Evangelizing One Word at a Time
Most committed Catholics are thinking more about evangelization these days. But while we can all think of better ways to handle ourselves when questions about our faith come up, it is not at all clear what we can do habitually to stimulate those questions—to be the kind of people from whom others seek knowledge of Christ and His Church.
It is true, of course, that people should know we are Christians because we are constantly showing a truly sacrificial love. As Our Lord said:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. [Jn 13:34-36]
This cannot be underestimated. Nor can it be underestimated that the surest route to consistent sacrificial love is consistent prayer.
But today I am wondering more about the specific kinds of outward signs we can employ to signal our Christian commitment in concrete and recognizable ways. Obviously we do not want to force things too much. We do not wish to settle on methods that are impractical, insensitive, inappropriate or just plain tacky. But let me suggest that a very good start can be made by gradually Christianizing our normal manner of speaking. We can make it more obvious that we are firmly rooted in Christ by the habitual expressions we use in our ordinary conversations with others.
Most people know that our word “goodbye” is a truncation of “God be with you”, which in an earlier Christian culture became a standard expression for seeing someone on his way. If we are to begin forming a Catholic culture from the ground up—and God knows we have no way at present to form it from the top down—then we need to begin by recognizing how secularized our own personal speech patterns have become, so that we can deliberately adopt new patterns and make them habitual.
Regrettably, I still hear myself saying “good luck” far too often, as if there is no such thing as Providence. But others have done better, and one of the most promising restorations of habitual Christian speech I have witnessed in recent years is the growing use of “God bless you” (or “God bless). The following are a few more practical tips for resurrecting Christian speech. I welcome additional ideas:
Welcomes and Farewells: Farewells seem to be easier. It is not much of a stretch for us to say “God bless you” or “God be with you” or “Go with God” or even the old “Godspeed” when someone takes his leave. It is harder to think of natural and unforced Christian expressions of welcome, but perhaps something like this would work: “God love you, [name]! It is good to see you.” It is also true that “God bless you” and “God be with you” can be used either as expressions of welcome or of farewell.
Considerations and Commitments: Many discussions involve promising to do something or expressing a future intention. “If the crick don’t rise” is perhaps not the most favorable expression! Neither is “I will if I can”. But we can try “God willing” or “With the help of God” or “With Our Lord’s assistance”. If we need to take something under advisement, we can do more than “think about it”; we can promise to “pray about it” or “bring it to Our Lord”. Or even: “This is important; I’d like to discuss it with my spiritual director.”
Verbal Empathy and Support: On radio and TV, people now say “our thoughts go out to” so-and-so. It should not be so with Christians. Much better to say, “I will pray for you” or “I will pray for that intention” or “I’ll bring this up to our prayer group”. But we must do what we say! My own habit is to say at least an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be immediately on promising to pray for someone, just to make sure the promise is kept in at least a minimal form.
Invocation of the Saints: We need to learn to practice the presence of God, and so to lift up our minds and hearts frequently in prayer. Most serious Catholics will at least occasionally invoke their favorite saints. I propose occasionally invoking them out loud. “St. Anthony, please help me find my keys!”, or “St. John Chrysostom, please help me find the right words”, or “St. Luke, please pray that [name] will get better.” (Make sure you know something about the saint(s) you invoke, in case someone asks!)
Meal Time: One thing we still do privately, with friends, and surrounded by strangers is to eat. No meal should begin without saying grace. It is a wonderful custom, and one which still seems to be viewed with as much respect as derision. Whenever we host a gathering, of course, we should lead the grace so that all can join in. In restaurants, many will at least notice that grace is being said, especially if it is introduced and followed by my final suggestion, the Sign of the Cross.
The Sign of the Cross: This is really a kind of speech-in-action. The words are important, but so is the sign. Catholics used to make the Sign of the Cross frequently, not only when beginning and ending a longer series of prayers, or when passing a church or a cemetery, but when undertaking any new task, or even when entering or leaving a building (such deliberate little habits are also useful in learning to practice the presence of God). I recommend that we begin to get comfortable again with using the Sign of the Cross frequently, especially when we are beginning some challenging task. It is a way of doing something in God’s name and with His help; if other people notice, so much the better!
I make all these suggestions on the assumption that the desire to appear pious is not one of your special temptations. Apart from this, what we will find if we develop these habits of Christian speech is that we will gradually increase our own spiritual awareness. Obviously, the outward form of our speech should never replace its interior essence in truth and love. Instead, let both the outward form and the essence be Christian! In this way, we will do more than stimulate thought and questions in others; we will also grow in grace. Our speech will be a personal and a cultural gift. But our lives will grow to make a gift that is richer still.
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Posted by: anne.mitzel3608 -
Dec. 09, 2013 1:01 PM ET USA
I love it! These little suggestions are what a priest adviser of mine would term "vulgarly practical" - and that is meant as a compliment. We all need to find simple, concrete ways to implement our spiritual resolutions.
Posted by: howland5905 -
Dec. 06, 2013 10:22 PM ET USA
Great post Jeff. And if I can share more than a word or two with someone, I love to share a story about a concrete way that God has acted in my life. I have found stories about Pope Francis easy to share with all sorts of people, especially the one about the little kid who went up on stage with the Holy Father. When someone asks me how I am I may respond in a way that arouses interest: "suffering joyfully" or "truly happy" are a couple of my favorites.