“Proselytism is solemn nonsense.” Pope Francis said that in his recent interview with the Italian atheist Eugenio Scalfari, and I’m sure it was a shock to some folks. Jesus calls us to “go make of all disciples”, but how are we going to do with without Proselytism of some kind? Pope Francis has focused his reign on example, and by extension, others come to Faith by seeing it lived authentically by others.
My journey to Catholicism wasn’t a straight line. I grew up in a small Presbyterian church in a small town in the 1960s; we thought we had life and faith pretty much in order and everybody should be where we were. That didn’t change a lot when I went to a Central Methodist University, a small school in another small town in the 1970s. I thought I was in the middle, not a literalist on the Bible, but not a liberal either. There was a lot to learn about Church and people, and I had Catholic friends, but examining my faith in detail wasn’t on the agenda then.
Many of the Christians I knew growing up liked to talk about the moment they “found Jesus.” When I was a kid, I went up front for the altar call at a Billy Graham crusade: although that was an exciting moment at the time, it wasn’t Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. Neither were my baptism at the age of 8 or my confirmation in junior high school. I always knew God was there and wanted to respond to Him, but never had a mountaintop moment.
We had a group on campus we called the “God jocks”, kids that were very active in reading and talking about the Bible. It wasn’t a big group, and I didn’t belong there: their boundaries were rather small and firm. For information purposes, I was a “music jock”, and although we weren’t heathens, we weren’t saints, either. I moved to Lawrence, KS for graduate school, and needed a job to pay the rent, so I was hired by the local Catholic church to play the organ for mass.
At first, I barely knew what was going on: the professor that eventually became my sponsor in the Church sat in the balcony with me to give me a heads up when I was supposed to play next. By bits and pieces I found out about what Catholicism was about, and what surprised me wasn’t how different it was from what I grew up believing, but how many things were similar. The thing that drew me hardest was the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and it took a year and half of regular contact, but I entered the Catholic Church in 1980.
Priesthood wasn’t on my mind from the beginning, either. I remember a wonderful homily I heard about priesthood, and complimented the priest after mass. He asked me if I’d consider priesthood, and I said no since I wasn’t Catholic yet. My presumption was I’d marry someday and start a family, and that stayed my presumption for over a decade after my conversion. I worked with several priests over the years: we got along for the first part, but I wasn’t drawn to priesthood right away. My ministry as a musician seemed as though it would be the genre of my response to God in Christ, and everything I saw seemed to reinforce that. My knowledge of priests seemed to indicate that priesthood wasn’t for me.
When I moved to Kansas City and entered full time music ministry, my boss recommended I enter a lay ministry training course the Diocese of Kansas City/St. Joseph conducted: New Wine. My horizons started to broaden, and I enjoyed the intellectual discussion about Scripture and challenges of overall ministry in the Church: systems of organization, approaches to Evangelization, structures of the Church.
After moving to St. Joseph, MO, I felt called to broaden my service, and I started taking communion to the sick in the local hospital. I was also invited to join the lay associate program of the Society of the Precious Blood. I was still enjoying making music and doing that ministry, but my call was expanding. After looking at my life, I felt called to leave my job and my ministry of my own free will (which was an experience in itself) and started formation for Precious Blood.
It wasn’t easy: after finishing a doctorate in music, I thought I’d seen my last class as a student and last examinations. The journey was profound but not perfect as I discovered the joys and struggles of religious life. At my priesthood ordination, I had a mountaintop moment, an “Aha” realization, that I was where I was meant to be, but it was hardly Jesus yanking me out of my everyday life and hitting me upside the head. In many ways, the life I’ve grown into is still in harmony with where I came from and who I’ve always been, but the Lord moves in mysterious ways and I’m not sure anyone could retrace my unique footsteps.
“The Church does not grow through proselytism but through witness.” In many ways, we live our ways into a new way of being, and from my experience and reflection, I think this is what Pope Francis is talking about. It doesn’t take superheros or fantastic arguments. A few days ago, I saw in an article I’ll post Friday a remark never heard in discussions about “Holy Trollers”: “You are right. Your argument is irrefutable. I’m going to jettison a lifetime of beliefs on the spot right now because I obviously have no coherent reply.” It took a while after Paul’s blinding on the road to Damascus before he became the Apostle to the Gentiles; it took a while after Augustine’s vision in the garden in Milan before he was baptized and eventually became a bishop himself. Deep, lasting change in attitude and orientation can happen, the promise of Christ gives us that Hope, however it doesn’t happen suddenly, even with a moment of insight, and it’s a change that we need live our way into.
Conversion takes time, discussion, soul searching, reflection and prayer; it also takes a community that welcomes and wrestles with living authentic faith. I’ve experienced that more than once in my life. Evangelization based only on sound bites and enthusiasm doesn’t usually provoke deeper change; that takes a lifetime. The challenge of evangelization is the willingness to walk the long road with others, and be evangelized ourselves. Pondering Pope Francis’ example of Faith and my own journey, I think we should remember that we’re on a long journey together, and it’s not how fast we get there, or the numbers of converts we put up, but like the old Shaker Song, it’s about coming down in the place just right.