Witness, Dialogue or Both?
In a group discussion I attended, it was said that it is “wrong” to engage in a dialogue when it comes to explaining our faith. This statement was made opposing my view of engaging another in a dialogue in order to explain what our Church teaches. The contention was that one’s witness or actions, e.g. leading a holy and spiritual life, is “the correct way.” By writing this note, it is my intention to dispel incorrect notion or misconception against what the Church officially teaches.
My disagreement to such “witness alone” concept is based on what I have learned from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. A commentary by Dr. Scott Hahn in his book, “Evangelizing Catholics: A Mission Manual for the New Evangelization” states:
The importance of witness, however, doesn’t give us license to dispense with words. Words matter too. They’re essential. And the reason they’re essential is because none of us are so truly and clearly living the Good News that the witness of our lives is sufficient for bringing people to faith.
As I tell folks when they use this excuse on me, “If you really think your witness is sufficient, that words aren’t necessary, go talk to your sister or your spouse and ask them if the witness of your life is so powerful, so moving and complete, that they can just look at you and know everything they could ever possibly need to know about God, Jesus Christ, and the Church, about sin and grace, sanctification, and salvation. Can people see it all in how you live every minute of every day? Could a complete biography of your life replace the Gospels? Or is something, at least occasionally, lacking?”
The answer, obviously, is that something is lacking. A whole lot of somethings are lacking — from my witness, your witness, and the witness of every fallen human being in this world. Even the holiest saints the Church has produced, St. Francis included, needed to use words to lead people to Christ.
The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem) acknowledged the importance of bearing witness to Christ with our lives, noting that such a witness has “the power to draw men to belief and to God.”
But it then goes on to say: However, [the lay apostolate] does not consist only in the witness of one’s way of life; a true apostle looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life. “For the charity of Christ impels us” (2 Cor 5:14). The words of the Apostle should echo in all hearts, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.” (n. 6) Again, both words and witness are essential. They work together. They complete each other, making our apostolate effective and whole. The Church doesn’t give us the option of picking one over the other. Nor does she give us the option of letting our preference for one mode of evangelization be our excuse for neglecting the other mode.
Instead, she calls us to overcome our reluctance to evangelize and to do it in word and deed. Not just for the sake of others, but for our own sake as well.” (Chapter 3, p34-35)
I am sure that Dr. Hahn’s commentary was based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Let us examine the following paragraphs:
[par 900] Since, like all the faithful, lay Christians are entrusted by God with the apostolate by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, they have the right and duty, individually or grouped in associations, to work so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all men throughout the earth. This duty is the more pressing when it is only through them that men can hear the Gospel and know Christ. Their activity in ecclesial communities is so necessary that, for the most part, the apostolate of the pastors cannot be fully effective without it.
First of all, as paragraph 900 says, we have the right and duty as a group or as an individual. We are all called and duty-bound to share our faith. In doing so, as the following paragraphs show, witness alone is not enough:
[par 905] Lay people also fulfill their prophetic mission by evangelization, “that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life.” For lay people, “this evangelization . . . acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world.”
This witness of life, however, is not the sole element in the apostolate; the true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers . . . or to the faithful.
[par 906] Lay people who are capable and trained may also collaborate in catechetical formation, in teaching the sacred sciences, and in use of the communications media
In the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, paragraph 1285 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
…”by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.”
“Strictly obliged” is a very strong statement. It adds more to the reason why we, as Catholics, need to do more to share and defend our faith. More importantly, to do it within us by both witness and dialogue. As Dr. Hahn commented, “To evangelize others is to evangelize ourselves.”
By Victor Feria
St. Michael Apologetics Society