My beautiful and grace-filled wife and I got married last month. The best part of the reception is when you stand back together and watch family and friends intermingling at last, drinking wine and dancing like clowns having a “fun” contest. It was a glimpse into Heaven. And they were angels in up-lighting.
My friends thought the occasion looked good on me, too. Especially the ones I hadn’t seen in a while. And what are you doing with a wife who looks like that? they teased. I stood guilty as charged.
But they were even more struck by the overt Catholicity of the ceremony, held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Norwich, Connecticut. I’d converted to Catholicism from atheism in my mid-20s (I’m 39 now). This wasn’t news to anyone, but few expected the faith to take center stage on a day that was ostensibly about my wife and me.
Even those I’d been closest with in recent years were surprised by the lack of subtlety. My social circle had remained secular-liberal following my conversion – I’d never been introduced to the young Catholic scene since my conversion came post-college. And while I lived the faith unselfconsciously, I never pushed my friends’ noses in it. I think (I hope) this earned quiet respect over the years.
I’d overheard enough at parties to know how they felt about Catholicism. I’d certainly seen enough on social media.
But they loved me much more than they hated my religion. Anything good for me was good with them. So they were able to appreciate my faith on a therapeutic level, as if it were no different than if I’d taken up yoga or started a healthier diet. Catholicism was just another item on my personal wellness plan, albeit one they considered mildly distressing.
And so our deeply Catholic wedding was a shock for them, just as it would have been had I gotten married in a yoga studio and given all thanks and praise to the Master Yogi.
“You were always so anxious,” an old friend told me at the reception. “I think religion has been good for you.”
It was true. I was a real fixer-upper before. So I accepted the compliment.
“I knew you’d converted to Catholicism,” said another, “but I didn’t know you were really Catholic,”
“I wasn’t hiding it,” I said.
“But you didn’t walk around with a big cross around your neck or anything,” he said.
“Does the rosary on my rearview mirror count?”
“Whatever,” he said. “You look good. I’m happy for you.” Then he gave me a big hug.
Since entering the Church, I’ve favored the “show-don’t-tell” approach to evangelization. “Preach the Gospel at all times, use words when necessary,” Saint Francis of Assisi supposedly said, though it’s difficult to imagine him speaking in syrupy quips.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, however: that we should aspire to live the Gospel so convincingly as to bypass the need for rational appeal. It’s also deeply impractical (I’m not saintly enough to pull it off) and suspiciously convenient. If we never say who we are, the temptation to lead a double life is too strong.
The preach-through-example model also enables us to shirk the responsibility of explaining the complexities of our faith. Even communicating the basics – that we were bestowed existence by a Creator Who, like a good parent, both respects our freedom and loves us madly – takes preparation, practice, and effort.
For decades, American Catholics, myself included, have preached-through-example so conscientiously as to render an entire generation functionally illiterate in all things Catholic. The only thing most young people know about the Church is that they hate it.
They assume that by the word “God” we refer to a cosmic Santa Claus who only grants wishes to people who cross themselves before meals. Or to a Freudian projection of wish-fulfillment (unbelief in God more aptly fits this bill for a species inclined toward sin). Or to an updated Odin, one Very Big Being among other Very Big Beings battling in space.
Only last month, popular philosopher Sam Harris attempted to disprove the existence of this particular straw God by pointing out that we can’t see him with advanced telescopes.
People like my friends also have no idea what we mean by “Christ.” They think Jesus – if he existed at all – was an ancient forerunner of the modern social justice warrior (and possibly a zombie, which they think is cool). They also don’t know what differentiates the Catholic Church from Presbyterianism or the Westboro Baptist Church. They couldn’t tell the Holy Spirit from Spirit Airlines.
Why? Because Catholics like me haven’t explained it to them.
Well, no more. It’s time we preach the Gospel and use words more often, especially those of us with many friends and acquaintances in the secular world.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting we begin every conversation with, “Have you heard The Good News?” Nor that we redirect every conversation toward an explication of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
But only that we keep a closer lookout for evangelical opportunities as they present themselves. That when the door cracks open in conversation, we help the other swing it open so the light can pour in.
A good place for me to begin would be with a response to my friends’ reaction to my Very Catholic Wedding.
I could explain to them that I don’t practice my faith for therapeutic reasons, though it is healthy. In fact, I don’t practice my faith for any secondary reason, but always as an end in itself. Because dying into the Light is the only rational act. Because every time I think I’ve understood Christ or felt the fullness of His embrace, a new bottom opens up and swallows me under. Because Catholicism is bottomless in its truth and beauty.
But most of all, because I’m in love. And because, inexplicably, the Light is in love with me, too.
Maybe I will tell them that. Maybe I just did.
*Image: The Marriage at Cana by Master of the Catholic Kings, c. 1495/1497 [The MET, New York]