Have you ever wondered how missionaries of the past were so successful in spreading Christianity throughout the world? How did St. Paul inspire persons from such diverse places as Antioch, Athens and Rome? What led to St. Francis Xavier performing so many baptisms in a day that he would become physically exhausted? How did Ven. Bishop Frederic Baraga connect with natives of this land when he was not even able to speak their language at first?
While most of us will not be called to the foreign missions, there are many things we can learn from these and other successful missionaries about sharing the Good News. Not only did these people have a heroic love for Jesus, a heart open to the workings of the Holy Spirit and incredible resilience in the face of difficulties, but they also made great effort to know the people they encountered and to understand the culture in which the people lived.
Handing on the Faith
Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ is something that is person-to-person. The evangelist introduces the person he is evangelizing to the person of Jesus Christ. This could be something as simple as a parent reading an illustrated Bible to a young child and answering the child’s questions about Jesus. It may be a missionary sharing the Gospel with inhabitants of a foreign land. Or it could be an office worker at the water cooler answering questions about the Catholic faith.
The process of evangelization is a little like matchmaking. The evangelist shares what he knows about Jesus Christ with the person to whom he is speaking, trying to foster a relationship between the two. So it is important that the evangelist knows both the person of Jesus Christ and the person whom he is evangelizing. A matchmaker would not be very effective if he didn’t know one or both of the persons he was trying to match.
When evangelizing, it is important to remember that every person is unique. No two people possess exactly the same history, life experiences, temperament or spiritual maturity. Therefore, each person will receive the Good News of Jesus Christ in light of his own circumstances and life experiences.
St. Paul knew his audience well enough to recognize that there were some people who, at first, needed to be fed “milk, not solid food, because [they] were unable to take it” (1 Corinthians 3:2). By spending time with a person and listening to his story, we become more effective delivering the Gospel message in a way that shows him how Jesus is the fulfillment of his deepest longings.
When sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with someone, we should be aware that a person does not live in isolation from the world. A person lives within a culture and, thus, both affects the culture and is affected by it.
Culture is an inherent and important aspect of human life. Culture expresses what a group of people believes about human life and how to attain its fulfillment. It is manifested through such diverse means as communication, work, civic organization, religion, art and leisure.
Ultimately, a culture reflects its people’s understanding of God. To the extent that a group of people knows God, their culture will reveal God’s truth, beauty and goodness. Likewise, a human community’s ignorance of God or its rejection of God will become visible in such things as its social structures, artistic expression and political processes.
The parable of the sower teaches that the condition of the soil, or the disposition of people’s hearts, determines how effectively the seed of the Word takes root. Many factors contribute to the condition of the soil, including the influences of one’s culture.
A culture that has been transformed by the Gospel fosters Christian growth among its peoples more easily than one that has not. For example, not too many years back, we lived in a culture that respected the Lord’s Day as a day of rest. This fostered the conditions for people to more easily grow in their faith and build family bonds. Today, it takes more intentional effort, and sometimes even requires counteracting the culture, for a person to get to Mass or foster quality family time on a Sunday.
To evangelize effectively, it is important to recognize how a culture affects the lives of its people. For example, a mother trying to instill into her daughter the virtue of modesty may find it challenging in the face of current fashion trends. Or a catechist teaching a group of teens about God’s beautiful plan for marriage should recognize the media and social influences that are at work in the lives of young people.
It is important to get to know the culture in which people live so that the Good News of Christ can be delivered in a way that effectively addresses cultural issues and, ultimately, transforms the culture. The condition of the soil must be known so that the seed of the Word can be more effectively sown.
Part of what made Bishop Baraga a successful missionary was that he spent many years with the native people, learning their language, customs and lifestyles. He was then able to identify the “seeds of the Gospel” which already existed in their culture.
Evangelization should identify and build upon that which already reflects God’s truth, beauty and goodness, while bringing the transforming light of Christ to those areas that need purification.
Two upcoming events in our diocese will assist us in the work of evangelization. At the Diocesan Assembly on Oct. 8, Sherry Weddell will help us better understand the personal journey to intentional discipleship. On Oct. 22-23, Dr. Peter Kreeft will speak at three events, providing insight into the culture in which we evangelize. More information about these events can be found at www.dioceseduluth.org or by calling (218) 724-9111.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.