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Evangelizing with the courtesy of Christ

The salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church because it is the supreme purpose of the Lord Jesus.

Detail from "Christ preaching" (1652) by Rembrandt [WikiArt.org]

He will not contend or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope.” Matthew 12:19-21

There is a certain approach to the Catholic life that I think of as “Rambo Catholicism.” Perhaps this month’s release of the latest (and presumably last) Rambo movie makes this reference especially apt.

In any event, a Catholic who takes this approach is always “locked and loaded” with the machine-gun of truth, hunting for the enemies of the Church and striking “holy” fear into her friends, lest they turn against her. A Rambo-Catholic mows other people down in the name of orthodoxy, liturgical exactitude (or, on the other end of the ideological spectrum, laxity), social justice, or whatever other ecclesial cause he has chosen.

Many readers probably have heard the old joke, “What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.” That sort of gets at what I’m talking about. You find Rambo-Catholics in seminaries and parishes, on social media and in the Catholic blogosphere…and basically everywhere you find Catholics.

Two elements of Rambo-Catholicism are the most insidious: it tends to be contagious and there’s often generous dollop of truth in what such Catholics are pushing. It’s contagious both because of basic peer influence and because at first it is cathartic. When I unload on another person or group, I release a lot of tension. I also feel like I’ve done something for God and His Church, and that’s a good feeling and a good thing to want to feel.

The dollop of truth to which I referred makes this approach very enticing. The Faith must be vigorously promoted and defended. The Church has real enemies. You may catch more flies with honey than a fly swatter, but you can take out more flies than both of those things put together with a flamethrower.

Contrast this hyper-aggressive approach with that taken by Our Lord. We have not only the testimony of the Gospel passage above, but also St. Paul, who in 2 Corinthians 10:1 appeals to his readers “by the gentleness and courtesy of Christ.” You don’t find the word πραΰτητος translated as “courtesy” very often, though the Knox translation does translate it this way. Saint Jerome rendered it modestiam, and basically St. Paul is getting at the qualities of meekness, modesty, or courtesy.

Going back to the Gospel, Jesus has all the reed breaking and wick quenching power you could want, and then some. But by the virtue of His meekness, or courtesy, He harnesses that power, tempers it so that it is entirely and precisely aimed at His intended end. And what is that end? He tells us Himself in John 6:38-40:

I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it [on] the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him [on] the last day.

The salvation of souls is the supreme law of the Church because it is the supreme purpose of the Lord Jesus. And Christ knew that aggression against people, even in the name of proclaiming the Kingdom, was not the approach most conducive to the salvation of souls. You can’t force people into a life of faith, hope, and love.

Some Catholics become enflamed with zeal because they know how monumentally important the Gospel is. When the stakes involved in our evangelization are eternal life versus eternal death, what good is gentleness or courtesy? The first answer to this question is very simple: ask Jesus. Not only does the example of Christ’s earthly life bear witness to the salvific efficacy of courtesy, but so does His presence in the Holy Eucharist. Christ is courteous enough to make Himself present to us in the silence of the tabernacle all day, every day. He waits patiently, not crying out, not shouting. He simply waits in all the churches of the world for believers to come and adore Him.

In one of his sermons on the Holy Eucharist, Msgr. Ronald Knox identifies three qualities that characterize Christ’s courtesy: his unobtrusiveness, his availability, and how he dealt with individuals and not merely with crowds of people.

These three qualities of Christ’s earthly life are also true of Christ present in the Eucharist. “He came with a mission, the greatest mission of all time; and you expect to find a missionary—how should we blame him for it?—going about in such a way as to court public attention,” Knox writes. Yet this is not at all the way in which Jesus conducted his public ministry. He was often secretive about the miracles he performed, he did not impose himself on people, and he often left the initiative to others, allowing them to approach him rather than taking the initiative himself. Knox asks rhetorically in another of his sermons, “Could anything be more unobtrusive than the way in which God went about the world as man?”

The new evangelization must imitate Christ, Who elicited faith from people. He didn’t wallop them with the hammer of truth. In order to make the opportunity for such a response as readily available as possible, Christ made—and makesHimself readily available to all who would approach him. Of Christ’s Incarnation, Knox writes, “He was there when he was wanted; he was always there whenever he was wanted…No impression stands out more clearly, I think, from the very short record which the gospels give us, than this; he was hardly ever alone.”

Christ made himself available to the pious and the sinner, to friend and foe alike. If Christ in his humanity was not fond of publicity, he nevertheless accepted it as part of his mission. And if Christ might have spared himself by performing miracles in a quick and impersonal way, he chose not to spare himself, but to deal with people directly.

So many forces in the world conspire to keep people apart from each other. Yet Catholics by definition are agents of communion and need to make themselves available to people in order to strengthen the bonds of the communion shared in Christ.

This is what Jesus does in the Holy Eucharist. He makes himself available to a cross-section of humanity unlike any other—people of every age, race, nationality, occupation, and social standing. Those who come before him in the Eucharist include saint and sinner, friend and enemy. Christ is “too courteous,” Knox says, to turn us away. He comes as Lord and even as servant to all, and this aspect of his courtesy has its own pedagogical value:

As if to cure us of our stupidity, he would honour us by a special kind of presence in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. Our Lord should be present as Man, for the sake of us men; putting himself at our disposal whenever we wanted him, making himself available for every purpose for which we want him, like a servant who says to his master, ‘Here I am; what do you want of me?’

Christ comes not only to all people, however, but also to each person. This is the third quality Knox attributes to Christ’s courtesy, his individualized approach to those who need him. Although they are gathered as crowds around him, during his earthly life or in the Eucharist, Christ sees his people as individuals, and in his omniscience knows the particular needs of each: “Everybody, to our Lord…is a separate problem, needing a separate approach.”

Christ’s individualized approach is not a matter of mere politeness, but is the method He deems optimal for the salvation of souls. Knox writes, “How surely he recognizes, how gently he inspires, contrition, and at various levels!” Christ in his omniscience knows the needs of each person, and in his omnipotence can provide for every need.

Regarding the one Gift which is the Eucharist and the individualized gifts of Eucharistic grace, Knox writes: “Although the gift is always the same (for it is nothing less than the whole of himself), the purpose for which it is given, the influence which it is meant to bestow, on your soul or mine, is something special, in proportion to the needs of each, in accordance with the plan he has for each.”

As with Christ’s unobtrusiveness, Knox draws out practical lessons that apply to evangelization from his points concerning Christ’s availability to all and individualized approach. Christians are called to move outside of their immediate and comfortable circles, becoming available for others and being concerned for others on a wider scale than happens naturally. Yet this broad approach must also allow for addressing individuals, studying people’s natures, adapting one’s approach in legitimate ways to their needs, and allowing others to “develop on their own lines”, remembering that all are called to become “mirrors” of Christ in the world.

The experience of one of today’s leading evangelization apostolates, St. Paul Street Evangelization, demonstrates the truth of all of this. I have served as the apostolate’s chaplain for many years, and I don’t know anyone more zealous than the small armies of mostly lay Catholics who go out into busy public places to share the Gospel. And yet their approach is unfailingly courteous. Each encounter with a person passing by begins with the giving of a gift, a rosary. Then the evangelist initiates a conversation, but with full respect for the other person’s dignity. He or she can break off the conversation without criticism at any time. And this gentle approach is bringing countless people closer to Christ through the practice of the Catholic faith.

St. Paul Street Evangelization serves as an especially good example of Christ’s courtesy because they are totally dedicated to the truths of the Catholic Faith. There’s no funny business or soft-pedaling of the Gospel. To be courteous is not to be bashful. Modesty is not wimpiness. It is all about being humble and respecting the other person and wanting what’s best for him or her. And what’s “best” is surely Christ and the Catholic Church.

We find a potent summary of this courteous yet appropriately zealous approach to evangelization in St. John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (par. 39):

On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience.

This reference to conscience, of course, is not of the kind that prioritizes people’s subjective opinions over truth. And respect for conscience is no excuse for ignoring or downplaying the Church’s perennial mission of evangelization. And so John Paul immediately adds, after the words just quoted, “To those who for various reasons oppose missionary activity, the Church repeats: Open the doors to Christ!

The Church rightly expends every effort in proclaiming the saving truth of the Gospel to all people. She will evangelize most effectively by imitating Christ in both His zeal for the salvation of souls and in the courtesy with which He makes Himself radically available to all people and calls them to come and follow Him.


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About Fr. Charles Fox 26 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome.

3 Comments

  1. As of the moment when I post this comment, Google’s search engine finds, on the entire World Wide Web, only one instance of the expression “salvific efficacy of courtesy”, right here. Thank you Father Fox, and thanks to Catholic World Report.

  2. Thank you for the article.
    A quick observation. If quoting or analysing Msgr Knox, the author of the article could at least quote the Bible translation by Msgr Knox for the verses used? Wouldn’t that be nice?
    And if omitting certain parts from the Gospel that refer to Christ’s judgment, which was in the middle of the opening quote, the author could have used an ellipsis, to tell us there is more there. (Which, unfortunately, is not irrelevant bit at all; the evangelisation is time-delimited activity, and at some unexpected moment the judgment shall come).

  3. But Jesus did, on occasion, wallop them over the head with the hammer of truth. This is a very one-sided picture of Jesus that the author presents. There were times when He could flame-throw with the best of the Old Testament prophets. He certainly torched the Pharisees on one or two occasions.

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