When it comes to evangelization, one strategy doesn't fit all. But one rule of thumb has stood the test of time. St. Augustine gives us a much-needed reminder of it.
I posted a brief thought to Twitter this morning, following something I read from St. Augustine's Confessions. I wanted to share it here on my blog so that I can build own this brief thought just a little bit.
“My heart warmed to [Ambrose], not at first as a teacher of Truth, which I had despaired of finding in your church, but simply as a man who showed me great kindness.”— A Catholic Adventurer (@forthequeenbvm) February 12, 2023
-Confessions of St. Augustine, speaking of St Ambrose.
The lesson here is:
Even Augustine was moved primarily… https://t.co/32KHWVw3QE
“My heart warmed to [Ambrose], not at first as a teacher of Truth, which I had despaired of finding in your church, but simply As a man who showed me great kindness.”
As I said on Twitter, even Augustine was moved primarily by a heart formed by the Gospel before the exegesis of Ambrose moved him. It's true that Ambrose' rhetoric, reasoning, and the Gospel itself greatly attracted and intrigued St. Augustine. But according to Augustine himself, it was the heart of St. Ambrose that made the initial impression on the future saint and doctor of the Church.
We see this a lot in Church history. The goodwill and charity of believers did at least as much—sometimes more—to convert pagan Romans as did the message of the Gospel itself. Even today, I find it true that good arguments do less to evangelize and convert people than a charitable heart or compassionate dialogue. And yet charity and compassion are barely seen in evangelization over the internet, and sometimes even in real life. People behave as though they have some gripe with strangers they've never met and whose lives and lived experiences they're ignorant of. By this gripe, they seem to believe that bluntness and a lack of reasonable charity are justifiable because it makes them feel better. And after all, "they had it coming!"
"EVANGELIZATION ISN'T REALLY ABOUT TELLING PEOPLE THE TRUTH..."
We often see those with opposing or erroneous viewpoints as an enemy with blank spaces in their minds that need to be filled in with truth. So we incorrectly believe that the only way to evangelize them is to fill in those blank spaces, usually by aggressive means (attitudes or the tone of our rhetoric.) There are two problems with this approach to evangelization: 1) The lack of charity is contrary to Gospel principles. 2) People, being more complex than lines in a dictionary or cells in a database, can't be brought to the Truth, to Jesus, to God, or the Church simply by filling in what seems to be missing in the database of their minds. It may surprise you to hear this, but evangelization isn't really about telling people the truth. It's about giving people the truth; imparting truth, not merely articulating or stating true things.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't tell people the truth. It's a moral duty to tell people the truth without watering it down. But the truth can sometimes sting, and while we don't want to water it down, we should make every effort to make it receivable. It may still sting, then, but at least it hasn't pushed the person away, and they can now act on the truth they've received. They may accept it, live by it, reject it, or hate it. That's up to them. But we shouldn't be content with just telling people the truth; we should make every effort to make the truth receivable so that, with due respect to their dignity, we are empowering them to choose. We don't empower a person's choosing if we don't give them something to choose. If we aren't making the truth receivable, we deny them an opportunity to choose rightly by choosing truth.
Evangelization is complex because human persons, minds, and hearts are complex. But in each and every case our intellectual efforts have to be preceded by the outreach of a good heart. Our hearts, formed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, should set the stage and tone for our intellectual work—our rhetoric, our tone, the arguments we make, or how we respond to arguments presented to us. It's true that some need an aggressive approach (think of Herod, and the Pharisees as two biblical examples) but such character types are rare. Most people need to be evangelized like we would evangelize our own mothers—with gentleness, patience, and respect. Are we trying to win arguments or trophies, or are we trying to win souls to Christ? Good arguments never convert souls. Good hearts do. Because good hearts touch the souls of others.
Ave Maria, Virgo Fidelis!