Have you ever witnessed a sporting event where a tremendously skilled team or player makes an amazing play–but blundered on the “easy” part?
Think of a baseball player who hits a home run, and then misses tagging second base. Or, a basketball team that executes the perfect in-bounds play to sink an easy layup with one second left on the clock–only to discover that the player in-bounding the ball had her foot on the line. Or, a football team that returns a kickoff for a touchdown in overtime, and then has the big touchdown called off, because twelve players were on the field.
Touching second base. Keeping one’s foot behind the out-of-bounds line. Having the correct number of players on the field. These are the “easy” things, yet when taken up in the excitement and challenge of something much greater, we can fumble on the simple things.
Evangelization can be the same way. In recent decades we’ve seen renewal only the Holy Spirit could work, as phrases like “intentional discipleship” and “relationship with Jesus” have become the typical talk of many ministry leaders. More and more Catholics in North America are experiencing Cursillos, Alphas, ChristLife, and other experiences that facilitate encounter with Jesus and encourage disciples to become missionary–sent to transform the world.
Yet, the simple things–like talking to others with a genuine interest in their lives, not merely in order to share our own interests–can become inadvertently overlooked. And it’s a reasonable mistake. My head can become so filled with all of the “big” things I need to do to evangelize, that I forget to live out those simpler attitudes or actions.
Fr. James Martin’s 2017 book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, offers an example of unpacking some of those seemingly “easy” habits of attitude. Fr. Martin’s focus comes specifically from the Church’s exhortation to accept those with “homosexual tendencies” “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2358). His reflections offer concrete examples applying these virtues to relationships between the “institutional” church (i.e. clergy and those in official positions) and LGBT communities.
Fr. Martin’s method of unpacking a short, catechetical exhortation to accept others “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” also has wider applications in our mission as evangelizers that can powerfully impact both our relationships with those we seek to evangelize and our fellow laborers in the vineyard. For example:
Fr. Martin’s method is to go word-by-word, starting with respect. He asks what this word we so often toss around means, concretely–in practice. He reflects that respect includes recognizing, naming, and becoming aware of the gifts of others. More broadly, this is a reminder that in evangelization, it’s not about sitting around developing amazing pastoral plans or apologetic rhetoric while waiting for “them” to become suddenly interested in “us.” No. Just as God takes the initiative to know each of us, personally–we as evangelizers, Christ’s “ambassadors,” must take the initiative in showing respect to the “others” in our lives and communities (2 Cor 5:20). We are also called to prayerfully and respectfully listen to our bishops, especially when they challenge us to a blind spot, or elements of the Catholic faith we find to be less intuitively important or interesting. In the Disciple of Christ- Education in Virtue series developed by the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, our actions of respect flow from the Holy Spirit’s gift of piety as we cooperate to cultivate the human virtue of justice in our own lives.
Compassion is another term it’s easy to toss around as we move on to more “advanced” evangelistic plans, but worthy of reflection to avoid hitting that home run but forgetting to step on second base. Compassion, as Fr. Martin highlights, is about experiencing with, even suffering with or standing with another in difficult times. Genuine listening, engagement with others, and asking questions are the concrete, ordinary ways others come to experience true compassion through relationships with us. Anna Keating’s elderly neighbor at the start of her recent essay, “The Perfect Family is an Idol,” models compassion (and sensitivity, more on that later). Compassion also means seeing church leaders “in the context of their complicated duties” as we work together to grow missionary disciples in our parishes and dioceses (p. 58). As the Education in Virtue series points out, compassion goes hand-in-hand with kindness.
Sensitivity sometimes comes across as an abstract, intellectual outlook–to be “sensitive” to someone else’s thoughts. This misses the deeper, harder meaning–that sensitivity is about another person and their feelings, their very self. As Fr. Martin observes, “it is nearly impossible to know another person’s feelings at a distance” (p. 40). As evangelizers, this means living a virtuous life with basic affability, so that reasonable people would want to have us in their lives as friends, acquaintances, and co-workers, and experience comfort in sharing feelings with us. Sensitivity as evangelizers also means taking responsibility to consider who is speaking and how they are speaking in our relationships with those who labor in the same vineyard.
In conclusion, remember that respect, compassion, and sensitivity are certainly not the only simple things that are easy to forget when we’re (for good reasons!) enthusiastically caught up in the desire to be one with Jesus Christ, reaching out with his Gospel to the whole world. As individuals with unique gifts, we also have unique weaknesses, and some fruits and virtues might be harder for me to model than for you.
Though written with children in mind, the Education in Virtue series of reflections unpacking the human virtues is a rich resource for going further, asking how am I called to embody human virtues in a way most fruitful as an evangelizing missionary disciple. Where am I called to grow? so that my stumbling in the little things does not hobble the good desires God has placed within me to be part of His larger vision of evangelization. How am I to live virtuously, so that when the Holy Spirit “hits a home run” that I cooperate with, I don’t forget to “tag second base” along the way 🙂