A couple of years ago, one of the parish staff members, Jennifer Williams, wrote a wonderful piece for this column. Here are some excerpts: “Catholics, in general, are reluctant to talk about their faith in the presence of others. Why? It is easy to talk about church issues and controversies or moral values but not about our relationship with Christ or about how we recognize God’s action in our lives. It seems socially ungracious to ‘talk religion’ around the water cooler or on the golf course or at the swimming pool.”
“I get it. Really, I do. There was a time in my life, believe it or not, when I did everything I could to avoid making eye contact with anyone when I attended Mass. I thought, ‘If someone talks to me, I might be expected to share my faith.’ My faith was between me and God. I was happy living my faith all by myself. Well, my friends, I was doing it all wrong.”
Jennifer went on to describe one of the most basic means of evangelization – inviting someone to join you at Mass, encouraging a loved one to come along, letting someone who has been away from the faith know that you would walk with them on their journey. “The purpose of extending an invitation … is not to fill the pews. It is simply to open doors, to let others know that our faith has made a positive difference in our lives, and that God’s love and saving grace are available to everyone.”
If you think about it, she was writing about the most basic act of mercy: acting upon the compassion in our hearts for one another (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae [ST II-II.30.1]). To invite another to be part of our community is a mercy that says to another: You are noticed, you are valued for who you are, and you are welcomed. As Jennifer wrote: “Research has found that at least one-third of inactive Catholics would like to reconnect with the Church, but they are reluctant to make the first move. They are waiting for an invitation, for some sign that they will be welcomed. We all know someone (a family member, friend, neighbor) whose faith has taken a back seat.”
It seems to me that extending an invitation to the people we already know, whose faith is not as active as it can be, is a great Mercy – not only to them but to us. If we truly believe our Catholic faith is a treasure, then we are called by Mercy to share what we have received for free. It is the compassion in our hearts for one another – wanting for them what we value so highly: the Faith. It is the faith brought by Jesus, handed on to the Apostles, and to countless women and men – and finally to us. For us to invite others to share in this great treasure costs us nothing but is a gift of immeasurable value. And when they arrive, we pray that they find our parish a treasure trove of Mercy.
I realize it is a lot easier for me to extend the invitation. An invite from a priest in a Franciscan robe is not going to seem out of place or unexpected. But you might have a little “ice” to break just to get an invitation started. If there is someone you have been thinking about, wishing they would come back to church, that is a moment of grace and a nudge from the Holy Spirit! It is a good and holy moment calling you to respond. And maybe this is when the seeds of doubt are planted, “God can’t want me to invite them!” When that moment arrives, recall the words of Philippians 1:6: “He who started a good work in you will see it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.” This holy and good idea came from God. He placed it in your heart and you can be confident that, however he uses you in this effort to bring someone back, he will be the one to see it to completion. With that boost in confidence, ask God to bless your efforts, remembering the words from Psalm 127:1 “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” Your effort is inspired by God; now you are making sure it is strengthened and guided by him as well.
And now you need a strategy. Here are some ideas: invite them to a church social event (movie night, welcome dinner, fall festival, young professionals gathering) or a project/ministry such as Hands of Hope, North Campus clean-up day, or young professional Habitat for Humanity workday. People like to gather; people like to help! Maybe you are feeling a little bolder – invite them to the Lenten Mission (March 10-12) with John Angotti. Want something a little more covert? Invite them to dinner downtown with your family and then “Say…, why don’t you just join us for Mass and then we are already downtown….”
What means you choose, do not worry about results. Do not focus on whether your efforts are successful — focus on being faithful. Remember that Jesus gave us a parable where he spoke about the kingdom of heaven as a sower sowing seeds. In the end, the sower was “successful” only about one in four times. Your goal is to let Christ use you to plant a seed in their hearts. Maybe you will see it grow, maybe someone else will.