popular topic between us.
So one day, frustrated with his failing body, the loss of deceased relatives and friends, depression over the great void he imagined coming, he said to me again, “Help me.” With no real hope I mechanically said, “Dad, all I got is prayer,” to which he responded finally, “Fine!”
With that he died reconciled with God. There were no arguments. No talk about what he should be doing to get ready to die. The theological debates. No pointing out his predicament. No moralizing or Bible thumping. (And don’t get me wrong – there is a time and place for such things. When your 12 year old says he doesn’t want to go to Mass, you do the same thing you do when he says he doesn’t want to go to school.) It was a relationship (no matter how stressed at times), invitation, acceptance, joy, sincerity, hope, prayer, persistence, and gentleness.