As a boy growing up, I had the good fortune to have two wonderful parents who were sincere Catholic believers. My boyhood memories of serving Mass at St. Ben’s, saying the rosary as a family, observing Dad going to a St. Vincent de Paul meeting every week, and many more such experiences molded me in ways that I was completely unaware of at the time.
That said, like all the rest of us, Mom and Dad were not perfect. Dad drank every night; fortunately, he was a happy drinker. Mom had issues controlling her temper and could let loose with some pretty judgmental outbursts from time to time. They were, indeed, saints and sinners… but in my book, mainly saints. I guess because there was so much love there, it was easy to overlook the sinful stuff. As a result, I find myself the heir of both the good and the not-so-good. I have Dad’s heart and Mom’s devotion. But also, like Dad, I have to keep an eye on how much and how often I drink. And, like Mom, I can be extremely critical, though I try to keep most of that to myself.
I mention all this to point out the fact that we “inherit” more than we realize – both truth and falsehood, both holiness and shame. At least for myself, it was not until I was well into adulthood that I began to sift and sort through this strange mélange of inherited attributes; trying to throw out some and appropriate others. In fact, my diaconate training was really the first time that I began to let the social doctrines of the Church challenge me at a personal level. From my upbringing, I knew that discrimination was morally wrong and that I owed a response of charity to people who live in poverty. But, I had not really wrestled with the concept of a person’s inherent human dignity demanding a response of respect, even when the inherited personal attributes of that person may be unattractive or even morally reprehensible; nor had it occurred to me that asking God’s kingdom to “come on earth as it is in heaven” meant that all unjust social structures – be they legal abortion or graft or environmental responsibility – had to be brought under the purview of God’s will.
So, what does all this have to do with evangelization? Let me offer just two thoughts. First, like most other subjects, what we think and how we feel about sharing our faith is likely to be colored by the way we were brought up. For example, our family lived by the conviction that in polite society, any discussion of “religion” was off the table. We would never consider sharing our views on such a personal subject. It simply was not in the inherited DNA of a good American Catholic trying to fit into a predominantly Protestant – and now, secularized – world. That has required some rethinking on my part.
Second, I have begun to realize that explicitly sharing our love for Jesus – albeit it in the most respectful of ways – is also a matter of social justice. By virtue of our shared humanity, everyone has a right to know the truth: that God loved us so much that He became one of us and suffered and died to raise us – along with Him – to a life of liberating love.