A light mist was falling as I waited to cross the intersection. Suddenly, out of the darkness, a tall man asked me for a handout. Then a look, or a word, or his own demons set him off, and he began to yell. The light changed, and I rushed past him to the other side. Looking back to see if he was following, I heard a woman crying out for a cheeseburger. I almost bumped into her wheelchair, sidestepped, and quickly moved past her.
I missed an opportunity to evangelize that night. Every day, several times a day, we have the opportunity to proclaim good news to seekers. The yelling man and the wheelchair woman probably didn’t want to hear about Jesus. They just wanted some money or some food or something to dull their pain. That would have been good news for them.
Evangelization isn’t a “clean” job
Later, I thought of what Pope Francis said about catechists taking risks:
Whenever Christians are enclosed in their groups, parishes, movements, they take ill. If a Christian goes to the streets, or to the outskirts, he or she may risk the same thing that can happen to anyone out there: an accident. How often have we seen accidents on the road! But I am telling you: I would prefer a thousand times over a bruised Church than an ill Church! A Church, a catechist, with the courage to risk going out, and not a catechist who is studious, knows everything, but is always closed: such a person is not well. (Address to the International Congress on Catechesis, 3)
None of us wake up in the morning thinking, let’s go out and get bruised and dirty today. We do the opposite. We brush our teeth, we buckle our seat belt, we avoid that coworker who likes to argue about politics. We don’t go looking for messiness.
But messiness happens. Most of the world is a mess. Our job is not to bring good news to the neat and tidy places. Our job is to bring good news to the mess.
Most of my ministry is inside the walls. I feel clean and safe and even effective when I can help seekers understand what it means to be Catholic. I wait inside the parish walls until someone knocks or calls. And as safe as that is, sometimes the messiness seeps in under the door. A seeker shows up at the wrong time or with the wrong motivation. What I used to do is try to make them fit into a neat and tidy system. I wanted them to not be messy. I wanted them to show up at the scheduled times and learn the scheduled topics.
Then one day I realized that my need for people to fit into a neat and tidy system was really about my fear of the mess. What if their mess spilled over onto me? What if I didn’t know how to help them with their mess?
RCIA is about welcoming the seeker and their messiness
In the RCIA, the first period of the process is the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate. If I could rename it, I might call it the Period of Getting Messy. The introduction to this period sort of says that:
It is a time of evangelization: faithfully and constantly the living God is proclaimed and Jesus Christ whom he sent for the salvation of all. (36)
It is hard to read that sentence and think of the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate as a series of classes before the Rite of Acceptance is celebrated. To “faithfully and constantly” proclaim the living God and the salvation of Jesus means to get outside the walls. Almost everybody inside the walls has already heard the good news. And for those who haven’t, six precatechumenate classes won’t help them heal their mess.
I was in the heart of the Period of Evangelization and Precatechumenate when I was on that street corner. And, honestly, I blew it. I could have smiled at the yelling man. Or at least I could have said a silent prayer for him. I could have given the wheelchair woman a couple of dollars for a cheeseburger. I might have even said, “God bless you.”
Neither of them would probably wind up becoming catechumens if I had been a better evangelist that night. But I would have become a better evangelist. And that’s my baptismal mission.
How many evangelization opportunities have you missed? What would help you lean into those moments, instead of away from them? Share your thoughts in the comments below.