As is evident from the news in the last few months, we Christians face an increasingly hostile national environment, one which we must navigate carefully to avoid the complex tangles of the enemy’s web. Lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about what Catholics can learn from evangelicalism about living out our faith in this secular context and I think my conclusions may surprise you.
A few weeks ago, Truth & Charity was honored with a spot on St. Peter’s List’s 25 Reader Recommended Blogs. It was pretty awesome, even if the reader who recommended us was our own Editor-in-Chief. There, alongside our blog’s illustrious name, was a description: “A group of writers with an evangelical mindset.”
Catholics? Evangelicals? Aside from the pro-life movement, what do we have in common?
When most people consider Evangelical Christianity, they think of folks in stadium seats facing pastors on jumbotrons exhibiting a political courage our priests tend to shy away from. Catholics are something entirely different, aren’t we? Aside from the pro-life causes and a belief in Jesus, typical Catholics appear to share very little in common with Evangelicals. Evangelicals are open about their faith. They speak freely and competently on politics. They tithe. They open everything in prayer. They call on the name of Jesus. They have an infectious joy. They worship in a lively way. Perhaps most striking, in my experience, is that they are direct in living their faith, radically, without shame or apology. This is not a typical Catholic approach to the faith. Most Catholics I see, outside of those of us who make evangelization our business, acknowledge their faith with heads hung low, shy even to mention it, embarrassed to be recognized, and afraid to be targeted.
It’s those stereotypes – of Evangelicals and Catholics alike – that leave so many Catholics oblivious to the fact that the evangelical movement is, in fact, Catholic. We need not emulate our non-Catholic brothers to fix our problems. We need only look to our own identity in Christ.Evangelical Christianity started with the apostles. Evangelical means nothing less than “Gospel Christian” and the apostles were that, if nothing else. How could the first preachers of the Gospel – the evangelium – not be evangelicals?
The apostolic era model of the evangelical way of life is preserved in the Book of Acts:
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Of course, the initial fervor of the early Christian community would not last forever. Christ had even assured His disciples of that fact (Matthew 13:24-30). By Acts 5, some Christians had already fallen away (and fallen dead).
Fast-forward 11 centuries. A little, poor man dressed in a patchy robe held up a Church with his bare hands. The great basilica of St. John Lateran, the pope’s cathedral, crumbled toward the ground, and only one man could save it. The pope recognized his face before awaking from his terrifying dream: it was the face of Francis of Assisi. In short order, the Friars Minor, Francis’ order, were given recognition to combat the evil of the times: lust, greed, and pride. These three, the original temptations, the same three temptations faced by Christ in the desert, are the trademarks of human transgression. It was Francis who would defeat them, but it would not be easy.
What St. Francis proposed was radical – literally – it went to the root (radix) of Christianity. His three-fold answer not only directly opposed, but treated, the problems of his time. His answer was a return to the Gospel way of life. If the evangelium would be restored, the evangelical virtues would play a fundamental role – poverty, chastity, and obedience would form the lifestyle of all his followers.
The evangelical counsels that form the Evangelical Catholic lifestyle strike me as particularly relevant to the mission of this blog. They govern us in all our daily affairs. By their direction and assistance, we are enabled to preach the Gospel by living it out. More and more in recent decades, the Church has called on the faithful – especially lay people – to witness the truth of the faith by the charity of their lives. Truth and charity are the intersection of faith and life.
It’s fitting that one of the most outspoken bishops in America is Archbishop Chaput, a Franciscan. We find ourselves today in the midst of complex problems for which many have proposed complex solutions. Perhaps the solution is not more complexity. Perhaps it will take a bishop in a poor man’s robes to return us to our former glory. Perhaps the solution is the simplicity of three little words of counsel, gifts from the Apostles and St. Francis to the Church. The answer to our problems as a Church lies in simplicity, the simplicity of the Gospel life, of radically living a life of truth and charity.