From Inauthentic Evangelizer to Witness

How authentic are you as an evangelizer? When people ask you questions, are your responses what you experience? Or a idealistic, textbook answer?

Pope Francis writes, “people prefer to listen to witnesses: they ‘thirst for authenticity’ and ‘call for evangelizers to speak of a God whom they themselves know and are familiar with, as if they were seeing him'” (Evangelii Gaudium §150). He’s expanding upon Pope Paul VI’s observation, “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nuntiandi §41). Paul VI went on to explain that authenticity exudes truth and honesty–the inauthentic smacks of artificiality (§76).

Over at Christianity Today, Tony Kriz points to places in conversations where Christians often aren’t fully authentic (Seven Lies Christians Tell | Leadership Journal). Now, it’s not what we’d usually think of as “lying” with the intent to malign or deceive (CCC §2484). Instead, it’s avoiding an authentic answer by substituting something easy. Something that avoids further questions. Something that hides our real lives as disciples of Jesus Christ. Too many Christians are substituting a lower level of integrity–limiting our ability to be the authentic witnesses the world thirsts for–all under the impression that we’re furthering the Gospel or being faithful Catholics. .

Are we prone to some of the falsehoods Kriz identifies when it comes to evangelization, catechesis, discipleship, and even basic parish community? At times, yes.

For example, as Kriz writes:

  • We lie when we claim we are more confident than we really are. The culture of pretending within Christianity seems almost at an epidemic level. Many of us feel the need to hide our doubts and questions. We feel compelled to act like our faith life is totally satisfying, when in fact it often feels limited, dry, cold or numb. I think we also believe that our “witness” will be less powerful if we reveal a less than “perfect” religious experience. The funny thing is that the opposite is often true. Non-Christians are often drawn to stories of an authentic and even struggling faith.
  • We lie when we claim that unexplainable things are in fact explainable. God is transcendent and beyond even the shadowy wisps of imagination in our finite minds. The Trinity, for instance, is not as simple as a metaphor of water (ice, water, steam) or an egg (shell, white, yoke). Sometimes I think we would be better off if we just said, “These ideas are so beyond me that if God did reveal them to me, I am pretty sure my brain would explode.”
  • We lie when we don’t acknowledge our doubts within the drama of faith. This is similar to number one above but just on a more detailed level. When another person challenges us with a difficult theological/philosophical issue, sometimes it is best to just admit that those questions are very challenging and even emotionally taxing on the soul (I think people like to know that our faith is so important to us that it does impact our soul-state in both encouraging and difficult ways.)

Lessons for the New Evangelization:

1. Embrace of mystery and wonder are beautiful characteristics of Catholicism. As Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Dogma is the guardian of mystery. The doctrines are spiritually significant in ways that we cannot fathom.”

But do we hold onto mystery and savor it? Or, do we feel an external, cultural pressure to have a “black and white” answer where one simply does not exist? Can we contemplatively wonder? Or do we view this as something to hide. Many of our Church’s teachings guard us from being too precise. Granted we might have personal opinions and speculative theology within the broad bounds of Catholic orthodoxy–but in the end the “answer” is the broad bounded mystery that is is our orthodox Catholic faith.

Whether we’re evangelizing those who do not know Christ, those active in our parishes, or the baptized who are removed from Christ, the embrace of mystery and encouragement to wonder can be refreshingly new (Redemptoris Missio §33). Sharing our own authentic witness to the beauty and struggle of mystery in our own lives of faith offers a counter-narrative to many cultural perceptions of “religion” or Catholic Christianity.

2. It’s not about false information, but about not sharing our true selves. We may be well formed, eager, and highly articulate in sharing what the Catechesim of the Catholic Church says–but when we’re not authentic witnesse,s our “teaching” often goes unheard. We believe in a life of on-going conversion. Can you witness to a personal struggle to believe or follow any Church teachings?

It’s great to share Church teaching by quoting the CCC. But, anyone with the internet can probe the CCC on their own, online. When you share your own story of on-going conversion and deeper formation in the faith, it builds a bridge of trust. That doubts are an okay–in fact, a likely part of most disciples’ journeys! Sharing how you were led by the Holy Spirit through those doubts can be a true gift to another person who may be in a place of turmoil, doubt, isolation, or confusion. Consider this a deeper calling to the spiritual work of mercy of counseling the doubtful.

The New Evangelization calls us to put our best foot forward. And our “best foot” is our authentic selves. As authentic witnesses we are evangelizers for a faith that is real, exciting, challenging, and personal. We proclaim a Savior who humbled himself, becoming authentically human–entering into our messy world. As evangelizers we can share truth with this same authenticity, offering witness in word and deed that is more than mere information.

Copyright 2015, Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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