By now many of us are finishing up our last-minute shopping, and trying to get the right gifts for those on our list. But one of the greatest gifts we can give to others is to help them foster a meaningful relationship with God. And most often this will happen in ways we might not even think about.
I once heard a story of two alter boys who had an experience that put each on different paths. One boy woke up late and was supposed to serve; he hurriedly arrived to the church but the cold priest told him to go home and that he would never serve again. Another altar boy had the privilege of serving at a Mass with the archbishop. At the Mass, one of the glass cruets fell and shattered on the stone floor, so everyone in the cathedral heard it and knew he dropped it. The bishop merely smiled, made a kind comment about it, and no one thought much of it and the altar boy breathed a sigh of relief. The boy who was treated with cruelty by the priest was Josef Stalin; the boy who was treated with kindness was Bishop Fulton Sheen.
Whether or not the story is true, the situation is certainly very common. As a priest and a life-long Catholic, I’ve heard many stories both positive and negative. A person may have a fond memory of a good nun in school, or the warmth of their parish growing up and clung to the faith over the years. Others were treated with cruelty by someone in the Church or just had a bad experience in a parish, and that caused them to drift or become embittered.
With that in mind, it’s so important to remember that we are ambassadors of God and of the Catholic Church through our baptism. It seems some in the world are catechized to have prioritize popularity, money, and being a busy-body with sports, school activities and a million other things. At the end of the day though we are preparing for eternal life, which means to do so we need to strive daily to grow in our love for God and work to glorify Him by making His presence known through how we lead our lives. The gifts we will give in packages have a life span; giving someone the gift of better spiritual vision though can last for an eternity.
Following are some simple things we can do to help people foster a deeper relationship with God:
- Kindness and hospitality. One of the true tragedies that has occurred in Christianity is the divisions we have. We’ve come a long way with ecumenism, but even within our Catholic Church today, there have been divisions. Some have been between neighboring parishes based on ethnicity or parish culture; others have been between so-called “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics, others have been based on money, or “school” people and “religious ed” people. Other times we can silently have an attitude of knowing who “belongs” at church and who doesn’t. How pathetic and petty we Christians can be sometimes. At Christmas, our church will be much more full – we all know that. Other times throughout the year visitors come and go. When a person comes to a parish, a little kindness and hospitality can go a long way. A person will remember feeling made welcome; not feeling judged or looked down upon; or a kind word. And this might just be the spark that brings them back. But this also continues outside of church. When we are at parties at work or with family; when we make an effort to talk to someone we might not talk about too much, or refuse to engage in gossip and put-downs. Prior to this Saint Joseph’s I served another church named Saint Joseph’s, and in it was a beautiful window of Saint Martin of Tours, who was not yet Catholic but a catechumen, and gave part of his cloak to a beggar. In a dream, he saw the beggar as Christ, who said “do you see Martin? He is yet a catechumen yet he clothed me.” As I enter year 3 here at Saint Joe’s, I have to say I sense a lot of people like Saint Martin here. So many people make hospitality a way of life.
- Watching what we say. Words mean things, and sometimes we can forget that. On the one hand we all have to vent, but if we are putting others down, that can encourage others to do that too. We need to be mindful of what we say about the Church and other people. If we are on social media or at dinner, and putting down the Church; either our parish, the bishop, the pope, what kind of reflection does that give to others? When we are at Christmas gatherings, sometimes chit-chat can also turn into gossip which can destroy people, so we also want to be aware of how we are talking about family and friends.
- Invite people to Mass. Christmas gives us the time to connect with others who may not always come to Mass regularly. Rather than use judgmental language that can push them away, from time to time invite them to come with you. Such things as “say, you are in town for the holidays, this Sunday is the Feast of the Holy Family – it’s a really neat celebration. Would you like to join me?” or “just so you know you are always welcome to join us on Saturday night for Mass” can plant mustard seeds.
- Pray for others. Prayer can do so much, for both the living and the dead. Sometimes after praying for a long time for someone, we can meet up with them again down the road and be surprised at where they are at. I truly believe in heaven we will meet many people who are there because of our prayers, and we’ll see how they helped them in ways we never knew.
- Be patient. Sometimes for those who are active in the faith, or returned to it, patience with others can be tough, because they want others to be right where they are, right now. If they aren’t patient, sometimes a zealous or judgmental attitude can push people away. If we are always in someone’s face about how they do not go to Mass, or talking about our faith all the time to them, it might not work. Rather, we need to look for the right time to talk about the faith with them, finding the balance between never saying a word or saying too much. They might not come right away, but over time amazing things can happen.
- Be the Gospel they read. As the saying goes, “sometimes you are the only Bible people read,” we need to remember that is quite true. When we are kind, positive, uplifting and generous with our time, people will come to see it as a reflection of an interior love of God.
- Look for ways to deepen the faith of others through discussion and involvement. If you remember Jay Leno’s tenure on “The Tonight Show,” you may recall his segment “Jaywalking.” He asks people on the street a question that should be quite basic – such as “Who was the first president of the United States” and people give ridiculous answers. Some things should seem obvious to a Catholic, but there is a lot of misconceptions and ignorance about the faith. A person might not understand what is meant by the Trinity, the Eucharist, the Saints, etc. We can’t be condescending but rather should engage them. Ignorance of the faith, both from people who are Catholic and those who are not is rampant. We need to learn about the faith more deeply ourselves, but look for ways to talk about it; from talking to kids and grandkids about stained glass, statues, or the colors the priest is wearing, to giving someone a rosary and explaining how to use it and what it means. Remember through your baptism and confirmation you are a priest, prophet and a king, sharing in the duty to be a shepherd of souls.
In a little over 10 years as a priest, one of the greatest joys I see is when someone who I had not seen much before all of a sudden starts to come to Mass after a wedding, funeral or major feast day. People in the world are so hungry, which is why there can be so much energy on passing things of this world, they just don’t always know what they hunger for. At Christmas, let us help them drink the water given to them by Jesus so they will truly never thirst again.