Share this story

 | By Sean O'Neill

Sharing our faith with others

When it comes to bringing our Catholic witness to the people in our lives, most of us don’t feel confident or prepared. Beginning this month, however, Sean O’Neill is going to help us give voice to our beliefs.

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, Jesus issued what is referred to as the Great Commission, saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” 

That instruction did not have an immediate effect. Instead of boldly preaching the Gospel, the disciples spent their time in an upper room, praying. 

Today, that upper room has become quite crowded because 84 percent of us are hiding up there with them. Only 16 percent of parishioners in the Diocese of Lansing strongly agree with this statement: “My parish equips me to have conversations about my faith with family and friends by teaching me how to share my personal witness story.” 

Fear about sharing the faith with others became irrelevant to the disciples at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit swept away their trepidation, enlivened them, emboldened them and imbued them with power. 

Short of a second Pentecost, what will be our impetus for undertaking our part in Christ’s Great Commission? 

For some of us, the real difficulty in sharing our personal witness story is that we don’t really have one yet. 

Perhaps we’re still waiting for our personal Pentecost, which will give us a profound encounter with God. Sure, we’ve got plenty of dogma we can quote, the sacraments and many religious practices. But without that life-changing, deeply personal relationship with God, what we are left with is either saying nothing out of fear or engaging in endless apologetics to prove that we are right and that others, whoever they may be, are wrong.

During June, the Church exhorts us to focus on the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI explained what the Sacred Heart is in a homily he delivered in 2009 at a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the death of St. John Vianney. Here’s how he described it: “The mystery of the heart of a God who feels compassion and who bestows all his love upon humanity. A mysterious love, which in the texts of the New Testament is revealed to us as God’s boundless and passionate love for mankind.”

This definition pushes us toward our own Pentecost. The personal witness that allows us to share what is, in fact, good news can be described as an encounter with the Sacred Heart of Jesus in which we come to realize that we are loved. 

It is a meeting between us and God that obliterates our fears, defeats the lies that the enemy of our souls has been feeding us and sows the seed of hope deep within our hearts. It is the touch of the Beloved from the Song of Songs, which awakens us to the joy of knowing that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” [Ps 139:14] 

Once we have entered that relationship of love, our lives are never the same again. 

For some, that experience comes as a sudden revelation; for others, the relationship with God grows gradually. But God wants that experience for everyone. In sharing our faith with family and friends, the Latin phrase nemo dat quod non habet applies: “No one gives what they don’t have.” In other words, if we don’t have a story of personal encounter with the love of God, all we have to offer is what seems to be just another opinion about the nature of reality. Without personal witness, our arguments are sterile and open to discussion.

This has been my experience, too. For many years, I would argue with lapsed family members about papal infallibility, the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the fact that the world was on its merry way to Hades in a handbasket. The only effect all this had was to entrench my interlocutors further in their views. What became convincing was when family members began to see that my life had changed because of an encounter with the love of God. I was more ready to love; I stopped standing on my dignity as a one-man defense against the evils of the world and decided instead to exercise service-love towards others. That is what made all the difference.

Ironically, speaking to family and friends about our faith can be harder than witnessing to strangers. Didn’t Jesus say that “a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own house.” [Mt 13:57] On the other hand, even if our attempts to share with our family and friends fall on deaf ears, we can still agree to differ, keep the relationship alive, love regardless of the response and pray for them. As I found out, usually they’ll come around in God’s perfect timing, even if we never have the privilege of seeing it take place.

What the world has to offer is a tawdry facsimile of joy and fulfillment. Many people in the world are trying to avoid pain and seek pleasure at all costs. But inevitably, they tire of those trivial pursuits. What that means is that very often, our small attempts to share our faith stories are welcomed by those around us, like an oasis in the desert. It’s not always the uphill struggle we thought it would be.

If you haven’t had that encounter with the love of the living Lord yet, all it takes is a small act of surrender in prayer. There is a reason why depictions of the Sacred Heart show that heart on the outside of Jesus’ chest. There is no barrier between God’s love and our hearts. 

He requires nothing in return other than our heartfelt response to the Sacred Heart of Jesus’ “mysterious love.” He is always near us and is waiting for our yes.

Sean O'Neill is Director of Outreach, Formation and Ministry at Church of the Resurrection Parish in Lansing.