I am intrigued by discussions on the subject of evangelization. In the Protestant tradition in which I was raised, evangelization is pretty much the be-all and end-all of Christianity – you get saved so that you can tell others about Jesus and get them saved, so they can tell others about Jesus and get them saved, and so on. I’ve noticed, of course, that Catholics don’t put the same emphasis on evangelization as Evangelical Protestants. In a way that’s good, because Catholics have not been deceived by the “once-saved/always-saved” heresy which leads Evangelicals to play up evangelization because, well, really basically that’s all their belief system boils down to. In a way, though, that’s bad, because many Catholics have been lulled into believing that evangelization, like “once-saved/always-saved,” is some kind of Protestant invention with which Catholics need not concern themselves. Our beloved pope John Paul II attempted to lay this misconception to rest, referring repeatedly to the initiative he called the “New Evangelization” which he felt would be absolutely critical in the coming years. Pope Benedict XVI took up the call, urging Catholics to place increased emphasis on evangelization. Pope Francis has successfully embodied this New Evangelization, successfully gaining the ear of folks who had written the Catholic Church off years ago. It’s an exciting time to be Catholic, if you ask me. There are now many differing approaches to evangelization in the Catholic Church, which unfortunately has led to some conflict. Some want to follow the time-honored adage “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly!” Just get out there and evangelize! That’s the approach behind Evangelical Protestant endeavors like the Halloween scaremares, hell houses and “Judgement Houses” – poorly conceived and poorly executed, but popular because “decisions for Christ” are actually forthcoming. Of course, follow-up on said decisions has always been an Evangelical weak link, so it is hard to really measure whether lasting conversions actually come from a hell house. I live in the part of the country where they were popularized, and I have yet to meet anyone who told me they became a follower of Christ at such an event. Many Catholics cringe at such well-meant but hokey attempts at evangelization. Real evangelization, they feel, has to maintain a certain dignity. Father Barron evangelizes “properly,” you see, sitting in his den giving short, well-planned, interesting talks on various subjects of Christian interest. Standing out on a street corner with a sandwich board simply gives the wrong impression. The seriousness of our faith demands a certain dignity in delivery. There is a right and a wrong way to evangelize.
Because of these differing views on evangelization, I have been utterly fascinated by both an Italian nun who went out to do exactly what she feels the Holy Father has told us to do, and by the discussion that has surrounded her undertaking. I’m sure by now you’ve come across the news on the Internet: “Italian Nun Wows the Voice of Italy Judges,” “Watch a Sicilian Nun singing Alicia Keys bring a Rapper to Tears,” “Why a Sicilian Nun’s Song Moved Me as a Jew.” The lovely Cristina Scuccia is at the center of the controversy, and she has quite a backstory. Raised Catholic but uninterested in God, she was nurturing her singing talent and preparing to marry. She accepted a part in a production about the life of St. Ursula, and it turned her life upside down. She eventually broke off her engagement and became an Ursuline sister, and now hopes to use her singing talent to evangelize. “I am a sister who has the desire to tell everyone about the joy of having met Jesus through the gifts that He has given me,” the good sister has proclaimed. On the feast of St. Joseph, she appeared on the Italian version of “The Voice” and did just that. The response was phenomenal. She chose the first judge to turn around to be her coach, and he is blatantly smitten with her. “When Sister Cristina sings,” he gushed, “she transmits joy, and this is her gift. I know it from watching my fellow coaches and the audience.” She certainly has been given opportunities to explain what she’s trying to do; one of the judges told her almost immediately that she was intensely curious about Cristina’s decision to become a nun considering that she has such talent. The show has been very accommodating, making the story of her conversion readily available on their website, going along with her requirement of remaining habited rather than asking her to dress for the occasion, and putting up with her innocuous choice of songs like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Hero.” Has her decision to appear on a secular reality TV show had an impact? No question at all.
But what impact? To some it’s been a scandal. A habited sister singing and dancing around on television, trading quips with dissolute rockers and foul-mouthed rappers? What was she thinking??? The show’s ratings are up, and there is no end to the comments on Youtube from people all over the world who have discovered the less-than-savory music of several of the Italian coaches because of her notoriety (“the nun sent me” is a popular comment). Is this a good thing? Images have been photoshopped portraying Cristina next to her rapper coach, the young nun looking scandalized as the rapper makes obscene gestures. As a religious sister, she of all people should have known that eating and drinking with sinners can’t end well. Had she really understood how to evangelize, she would have stayed in the convent.
I would certainly agree that evangelization can be a messy business. Sitting at home waiting for sincere inquiries is unquestionably tidier than going out into the streets and meeting people where they are. The one drawback to that approach is that sitting at home fails to address the command of the Master Who was let down by all those tidy inquirers. When they failed Him, He issued the order:
‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled.’ Lk 14:21-23
Those spiritually “poor and crippled and blind and lame” aren’t going to come knocking at our door – they’re 100% sure we don’t have anything they want. We will have to go out and show them the goods in order to “compel them to come in” – without distorting the message or misrepresenting the cost. In so doing, we make ourselves subject to misunderstanding, a problem that has plagued our good Pope Francis, the man whose encouragement inspired Sister Cristina “because he invites us to go out, to evangelize, to say that God doesn’t take anything away from us, on the contrary, He will give us more.” The bottom line is that there isn’t a right way and a wrong way to evangelize; some methods are certainly preferable to others, but waiting for the perfect opportunity to present itself is like sitting at home waiting for fish to invite themselves over and jump headlong into our frying pans. Are we fishers of men? Then sometimes we’re just gonna have to go out, dig up some fat, juicy worms, and tell the world we’re going fishin’.
On the memorial of St. Peter Claver
Deo omnis gloria!