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How do you talk to people who think you hate them? That was the question top Catholic thinkers were discussing at Benedictine College last weekend, and the three answers they came up with were simple, powerful and important.
Leave aside that it is crazy for them to think we hate them. People hate smoking but not smokers. People hate over-eating but not over-eaters. People hate religiosity but not religious people. (I hope?) We can hate sin but not sinners.
But leaving aside that we don’t hate them, when every statement we make is answered by “You are a hater,” what can we talk about?
Our Symposium for the New Evangelization had three keynote speakers who had three answers.
1. They will still listen to beauty.
“Beauty will save the world,” said Pope John Paul II, echoing Dostoevsky, and Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis. —a speaker of humor, passion and depth — echoed both.
The way he argued the point was this: “If your mind and your body are at war, you cannot be free,” he said. “We share passions with the animals but we have feelings that are higher — hope and love, for instance.” To be free is to be able to act in accordance with those higher feelings, he said, and “Beauty is the primary educator of feelings.”
So we must evangelize with beauty. …. By Promoting Sacred Art? Recycling? The good bishop didn’t say, but symposium speakers took up the challenge and made suggestions. The most compelling answer: witness. To see a Catholic life well lived is the only compelling argument people will believe. (Besides, that’s what Emily said to do, isn’t it?)
2. Truth is a person and he can reach the world, if we let him.
The next morning, Curtis Martin made another compelling case for “the way we can still be heard.”
He made the point that the “bad guys” in the world weren’t our biggest problem. The “good guys” in the Church are. He said too many Catholics had gotten the wrong message from the old adage attributed to St. Francis: “Evangelize always and when necessary use words.”
In fact, proclaiming the Gospel — using words — is a fundamental duty of the Church. “Do not presuppose the faith, but propose it,” he said.
His message: Stop wringing your hands and tell people about Jesus. He hears lot of excuses for why people don’t evangelize — they say they lack training, for instance. “But I never hear people say they don’t tell others about their favorite restaurant because they lack training. When it comes to Evangelization, the difficulty isn’t in the end, it’s the first step.”
3. Only by serving the poor do we gain the right to be heard.
Last was the answer given by Dr. Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Justice, Peace and Human Development Department.
“Modern people in our pluralist democracy may disagree on just about everything, but there is vast consensus, particularly among young people, that we are all supposed to help the most vulnerable in our society,” he said. “ This is good news for Catholics, because such a commitment is actually part of the very essence of the Church.”
Citing the actions of Pope Francis and the words of Pope Benedict XVI, he made the point that serving the poor is both the right thing to do and an “argument” people will listen to. Mother Teresa won a hearing by serving the poor. So can we — or, at any rate, we can take away a really good excuse for blowing us off.
So there you have it, three ways to reach the world. They just happen to be the three of the transcendentals that Pope Francis has been stressing (as George Weigel also pointed out): Beauty, truth and goodness.
Beauty — When faced with something beautiful, people don’t question, put up defenses or push back. They accept.
Truth — As Benedict XVI put it in his U.S. visit: “Truth is not an imposition. Nor is it simply a set of rules. It is a discovery of the One who never fails us; the One whom we can always trust …. Truth is a person: Jesus Christ.”
Charity — The days are gone when we could control the culture. First, we lost control of the culture; then we lost the culture war. But we can still be effective missionaries if we put our energies at the service of those in need.
The bad news: None of these is a short cut; each answer requires work. The good news: They are each natural expressions of an authentic relationship with Christ.