This past week Pope Francis took the East Coast by storm. Our smug American cities turned them into pop-up World Youth Days, at least is spirit and numbers. Like Pope John Paul II’s first papal visit to communist Poland where the people chanted “We want God!”, similarly, the American people, under the soft oppression of radical secularism, are thirsting the same thing as evidenced by their turnout. There is clearly something to the “Francis Phenomenon”—but what is it?
Part of Pope Francis’s appeal, it seems, is in his power to engage others – to help people feel like they are really being seen, heard, understood, loved. The Pope exudes a sense that he is “dialed” into every person he encounters, that he is genuinely interested in who they are and what they need. While our daily lives are filled with the experience of invisibility, particularly in large urban centers, he is promoting a culture of encounter that gets beyond sound bites and superficial ways of connecting.
Years ago, friends and I shared a meal with a priest. While we were all looking forward to getting to know him, the better part of the meal was spent listening to him. There was no give and take around the table, no easy banter of ideas, life experiences, or even occupations. And while we didn’t fault him because given their pastoral responsibilities priests can easily fall into the habit of talking to others, I left the table feeling as if I was just as much a stranger to this priest as I had been when the meal started. Had my faith been weaker, this would not have been a shining evangelical moment.
Pope Francis’s visit has reminded us of the power of being known. But evangelization isn’t just for priests and religious. Quite the contrary! As lay Catholics how often do we engage others around us like Francis does? We are all called to live and spread our faith; in fact, a truly vibrant faith depends upon giving it to others. But if we are a fire hose of information or a silent rock others have to squeeze water out of to engage, then we are missing opportunities to spread our faith.
For most Catholics, evangelization is about as high on their “to do” list as scheduling a root canal. We know we should do it, but we really, really don’t want to. Part of the problem is that we don’t know where to begin.
One of the simplest ways to evangelize, as I argue in my book Nudging Conversions, is to just ask questions. Questions aren’t just for Socrates; Christ used them over and over as teaching tool. Want proof? Look at St. Matthew’s Gospel. See if you can find a chapter where Christ isn’t asking questions. And Matthew is not alone in reporting the questions of Christ. There are plenty in the other three Gospels to reveal that it wasn’t just a stylistic feature of Matthew’s writing.
Among Jesus’s inquires are:
“Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” (Mt 12:48)
“Who do people say that I am?” “But who do you say that I am?” (Mk 8:27, 29)
“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49)
“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” (Jn 8:10)
Christ didn’t leave people reeling from too much information or confounded by silence. He lit their hearts on fire. In addition to teaching tools of the parables, he showed authentic engagement with others. He asked questions.
The virtue of question asking is that it is very disarming – it is not about you. It take the emphasis away from you and put its upon the one you are talking to. It prompts reflection, sometimes long after the conversation has taken place; and it can illuminate muddled thinking.
It can work for both the loquacious and those who prefer silence. For the talkers who tend toward monologue, it reminds them to just listen, while the quieter among us get to return to the more comfortable place of listening.
Fundamentally, it all comes back to the issue of relationships – meeting people where they are and trying to walk with them to see vistas they haven’t seen before. A question can do that in a way telling someone something cannot. But more than that, it is a humanizing exchange, where the person in front of you is no longer invisible but engaged.
In Philadelphia, Pope Francis spoke of the power of a question in his homily to priests and religious. Referring to the Philadelphia native, St. Katherine Drexel, Pope Francis said: “When she spoke to Pope Leo XIII of the needs of the missions, the Pope – he was a very wise Pope! – asked her pointedly: ‘What about you? What are you going to do?'”
“Those words” Pope Francis explained, “changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church.”
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