The Risk and Grace of Pre-Evangelization

This past weekend, the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, of Ann Arbor, Michigan appeared on the OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) Where Are They Now–a follow up to their appearances on the Oprah show in 2010 (here’s the trailer). Over at Aleteia, Zoe Romanowski’s description of the story behind the television show appearance offers a case study on living out our call to pre-evangelize, creating the spaces for curiosity and interest about God.

Lesson 1: Authenticity attracts.

The Oprah show’s production team was interested in finding an “authentic” women’s religious community. Authenticity is an important characteristic of any evangelizer. Authenticity requires that we be genuine. Go ahead–be a Christian. Be a witness to and disciple of Jesus Christ. As the old children’s song, “This Little Light of Mine” (based on Matthew 5:16) exhorts, “Hide it [your light] under a bushel? Oh-no! I’m gonna let it shine!” Be true to who Jesus calls you to be in his Church, and then share this true, Christ-fashioned self with the world. As St. Catherine of Sienna said, if you are what God meant you to be, you will set the world on fire.

Lesson 2: Our perception probably isn’t as rosy as we think.

Oprah was hesitant to even contact a group of Catholic religious sisters. “‘Do you really think a community like that would be willing to be on my program?’ she asked.”

Objectively, we can look at Catholic theology and our beliefs and think to ourselves, of course we’re open, approachable, and welcoming! But for many in our culture, this is unfortunately not the common perception. And perception becomes reality for the many who just don’t think anything with a connection to the Church is for them, or that church-people would be even open to forming a real relationship with them. We can say [or sing] “all are welcome” all we want, but do the unchurched actually think we’re open enough to grow in relationship with them? Fighting against a perception with words alone is often a wasted effort. When it comes to pre-evangelization ask, what could we do to break through a barrier, to get out among the unchurched and actively change a perception of being closed-off, cold, or aloof?

Lesson 3: Risks and discernment are both necessary.

Oprah gave her staff permission to make some calls to women’s religious communities. Here’s what happened:

All of the communities they contacted said ‘no,’ except for one: the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

Recall Lesson 2, while perceptions become reality, perceptions are often based in reality. As Catholics we might wonder in frustration, “why doesn’t xyz media focus more on showing the positive aspects of the Church?” but we don’t always make it easy. Now, many of the communities that declined may have had important reasons–i.e. not enough space for television production crews to use, important community calendar events like retreats, etc. already scheduled, and so forth. But, in listening to the response from the Dominican Sisters in Ann Arbor, we see the relationship between risk and discernment in pre-evangelization.

Of course the sisters were concerned about what might happen. And it’s okay to be concerned. The question is can we prayerfully examine our desire to protect or preserve some image of the faith and our missionary, evangelistic mandate? As the Dominican Sisters demonstrated, yes! They discerned in prayer, researched through external resources, and balanced this with their eagerness to “share the joy of religious consecration with the world.” Was their decision risky? Yes. We can’t escape risk as Christian witnesses, it’s part of evangelization. And, if we’re too risk-averse as Christian evangelists, we’ll miss the opportunities that God opens for us.

As Sister Joseph Andrew noted, “I also think she [Oprah] was so open to God’s grace.”

Scripture tells us that the Lord our Savior wills “everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). In our discernment, let’s take care to make sure we are not mentally closing off some people from being open to God’s grace due to our own fear of risk, failure, rejection, or misrepresentation. God opens hears every day, but are we there to respond? Not if we’re staying far away due to our fear of the unknown.

Lesson 4: Pre-evangelization is an awesome movement of grace.

Pre-evangelization is all about preparing the way for the clear proclamation of God’s saving power (also called the kerygma, “the Gospel,” or initial proclamation). It’s the idea that since human beings are created in the image and likeness of the Trinitarian God, we inherently have an affinity with God through our basic human needs for love, communion, and relationship on earth and in eternity. Pre-evangelization awakens these needs which may lie dormant, the unevangelized become curious, open, or mildly interested in the ways of God. And the Dominican Sisters were able to be used by the Holy Spirit as conduits of this movement of grace:

Sister Maria Catherine, who was interviewed on set in Chicago, says that when the Oprah crew first showed up at their motherhouse, “it was clear they had no idea what to do with us.” But when they came the second time, the crew was much more at home with the Sisters’ routine. “They had settled into thinking of us as brides — in fact, it was refreshing to see how they grasped our prayer life and consecration. It was easier to make everything about Jesus, because it was less foreign to them.”

How inspiring! While this may seem like a small change, it’s a new opening for God to work. And a necessary one. The best apologetic discourses in the world usually fall on deaf ears when we share them with someone who has no positive relationships with a Christian or experience of love in the Church. We can rejoice in the small steps leading to conversion, knowing that these are also the work of the Holy Spirit!

This post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.Com

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