I have had several recent conversations with friends and professional acquaintances on the subject of openly sharing our Catholic faith. I was a little surprised at how many of them expressed strong reluctance to being open about their beliefs. The reasons given included “We are not allowed to do that at work,” “I don’t want to offend anyone” and “I don’t like to discuss that outside of my parish.” There was a central theme running through their responses which has been the catalyst for a lot of my reflection and prayer over the last few days:
Do we ever stop to consider how often our public actions and thinking involving our Catholic faith are influenced by a misguided concern for what others think of us?
During the day, how many times do we have missed opportunities to stand up for Christ or share our faith? Is it the conversation we avoid with a troubled co-worker? Is it our refusal to publicly make the Sign of the Cross and say a blessing over our meals? Is it standing up to someone who is attacking the Church? How about the person who is quietly curious about the Catholic faith and is only waiting on an invitation to attend Mass with us? Too often a misplaced concern for the opinion of those around us keeps us from embracing our responsibilities. However, it is crystal clear that Jesus expects us to openly share our faith and acknowledge Him before others if we read the Gospel of Matthew 10:32-33, “Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father.”
Christ was our greatest example on how to not be concerned about the respect of others. He always taught the truth, regardless of the audience or His surroundings. His enemies recognized this aspect of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 22:16, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men.”
Francis Fernandez, author of In Conversation with God, makes this observation (about sharing the truth): “Christ asks His disciples to imitate Him in this practice. Christians should foster and defend their well-earned professional, moral and social prestige, since it belongs to the essence of human dignity. This prestige is also an important component of our personal apostolate. Yet we should not forget that our conduct will meet with opposition from those who openly oppose Christian morality and those who practice a watered-down version of the Faith. It is possible that the Lord will ask of us the sacrifice of our good name, and even of life itself. With the help of His grace we will struggle to do His will. Everything we have belongs to the Lord.”
He goes on to write, “In such difficult circumstances the Christian ought not to wonder which path is the most opportune to follow, but rather, which path is the most faithful to Christ. Certainly, our desire for popularity is the direct consequence of self-love. Our behavior will be the proving-ground of our deepest convictions. This firmness in the Faith is often an excellent testimony to the beliefs of the Christian. In some cases it can cause people to begin their return to the House of the Father.” I would suggest that not taking a stand for Christ and openly sharing our true beliefs may be one of the biggest obstacles for many of us to grow in our faith…and possibly for those around us who are watching our example.
If you are a business person, in career transition, a stay at home mom, a student or a senior citizen, chances are you have faced this struggle with worrying about what others think of us. It is a natural human tendency that affects me and everyone I know. We all want to be liked, respected and included. But, here’s the catch…we can’t separate our spiritual selves from our physical being. The faith we profess is part of who we are and can’t be hidden away. “One of the gravest errors of our time is the dichotomy between the faith which many profess and the practice of their daily lives… The Christian who shirks his temporal duties shirks his duties towards his neighbor, neglects God himself, and endangers his eternal salvation.” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes)
Can we all agree that being “Stealth Catholics” is not the answer? If so, here are five thoughts on how to overcome our fear of what others may think of us when publicly sharing our faith:
1. Show me that in the policy manual. I have heard many times that expressing our faith in the workplace is “against company policy.” Have you actually seen a written policy addressing making the Sign of the Cross and praying at meals, praying quietly at your desk, going to Mass at lunch or wearing ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday? I know there may be exceptions, but let me challenge all of us to consider the possibility that much of our fear may be based on a false perception of possible persecution and not reality.
2. “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” Please reflect on these words of wisdom from St. Francis of Assisi. It rarely occurs to us to think about our own faith journeys, the example we set for others and the Christ inspired joy we should radiate as the most effective ways to share our faith. Letting others see Jesus Christ at work in us is a powerful form of witness that will attract others who want what we have in our lives. “You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.” (Matthew 5:13-14 and 16)
3. Start the conversation with a little sharing of our own. Transparency invites transparency! We can’t expect someone to open up to us unless we are willing to do the same. Our faith journey is a blessing, meant to be shared, and the witness we give may have a profound influence on someone. As we read in 1 Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame.”
4. Reality Check: Pursuing Heaven vs. Being Popular. Heaven is our ultimate destination and not this place called Earth. Will our critics help us get to Heaven? Will they stand up for us during tough times? No, they will pull us into a secular way of life which has little room for God and where materialism and popularity are the fashionable idols of the day. Francis Fernandez wrote that overcoming human respect is part of the virtue of fortitude. He describes the challenges a Christian may endure as “…rumors and calumnies, mockery, discrimination at work, the loss of economic opportunities or superficial friendships. In these uncomfortable circumstances it may be tempting to take the easy way out and ‘give in.’ By such means we could avoid rejection, misunderstanding and ridicule. We could become concerned at the thought of losing friends, of ‘closing doors’ which we will later be unable to re-open. This is the temptation to be influenced by human respect, hiding one’s true identity and forsaking our commitment to live as disciples of Christ.”
5. Be consistent and lead an Integrated Catholic Life. Do we take our faith with us to work, meals with friends, the kid’s soccer games and neighborhood swim meets? Or, do we only practice our Catholic faith at Mass on Sunday? It is easy to conform to secular expectations, but difficult to publicly show our love of Jesus, live out the Beatitudes, evangelize and lead a fully integrated life. I have always found inspiration on this topic from the wisdom of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici: “The unity of life of the lay faithful is of the greatest importance: indeed they must be sanctified in everyday professional and social life. Therefore, to respond to their vocation, the lay faithful must see their daily activities as an occasion to join themselves to God, fulfill his will, serve other people and lead them to communion with God in Christ.”
We can’t do this alone and we must pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In my own experience, this is a daily work in progress and it is never easy. But, we should all recognize that there are people looking at us to see our example. They want to learn from and be inspired by our courage, if we are only willing to take a stand for Christ. Think about how fortunate we are to live in a Christian country (although our religious liberties are under attack) where all we risk is a little disapproval or alienation from others. In the early Church, to be openly Christian was to risk a martyr’s death. Christians are being persecuted in Pakistan, India, the Middle East and other parts of the world even as you read this article.
I know this is difficult, but a sacrifice on our part is required. The sacrifice is simply to love Christ more than the opinions of those around us. We should realize how little is being asked of us compared to what Jesus endured for us on the Cross. As I stated earlier, the desire to be liked, respected and popular is normal and I struggle with this as do many of you. But, let’s pray for one another and continue to ask Jesus for courage, strength and the discernment to know and follow His will and not be concerned about the opinions of others. Besides, I don’t see the merits of being the most popular person in hell. Do you?