Have you ever been visited by representatives of a particular religion or Church, going door to door to evangelize? While most of us probably have answered the doorbell to such evangelizers, I suspect the reverse is not true. Rarely do Catholics engage in such face-to-face faith-sharing. I know I’m very shy about approaching a total stranger with a request to consider learning about Jesus—and I’m “in the business,” so to speak!
This Sunday at Mass, we’ll hear Scripture selections chosen to be part of the Church’s ongoing “course of Easter instructions” for the newly baptized. But they apply to all of us. The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, stresses Christian witness—one that turned out to have very positive results. The First Letter of Peter sets out a program for evangelizing, urging Christians to approach others, ready to explain who we are, but to do so with “gentleness and reverence.”
That admonition echoes the advice St. Francis of Assisi gave his brothers who were thinking of being missionaries. He told them to “avoid quarrels or disputes and to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake.” Francis was quoting from the First Letter of Peter. Today’s passage—after urging “gentleness and reverence”—goes on to encourage those fearful of persecution to remember that Christ also suffered persecution.
Francis wrote his missionary advice, in what we friars know today as his first attempt to draft a formal Rule of Life. While it was not approved by the Pope, it remains significant for us. His approved Rule contains a shorter description, yet the same spirit. Both texts reflect Francis’ experience in visiting the Sultan in Damietta, Egypt, at the time of the Crusades in 1219.
On a recent assignment to the friars in Pakistan, I was impressed by the witness of my fellow Franciscans and the Christians whom they serve in that majority Muslim country. Their presence is respected under the law, but Christians have on occasions been harassed and even killed. But I found that the friars minister with the attitude Francis urges. They see God is at work in the faith of devout Muslims—something Francis also experienced in his visit with the Sultan in Egypt. Like Francis, the friars in Pakistan are open to dialogue with Muslim leaders and neighbors.
Interestingly, Islam means “submission”—the very attitude Francis urged upon the brothers! Devout Muslims are subject in everything to God’s will. We can learn a lot from that response to God. Surely, Francis found in them an echo of his own total gift to God, which would later be confirmed in the vision of the seraph and the imprint of the stigmata.
Each of us has a duty to witness his or her Catholic faith. Probably, we won’t do it in any confrontational or flashy way. It’s just not our “catholic” style! More to our taste is the Franciscan way—humbly, gently, reverently relating to people of other faiths, persuasions, and opinions. We need, of course, to be ready to own up to who we are, to honest about that. But beginning with respect, searching—as Francis did—for how the actions of the other may be pleasing to God, we silently present the Gospel life of Jesus to others.
How that works out for each of us, is the work of the Holy Spirit. We can trust that Spirit because Jesus himself assures us in this Sunday’s Gospel that we will not be alone in our witnessing; the Holy Spirit will be present with us, to support and guide us. The Spirit is, as the late Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw told me once, “by our side and on our side.” The Spirit will guide you, as the Spirit once guided Francis in the camp of the Sultan—and your witness to Christ will surely bear fruit in peace, gentleness, and reverence.