It makes for an awkward situation. You run into a third-cousin-twice-removed whom you haven't seen in years, who (knowing what a devoted Catholic you are) is eager to tell you how appreciative he or she is that Pope Francis is “rewriting the rules” about a certain under-appreciated area of Church teaching.
It's both an opportunity and a bit of a pickle. Are we supposed to set the record straight right away, assuring the speaker that Pope Francis is upholding the same Catechism as his predecessor—or can we let that part go (for now)? Are we failing as evangelizers if we don't take the occasion to teach the fullness of the faith? Or is a different approach not only permitted, but advisable?
The first Pope already hinted at an answer: “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3: 15-16). Pope Francis, like Pope Benedict before him, eschews collar-grabbing proselytizing as unworthy of human dignity and freedom. But Peter assumes that the other has come to you, and is expressing appreciation of a hope you share. This points out the pathway to follow.
People who have been alienated from Catholic life for years may not have anywhere near enough an understanding of foundational teachings for you to be able to build on in presenting an accurate picture of Church teachings. But you have all you need to work with in that social setting: the interest your relative (or old neighbor, or the co-worker from the out-of-state branch office) showed in Pope Francis himself is a great starting point for a conversation. Speaking for myself, I like to acknowledge that the events of the past year—since the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI—have awakened in me a new level of faith in the Holy Spirit. Rather than focus on the particulars of a papal statement taken out of context, turn the conversation to the presence of God at work in history, here and now for all to see. We have not been left at the mercy of political movements or the forces of nature. God is acting in our times! This is the rock-bottom “reason for our hope,” and in these unexpected opportunities to speak with others in terms of faith, it may be just the right way to start a longer, Spirit-led journey of faith.
by Sr. Anne Joan Flanagan, FSP