December 2, 2023

By Laurie Stiegelmeier

Bishop DeGrood’s vision for the diocese, Lifelong Catholic Missionary Discipleship Through God’s Love, is meant for everyone to play a part in. But it’s hard to imagine what missionary discipleship looks like and how it’s carried out. Even more, this is a scary concept for many of us.

How do we overcome our fear of sharing God’s love with others?

Even the Apostles hid in fear until the Holy Spirit filled them at Pentecost. We need to remember that same Holy Spirit is still alive in the Church and in us, especially through baptism and confirmation. We can also look to the witness of the saints who walked before us and learn from those who daily walk with us.

Their example can guide us on our own path of discipleship.

Overcome fear with knowledge

Julie Ernster, St. George Parish, Hartford, and Renee Hejna, St. Wenceslaus Parish, Tabor, found help dealing with that fear through Equip, a three-year diocesan program of reading the Bible and Catechism of the Catholic Church led by Dr. Chris Burgwald.

Julie found her way to Equip as she searched for reasons her three sons abandoned the faith they were raised in. She realized she needed a better understanding of the Catholic faith to help them.

“When I was applying for Equip, Chris said I was applying to be a missionary disciple, and I asked him if he knew I was married because I thought it meant going to Haiti or another foreign country!” Julie laughs about that now that she understands it means bringing the Good News of God to the people you are with, to your families, parishes and communities.

Julie Ernster

Julie had to overcome fear of both rejection and a lack of her own knowledge and ability to express the fullness of our faith. Equip helped her with both. She was amazed at how much she didn’t know. In addition, practice and learning to trust God have been key in conquering fear.

“Just getting out and doing it makes it easier, and a lot of it is a gift of grace where I say, ‘Okay God, I’ll do it.’ If he’s asking me to do something, who am I to say no?” Julie says.

However, she adds there are still times when she is afraid to share her faith.

“A specific example is just getting the email that this interview was requested,” Julie says. “The big thing for me is saying yes and stepping out of my comfort zone, knowing that God is doing it, not me.”

The “yes” leads to growth

Leading small groups of women and starting a Traveling Blessed Virgin to help families in the parish grow in their devotion to Mary grew out of Julie’s yes. She also started the Seven Sisters Apostolate on the suggestion of a spiritual director. This involves seven women who each take a day to pray one hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament for their parish priest.

“I also believe it is important to be able to converse with anyone God places in my path, wherever I am,” Julie says. “This means I’ve had to learn to listen to the Holy Spirit to discern if I should say something or just listen, or even walk away.”

Jesus said He knows his sheep and his sheep know him. This becomes more understandable when Julie explains how she discerns the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

“The key is learning to listen to God’s voice through building my own prayer life and conversation with him so I can recognize his voice,” she says.

Julie recognizes the way the Holy Spirit works through her, even as she’s speaking. “I’ll be explaining something, and I don’t know where the words come from because…my brain…I’m glad it’s not me!” she laughs.

Renee expressed the same idea. “When I say something eloquent, I think ‘did that come out of my mouth?’ I know it’s a God thing.”

The Seven Sisters Apostolate showed Julie an image of her role: she sees herself as Aaron and Hur holding up Moses’ arms so the battle could continue favorably for the Israelites.

“I’m the person who holds others up so they can do the work,” she says.

Julie explains evangelization is not so much about words as about being Jesus to others—holding a door, being kind to someone who looks down, praying for people we see along the road.

“I look for Jesus all the time and I need to be Jesus for others. It doesn’t have to be a Bible verse that I pull out and give to them. It’s being with people in whatever they are going through,” Julie says.

But she stresses that God gives everyone gifts to use in their mission to evangelize that will look far different than what God has called her to do.

Each gift is different

While being a great blessing, Equip was also a source of fear and struggle for Renee. Raised Lutheran, she says her faith was always strong and Jesus was her best friend. When she converted to the Catholic faith prior to marriage, she didn’t find huge differences but those she found kept her a little distant. Through Equip, God took down the barriers and removed the myths of Catholicism—even though she resisted applying for the course.

“Father Jones insisted that I take this course, and one day he showed up on my doorstep with the application,” Renee says. “My fear was that it would try to change my faith, that I wouldn’t be able to do what was asked of me. I realized that God isn’t going to ask me to do anything I can’t do. All I’m going to do is grow closer to God, and that’s the best thing we can do.

“Our real goal is to get closer to him and when we lose sight of that goal, we let the evil one insert fear into our lives. It’s an every day battle. The more you win the battle, the easier it is because you see the right thing to do and the fruits of growing closer to God.”

Renee Hejna with her family: (left to right) Rachel, Jordan, Renee, Mark, Hannah and Jeremy

That was one of the blessings, but the struggle was intense and began with the loss of her mother-in-law who Renee describes as a wonderful, strong woman who had a strong hold on their lives. At the same time, in Equip, Renee was being encouraged to go deeper, spend more time in prayer and adoration and find a spiritual mentee. She felt she had to take care of all the details her mother-in-law had covered and that she would have to quit Equip.

“I thought I had to be busy with all that stuff. I literally felt like if I continued on in Equip, I was going to lose my husband and the whole life I had built,” Renee says. “I felt I needed to choose between my family and God. The devil created that; he didn’t want me to go deeper in my faith. It was the most eerie feeling for at least a month.”

A niece helped her realize that her growth would help her family grow, too, not take them away from her. “If I can squeeze in a daily Mass or adoration, I am equipping myself to be better for my family, to be there for them,” she says.

A sermon by Fr. Mark Lichter on discipleship helped Renee hear God’s calming but stirring voice. “I had been praying hard and I think God kept stirring and stirring my heart because he knew I didn’t really want to quit. I talked to Fr. Mark and he took every obstacle to Equip away,” Renee says.

“I used to be so anxious, just go, go, go,” Renee says. “Equip has given me that silence to not be anxious. I always had a strong faith, but I was so anxious inside. The more you know about God, the more you know peace and tranquility. Once you really feel the value of discipleship you look back on your life and say, ‘thank you God, what a gift the struggle was.’”

Prayer calms fear

Prayer and meditation are Renee’s number one ways of overcoming fear; she stresses how important it is to learn to talk to Jesus as your best friend. She also recommends spiritual direction because talking it out can help you put your fear in true perspective; even talking to spiritual friends is helpful.

Julie echoes that prayer brings peace. “I don’t worry about anything. The Holy Spirit is in charge,” she says.

Teaching religion classes almost non-stop since she was 16 convinced Renee that young people especially need us to overcome fear of evangelizing.

“The struggles they are facing today are unbelievable to me. I want them to have a deep-down faith so they have God to hold onto in all they will face,” Renee says. “I want them to have Jesus as their best friend like I do. Life is so much easier with God.”

Julie explains the importance of overcoming our fears this way: “Just look at the state of the world—I don’t want to be the cause of that, I want to be the solution. We need God and if we’re not sharing God, who’s going to?” she asked, adding “The rewards are much greater than the fear, so step out in faith and be amazed.”