December 9, 2023

Question:

I’ve always thought of missionaries as priests, sisters, etc., who traveled to other countries to spread the Gospel, but lately I’ve been hearing that we’re all called to be missionaries. I’m not quite sure what that means. Can you shed some light on that for me?

Answer:

A. In last month’s issue, we gave the first part of an answer to this excellent question by focusing on the fact that all members of the Church, including the laity, are called to participate in the Church’s mission to make and form disciples.

This month, we’ll turn to what is for many the “million-dollar question”: How? How can those of us who are lay members of Christ’s faithful flock participate in this mission? Understandably, many laity feel unequipped to participate in the work of evangelization, for a great number of reasons. It’s important, then, that we talk a bit about what evangelization by the laity looks like and how they can accomplish it.

One understandable reason why the laity often question their own ability to fruitfully evangelize is because they look at the years of formation clergy and religious receive and conclude that they, not having received similar formation, cannot engage in the same work. To put it more simply, the laity view clergy and religious as “experts in evangelization” and themselves as … well, not experts.

In addition to that concern, many laity look at the call to evangelize and then look at their own sins and conclude they are not holy enough to engage in this work. If evangelization means telling others about Jesus and what it means to follow him, they see their own failures to follow him as obstacles to evangelize others with honesty and authenticity.

These concerns are certainly understandable. To the first one, there are indeed “experts” in the Church—ordained, religious and lay alike—who have often received extensive education and training to more effectively share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others.

But whatever formal education those experts have received is built on a deep foundation all members of the Church have: the graces of Baptism and the other sacraments, which all of the faithful receive. Note that, according to the Church, the call to evangelize is not for those who have attained a certain level of formation, but for those who have been baptized. That means that, in at least some sense, to be baptized is sufficient to do the work of evangelization.

To be sure, it is extremely helpful to receive additional training and education, as is true with virtually any task we are called to undertake. And indeed, all of the faithful are called to deepen their own faith,

Dr. Chris Burgwald holds a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

including both their relationship with God and their familiarity with the Church’s teachings.

Again, though, we cannot downplay the reality that simply living the life of the baptized—personal prayer and participation in the liturgical life of the Church, increasing knowledge of Church teachings, etc.—is enough to at least begin the work of evangelization.

This leads us to another crucial point: the nature of evangelization. Many laity are concerned about their lack of formal training or deep holiness as an obstacle to evangelization because they imagine evangelization as “cold calling” or “door to door sales,” in which they approach strangers and tell them about Jesus and his teachings.

Now, it’s true that there are some Catholics who do engage in the work of evangelization in that manner. However, that’s just one way to evangelize, and, in fact, it’s one that most of us are not called to in a consistent way.

Instead, we should think of evangelization as telling people we know about someone we know who has changed our lives, and doing so with enthusiasm and excitement.

The fact is, all of us evangelize all the time. Anytime we recommend a restaurant, book, movie or musician to someone, we are “evangelizing”: we are telling others about something that has positively impacted our lives. The only difference between this “everyday evangelization” and Catholic evangelization is that in the latter, we are talking about Jesus and the difference he and his teachings are making in our own lives.

And it’s at this point that a real obstacle to effective evangelization does arise: many Catholics, not just laity, are unable to quickly and easily explain the difference that Jesus has made in their lives. Fortunately, addressing this obstacle is simply a matter of taking some time to reflect on our lives and how we are different because of our relationship with Jesus. And if we truly cannot think of any ways in which we are different because of him, we can just as easily ask him in prayer to enter into our lives to begin that work of transformation.

There’s of course much more we might say about how we can all evangelize, but beginning with a reliance on God’s grace and reflection on how he has changed our lives (or an explicit invitation that he would do just that) are a great start.