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March 13, 2018
Some people call me a street preacher. I’m not a street preacher. The label does roll off the tongue, but it also carries a fairly negative connotation. I could be more accurately described as a street questioner. I spend about a dozen Saturday mornings each year, standing on a street corner adjacent to the Farmer’s Market in Lincoln, Nebraska, as a member of Lincoln’s St. Paul Street Evangelization group. Yes, we evangelize in public, and we are 100 percent Catholic. We set out rosaries, books, CD’s, medals and other Catholic devotionals and sacramentals, then we sit back and wait for people to approach us. We don’t hold up signs threatening people that they are headed to Hell nor do we shout at people or try to draw attention to ourselves other than our little display of religious items.
Because of this, people who don’t want to talk to us, simply walk by. Those who are intrigued come to us and that is when we get to start a conversation.
Several years ago, I listened to a recorded debate between Jimmy Akin and a well-known but vehemently anti-Catholic apologist on Hank Hanegraff’s radio show, The Bible Answer Man. During the debate, Hanegraff (who at that time was an Evangelical Christian but who last year converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity) asked his guests something that prompted the non-Catholic apologist to bemoan the fact that most Protestants do not know why they are Protestant and that too many “former” Catholics have left the Church for reasons other than theological disagreement with the teachings of the Church. He said that most former Catholics leave because they were offended by someone in the Church or some similar non-theological reason. This changed the way I approach discussions of faith, and I have found it to be very helpful.
If someone comes up to our table and takes a rosary, holy medal or book, I ask them where they go to church. Regardless of their answer, I always ask the same follow up question: “Why?” In my experience, one out of one hundred non-Catholics can provide a meaningful answer to that question. Almost everyone is temporarily speechless until they can mentally assemble some sort of response. About 90 percent of people explain that they were raised in their faith or they married someone and simply adopted their spouse’s faith. The other 9 percent have absolutely no explanation and just shrug their shoulders. 99 percent of the non-Catholics I meet simply belong to their particular faith due to circumstance.
While the lack of knowledge makes for a very interesting conversation, the bad news is that we Catholics are no better at explaining our reasons for being Catholic. I know, because I ask the same question of Catholics.
We have to realize that being baptized and raised Catholic is not a very good reason to be Catholic, especially if that is the only reason we can give when asked. Explaining that you converted because your spouse was already Catholic is equally uninspiring. We all have much better reasons for our faith, but we have never thought about it. Therefore, we lead people to believe that we are Catholic by circumstance and that leads people to walk away very uninspired.
The Christian response to the question, “why,” has led to a common type of inquiry we receive from atheists and agnostics: “If you grew up in Iran, would you be Catholic”?
People are perfectly justified in asking you why we are what we are. They may not ask it in those exact words, but in discussing faith, they are reasonable to expect that you can provide a compelling reason as to why you are a member of the Catholic Church. This is our opportunity to open a door for the Holy Spirit, but too many of us act like we can’t find the doorknob. In such a situation, we must be ready to offer an honest and compelling explanation. So let’s think about it for a minute.
One way to do this is to use a 3-pronged approach. You might begin by reciting the Nicene or Apostles Creed which makes sure you are both talking about the same set of beliefs. It takes about 30 seconds to recite, so this leaves you with about 2 minutes and 30 seconds for further explanation. Three minutes is a nice length for a nutshell explanation as to what you believe and why you believe it.
Next, spend about 30 seconds on an appeal to reason. If you have ever looked into the scientific or logical basis for the Catholic faith, you can point to this as part of your elaboration on the first part of the Creed. Personally, I’ve read dozens of books, listened to hours of CD’s and podcasts, watched hours of videos and regularly listen to radio shows which explain the scientific, historical and logical basis for the Catholic faith. I find these explanations to be sound and compelling. I’ve also listened to and read hours of criticisms of Catholicism and Christianity, and I regularly engage in conversations with people who are highly skeptical of Catholicism. Yet I have never come away with a concern that a Catholic dogma or doctrine is shaky, flawed or unreasonable.
Next, you can spend 30 seconds explaining Catholicism with Scripture. Where do you find the Catholic Church in the Bible? I often tell people that I can find a Scriptural basis for every dogma and doctrine the Catholic Church teaches. Some are explicit and others are implicit, but they are all evidenced in Scripture. You can point them to the promise of the Church in Matthew 16, the beginning of the Church in Acts 2 and the growth of the Church all the way through the rest of the New Testament. You can also show them the Church prefigured in the Old Testament where we find the Temple, the priests, forgiveness of sins through sacrifice, the Passover meal and many other passages that point to the Church Christ would institute during his public ministry.
Finally, you should spend about a minute and a half explaining your personal experience of God in your life. Maybe you had a deep intellectual conversion which involved looking at other faiths and ideologies before you finally laid personal claim to the Catholic faith. Maybe you experienced a profound moment of grace, mercy, forgiveness, consolation or some other spiritual experience that convinced you of the truth, beauty and goodness of the Catholic faith. Maybe you had a powerful role model who taught you the power of faith. We all have experiences in our life which either lead us toward or away from God. This personal approach is known as a “testimony” to many non-Catholics (and some Catholics).
This three-pronged approach becomes your “faith story.” The Catholic faith is: Reasonable, Scriptural and deeply personal (not to be confused with private).
It is good to tie these three explanations into one because an atheist, agnostic, non-Christian or non-Catholic Christian can disagree with one or two explanations for your faith but they will have a harder time dismissing all three approaches. By giving all three explanations, you also show that you are not Catholic due to circumstance. At a minimum, this can earn their respect. Even if you grew up in China, you would likely be Catholic today because you have approached your faith carefully, reasonably and with an open mind. Your approach may gnaw at the other person’s heart until they reach a point when they are more open to beauty, truth or goodness. When that happens, your faith story may play a role in their conversion.
Lapsed Catholics and non-Catholics have all kinds of reasons for not being Catholic, but many of their reasons can be fit into one general explanation. In one way or another, they describe an experience in which they found no compelling reason to believe that Catholicism was more true than any other faith or belief. They will often recall unanswered questions or being scandalized by the fact that the Catholics they knew, could not explain why Catholicism was true. By offering your faith story, you will avoid becoming another person, in a long list of people, who have reinforced that experience.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Calling of Saints Peter and Andrew” painted by Caravaggio, ca. 1603-09.