St Paul once urged his great friend St Timothy to stay in Ephesus so that he “may instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine” as “some people have deviated from these and turned to vain discussions (“meaningless talk” as per some translations)” (1 Tim 1:3-6).
In recent times, much has been said about “dialogue” and “encounters”, which in of themselves are of course a good thing. In the very beginning after all, was the Word! However, dialogue for the sake of dialogue is fruitless, and can actually be quite harmful, as the matters that need to be discussed are avoided, and therefore left unresolved, brewing until they explode. I was once advised at a conference to talk about anything except politics and religion, which is like saying I can eat everything except meat and vegetables. History and experience teach us that it’s precisely when we don’t simply go along to get along, that the most progress is made in civilization. Imagine if St Paul had avoided discussing the Gentiles to St Peter’s face (Galatians 2:11-13), or St John Paul II had neglected to talk about the injustice of communism and Soviet control in Poland upon his visit there (Homily 1979 – “no just Europe without independence of Poland on its map”), or if Winston Churchill hadn’t spoken so strongly against the Nazi regime.
Closer to home, have you ever seen a marriage last without arguments? Some of the happiest moments in life follow episodes of passionate debate, because the heart was allowed to open freely, thereby addressing the very issues at the core of our being. Politics and religion matter because they impact our freedom, our family, and our pursuit of happiness. There is nothing so boring or useless as talking about the weather or latest celebrity gossip.
Dialogue whereby one lists one’s set of convictions and the other his, can be a good place to start, however, what good will it do to simply share opinions without any openness to the pursuit of truth? Does God really will “a diversity of religions”? Picture Abe Lincoln sitting at a table with the slave-owners of the South, perhaps sipping on a little bit of bourbon, sharing with them how he disagrees with their practices, but then saying that that’s just his opinion and he’s not one to judge. The slave-owners respond cordially as they bite on a juicy T-bone, that they appreciate his thoughts, but that going forward they don’t want to hear or talk about slaves anymore. Lincoln rises up and calmly says he completely understands, and that in fact what’s really in his mind is the changing weather patterns, which could decimate the crops of both North and South. They now have a common enemy: nature! Thankfully this picture was never painted, but speaking truthfully comes at a price. The cost of freedom is always heavy, so heavy, that even our Lord stumbled carrying it, because sin and evil are real. G.K. Chesterton was once asked to have a dialogue around pornography, a real evil in society then and now, and his response was “Pornography is not a thing to be argued about with one’s intellect, it’s something to be stamped on with one’s heel”. Our Lady would be proud!
The same voices insisting on endless dialogue, meetings about meetings, and encounters are also often quick to judge any attempt to share the Gospel as “proselytizing”. Interestingly, the catechism states plainly that “the Church still has the obligation and also the sacred right to evangelize all men” and that “salvation is found on the truth” (CCC 848 and 851). The Truth.
Going back to Ephesus, was St Paul asking his friend to proselytize? Was he concerned with the risk of offending? Later on he gave us the answer, as he explained to St Timothy that “the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith”. In other words, one teaches, instructs, corrects not to offend or win arguments, but out of love for the other person, much like a father instructing a wayward son. The very word proselytize comes from the word proselyte, which simply means convert. To proselytize is to literally make converts, which sounds to me a lot like “Go and make disciples of all nations.”. St Francis of Assisi had this clearly in his mind, when he travelled a long distance, unarmed and at great personal risk, to meet with none other but the sultan himself, commander of the enemy forces of the Islamic caliphate. He didn’t simply exchange pleasantries but directly challenged the imams to a trial by fire, which they responded by sheepishly moving away, presumably deeply offended by this beggar, more likely out of fear for their own skin. In response, St Francis said no problem, he would do it alone, however, the sultan oddly did not permit him to do it. We do not know for certain if the sultan ever converted, given that it would’ve been a death sentence for him to announce it publicly may have played a role, but St Francis was allowed to go free and the Franciscans have been in the Holy land ever since. This was no mere dialogue.
On the road to Emmaus (Luke chapter 24), Jesus showed us the way to dialogue, accompany and proselytize. He listened first, then as He walked with them, He explained and taught them, and finally, He fed them. This is the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist – the Mass outside the church walls! The truth is not and cannot be subjective, because it’s a person (John 14:6). This is why a culture without Christ crumbles, because it no longer sits unified on one rock, but rather shakes and quivers on the quick sands of diverse opinions, until ultimately it becomes buried.
On this Remembrance day, let’s not forget that it wasn’t Neville’s meaningless talks or vain discussions that inspired a nation to stand against the fuhrer. It took the roar of an offending lion to let that evil regime know unequivocally, they would have to fight on the beaches…
St Joseph – pray for us.
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