A middle-aged Protestant named Keith was visiting his dying father in a Catholic hospital, sitting quietly in a corner of the room, overcome with helplessness and grief. A Catholic nun came into the room, nodded at him, then went to the dying man’s side; she picked up his hand, patted it, and gently asked, “Can you hear me?” Keith’s father nodded his head, and she continued, “Have you ever accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?,” and when he shook his head “No,” she asked, “Would you like to do this?” With almost his last breath, the man eagerly replied, “Oh, yes!” Thereupon the sister asked him to repeat after her, “I accept you, Jesus Christ, as my Lord and Savior.” The man did this in what turned out to be his dying words (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year A, Series I, p. 44). Keith was overwhelmed by what he witnessed, and different emotions were competing in his heart: grief that his father was gone, but joy and gratitude that he had accepted Christ as his Savior. Then a haunting question occurred to him: why had it taken a complete stranger, a Catholic nun, to speak to his father of Jesus Christ? Why hadn’t he, a committed Christian, ever spoken to his dad of the gift of salvation?
Keith’s question, I suspect, is one that could be asked by many Christians—perhaps by many of us. Sometimes we’re too quick to assume that, because we’re committed followers of Jesus, so is everyone else we know. This might be a charitable assumption on our part, but it isn’t always an accurate one. There are people in our community who’ve never been baptized, people who’ve been baptized as Protestants but who might want to become Catholic, and baptized people—both Protestant and Catholic—who aren’t taking their faith seriously and who don’t really have Jesus as the Lord of their lives. It’s entirely possible Jesus is calling us to be the ones who help change this situation, for as His followers, we are commissioned by Him to be His witnesses in the world and to help share the Good News of salvation.
When it comes to evangelization, I think most Christians today look upon the Gospel not in terms of “good news,” but in terms of a “working assumption”: they assume that evangelization is something to be done in missionary lands, and—like Keith—they assume the people around them, including their loved ones, have already heard and responded to the Gospel. Jesus made no such assumption; He commissioned His followers to go and “make disciples of all the nations,” teaching people to observe all that He commanded us. (Mt 28:16-20) We must not take the Gospel for granted; we must not assume everyone automatically knows what to do in order to be saved. Instead, our working assumption should be that every day we’ll be given some chance to bear witness to Christ, and that our words, prayers, and example of faith are always necessary and important. St. Paul (Eph 1:17-23) prays that the eyes of our hearts be enlightened—and if this prayer is to be fulfilled, we’ll recognize the need to do our part in sharing Christ’s Good News. As the angels said to the apostles after Christ ascended, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”—in other words, “Get busy with your mission.” This same summons is given to us.
In the summer it’s not unusual to see people with fishing rods standing along the shore casting their lines. Most are trying to catch fish, but there are some who seem concerned only with casting their line farther than anyone else. In fact, Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” once told of a champion bait-and-fly caster who had never caught a single fish! It makes just as little sense for a Christian to show no concern, or make no effort, to bring others to Christ (Knight’s Master Book of 4000 Illustrations, p. 735).
When Jesus returned to heaven, He commanded His followers to carry on His work. Each one of us is included in this expectation, and there are many ways we can fulfill it. For instance, if a relative, neighbor, or co-worker has a problem and we’re expressing our sympathy and support, we might also ask, “Would you like me to pray for you?,” or even, “Would you like me to pray with you right now?” If someone we know is going through a difficult time, or seems lonely or confused, we might invite him or her to come with us to church, or give a small gift like a blessed crucifix or rosary or prayer book, or send a message of support that quotes an appropriate Scripture verse. If we hear someone question or attack the Church’s teachings, we can speak up in defense of our faith; if we read something in the newspaper that unfairly criticizes our Catholic beliefs and practices, we can write a letter that strongly and respectfully defends Christ’s Church. In order for us to share and defend our faith, of course, we must be knowledgeable about it, and this might mean taking a Bible study course, or reading more about the Church’s history and teachings—and in the process of doing this, we might come across something interesting or useful that we could share with someone else. There are many wonderful Catholic religious books and booklets, magazines, radio shows, websites, and other such resources; we might share information on, or copies of, such things with loved ones—perhaps by giving someone a gift subscription to a Catholic magazine, or by giving a good Catholic book as a graduation present to a young person, or by enclosing a holy card or prayer card when we send someone birthday greetings. In addition to all these hands-on efforts, our prayers and financial support for the Church’s missionary activities remains an ongoing and important responsibility for us as Catholics.
Unlike Keith, we shouldn’t assume people have heard the Gospel and accepted Christ into their hearts; we should be like the nun who was willing to make sure, and whose efforts possibly changed a man’s destiny by helping him die in a state of grace. Jesus stated that He was sending His followers to be His witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” For some Christians, that means going to far-distant lands, but for most of us it involves recognizing and responding to the opportunities all around us that we’re given in everyday life. Instead of thinking someone else will handle the mission of evangelization, our working assumption must be that we personally have an important role to play in God’s plan of salvation—and if we ask for His guidance and help, He’ll provide us with opportunities and blessings that fill us with wonder and gratitude and joy.