Catholics don’t always outwardly evangelize like other Christians because they think actions speak louder than words. No doubt many think like that, but it’s no libel to suggest that such an excuse often masks other reasons — including embarrassment and timidity.
No great Christian evangelist ever relied on actions alone to the exclusion of words. On the first Pentecost, Peter “raised his voice and proclaimed” to the Jews assembled in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14). He preached and wasn’t satisfied to evangelize only through setting a good example. In this he followed his Lord, who sent his apostles out in pairs to preach repentance and to heal (Mk 6:7-13). Paul undertook perilous journeys not so Jews and Gentiles alike could make a cool appraisal of his actions, but so they would hear his urgent pleas to convert.
Think of Patrick preaching in Ireland, Cyril and Methodius telling the Slavs about the Christ, Robert Bellarmine arguing eloquently with Protestant Reformers, John Paul II traveling around the world and insisting on the necessity of the whole Catholic faith. They weren’t satisfied with actions alone. Yes, a person who acts well may be called a good Christian, but for many people that designation today means little.
An American delegate to the United Nations, when asked by the press some years ago how to solve the Middle East crisis, replied, “The solution is really quite simple. All we have to do is to get the Arabs and Israelis to sit down together and talk things over like good Christians.” The poor man had no idea what he was saying. Arabs, at least the large majority, and Jews are not Christians. They may talk with one another like good Christians. But, short of conversion, they never will be good Christians, no matter how often they mimic good Christians in their actions.
Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus instructed the apostles and, derivatively, all Christians “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). He didn’t say, “Go out, set a good example, and be satisfied with that.” He told us to preach and teach the faith. Evangelization that isn’t outwardly visible isn’t evangelization at all.
Many other Christians and pseudo-Christians realize this. They’re not afraid to take their messages to others. Think of the street-corner fundamentalist preacher and the evangelical televangelist. In fact, the most successful in terms of new converts are precisely those pseudo-Christian sects, such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which emphasize door-to-door evangelization.
Catholics are starting to wake up to this fact. It’s about time, since about half of all new converts to Mormonism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to mention fundamentalism, are former Catholics.
KARL KEATING is the founder of Catholic Answers. This column is reprinted with permission
from his book What Catholics Really Believe — Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions About the Catholic Faith (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 1995).
Christ … fulfills this prophetic office, not only by the hierarchy … but also by the laity. He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the sense of the faith [sensus fidei] and the grace of the word. To teach in order to lead others to faith is the task of every preacher and of each believer.
Lay people also fulfill their prophetic mission by evangelization, that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life. For lay people, this evangelization … acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world….The true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers … or to the faithful.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, #904-905