I will never forget the first time I entered a Catholic Church to attend my first Mass. It was a strange, otherworldly experience. Not because I felt I was entering the holy of holies, but I was entering into an experience I had come to intellectually believe, but had never personally witnessed. I had lived 36 years as a Pentecostal Protestant and 13 of those as a pastor. I had spent my life trying to construct a Christian experience that was as far from the Catholic experience as one could get.
I chose to attend my first Mass while on vacation in Utah, 800 miles away from home. I had not yet gone public with my decision to become Catholic and as a pastor, I had to be cautious. As my wife and I and three daughters entered the Church, we had little idea of what to expect and it felt like everyone could tell we did not belong. I walked past a rack of missalettes and hesitated before taking one, thinking to myself, “I’m sure the locals don’t use these. I don’t want to stand out.” We sat down, and I was sure people were staring at us.
The Mass began and we tried to follow along. At times it was interesting, other times confusing. To my relief, my fear of being stared at was soon allayed. While my three daughters sat quietly and watched, a mom with three boys in front of me proceeded to draw all the attention. The boys sat on the pew, then on the floor. They faced forward and backward, laid on the pew and the floor, all while mom fed them snacks and helped them color their Joseph Smith coloring books (they were Mormon). By the end, it was clear they were not Catholic, but had come to Church with Grandma who was.
At the end of the liturgy, God gave me the greatest gift possible for my first Mass. As soon as the final song ended, the pious grandma, with the rambunctious grandsons, turned to my wife and me and said, “Hello, my name is Sharon. I can tell you are new. Would you like to join me for coffee and donuts?”
I was shocked! I could not believe it!
She seemed… normal.
She was friendly, hospitable, relational — and Catholic! After I overcame my shock, I thought to myself, “I could do this. If this is what Catholics are like, I can do this.” I was afraid that Catholics would be cold, disinterested and inhospitable, and while I eventually did find plenty of those people, I was regularly surprised how often I found zealous and engaging people with whom I could connect. She proceeded to introduce us to several people and we had a wonderful afternoon.
The next day was my birthday and a group of men invited me out to breakfast and wanted to hear about my journey toward the Catholic Church. Less than 24 hours since I stepped foot in my first Catholic Church, I had met more people than some meet in a year.
Again, I thought to myself, “I could do this.” What I came to believe intellectually began to come alive experientially. Eventually, my greatest joy and experience was receiving my Lord and Savior in the Eucharist, but that is a story for another time.
I tell you this story to illustrate one of the most significant obstacles for many non-Catholics: the thought of being Catholic and the experience of Catholicism. Whether one is non-Christian or a non-Catholic Christian, many times it is not doctrine that keeps people away from the Catholic Church, but simply the thought of being Catholic.
On the tenth anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI said it well in Evangelii Nuntiandi.
“The first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God … and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. As we said recently to a group of lay people, ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’” (EN 41)
These words are easy to read and difficult to live. Doctrine is important, but no one will care about your orthodoxy if they do not see an attractive witness first. Engaging heterodoxy will always draw more than abrasive orthodoxy. Let us strive for engaging orthodoxy and lead the truth with love, heeding St. Peter’s exhortation to “Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that if they speak of you as evildoers, they may observe your good works and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:12)
Drake McCalister will be speaking at the 2016 St. John Bosco Conference this summer. Hope to see you there!