Katie Prejean McGrady" />

Evangelization and the witness of young people

Pilgrims pray during Pope Francis' World Youth Day vigil at St. John Paul II Field in Panama City Jan. 26, 2019. (CNS photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

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My grandmother became a Catholic when I was a kid.

Raised by a Methodist preacher, she swam the Tiber with my reverted-to-the-Faith grandfather and became the most devoted, passionately Catholic woman I’ve ever known.

I remember that Easter Vigil like it was yesterday. She and my Papa were dressed to the nines, the biggest smiles on their faces the entire Mass. Grandma smelled so good, and not just in the typical “grandma’s perfume is so comforting” sort of way, but because Father Foley had given her an extra good slathering of chrism oil on her forehead.

We celebrated after Mass until midnight, with plenty of cake and cookies, lots of laughs. My dad even let me sip some champagne. It almost felt like Christmas 2.0, the way our family just couldn’t contain the excitement and joy at grandma coming into the Church.

The next morning, we went back for Easter Sunday Mass, and the pastor had arranged for their marriage of 40-plus years to be convalidated and blessed.

The party began again, and my grandparents were beaming. I’ll never forget watching grandma walk up to receive holy Communion for just the second time, her smile so wide I thought she’d catch air and float up to heaven right then and there.

We drove home later that day, the weekend celebration having joyfully exhausted my little sister and me. Out of nowhere, my sister asked my mom: “Why did Grandma become Catholic?”

Mom immediately said, “Because she sees how much you and your sister love being Catholic.”

It was so matter of fact, no hesitation in her answer.

Grandma and Papa had watched Laura and I attend Catholic school, get involved in our parish’s youth ministry program, play our violins in the choir, altar serve … they’d come to Mass with us every Christmas and Easter, saw the Catholic art throughout our home, knew my mother had converted herself and deeply loved the Church.

But it was us, their granddaughters, that acted as the on-ramp for their conversion and reversion to Catholicism.

A huge piece of evangelization

I often think back to that conversation with my mom, her so calmly informing my sister and me that we were a huge part of grandma becoming Catholic. Especially since, for the rest of her life, my grandma was so devoted to the Catholic faith. She passed away in June, holding the rosary beads we gave her as a gift on that day.

It remains perhaps the greatest and most important evangelization “work” of my life, although all I was doing was going about my life, a Catholic kid in a Catholic family.

Somehow, simply living the faith in a normal way was a remarkable witness to a woman who’d loved Jesus her whole life, but wanted to love him in a new way, in and as part of his Church, which she knew about and grew to love by watching her grandchildren grow up in it.

Living the Faith day to day

When we think of evangelization, we often set out to develop pastoral plans and formulate programs, organize events and design glitzy graphics and viral content. And when we do that, we set ourselves up for an approach that requires external work, from the top down, often forgetting both the people “doing” that work and the people for whom that work is done.

The evangelization that is happening looks, sounds and should be good, but it perhaps falls flat, ends up being stale, and does nothing to move the needle or stir the heart because it’s been programmed, not lived.

Faith, and a deep love of Jesus, takes root in the hearts and minds of others because it is planted — it is shared — by people who witness to and live the Faith in their day-to-day lives. That sounds overly simplistic, of course. Just “share it” by “living it.” Most of us (myself included) would like a more formulaic approach: show this video, read this book, listen to this talk, answer these questions, attend this retreat, and boom — faith is shared, my work here is done.

But those programmatic and formulaic approaches, while certainly valuable when done well, cannot hold a candle to the everyday, common, relatable living of the faith that is often seen as we live life with others.

Far more is translated about the Faith within a Catholic home where grace is said before meals, crucifixes hang on walls, prayers are said at bedtime, and Jesus is a common name spoken. He is a friend who dwells there too.

In reverse

In a beautifully ironic and Holy Spirit-driven way, evangelization can happen “in reverse.” Rather than just adults teaching children or youth ministers mentoring teens or campus ministers inspiring students, it is those who are “being evangelized” and “growing in the Faith” that end up doing a remarkable amount of witnessing to the Faith, thus transforming others’ hearts and minds themselves.

Is this not what the Gospel tells us directly? Jesus places a child amid a crowd who have come to listen and learn, telling them they have to be like those children to enter into heaven. Could it be that those very same children (young people) are living testaments to a deep faith, love of Christ and the very ones who can lead others to Jesus in perhaps even more effective ways than we could ever program or plan?

If all we ever do is approach evangelization with a “top-down” attitude of “I have something to bestow upon you,” then we can miss out on seeing faith shared by those who we think we’re teaching. And, we may certainly be doing that, whether formally or informally. But we can also learn from them as we watch, listen, unpack what they’re processing, ask them how they’re exploring an idea and talking about the Jesus they’re meeting.

Jesus’ command to be like the children begs the question: how can I become like those young people? What can I learn about the Faith from the ones I often assume I’m just meant to teach, instruct and give witness to?

There’s an insatiable and lovely curiosity within adolescents. They want to know “why?” and whether they are a teen in high school or a college junior figuring out their next career steps, the hunger to figure things out and understand how it all fits together is obvious. This curiosity dulls as we age, but perhaps we can bring joyful curiosity into our pursuit of a deeper relationship with Christ, reviving that desire to learn who he is and how he’s moving within our lives.

Young people lean into their creativity (just search “Ratatouille Tik Tok musical” and you’ll quickly learn what an entire generation of teens and young adults did during quarantine). With this energy and desire to create, young people share something beautiful and engaging — a very piece of themselves. We would all do well to see that the Lord is inviting every single one of us to create and bring him glory.

Promise

We look to children and see abundant hope. They deeply believe in promises made and are unafraid to ask the Lord to deliver. It’s overly simplistic to just say “pray and it’ll happen,” but there is a real beauty in knowing that kids do not fear asking the Lord for what they want and need. Have no doubt, those innocent prayers are heard. We’re called to cry out with the same confidence and persistent hope, trusting the Lord hears us when we call.

After my grandma died in June, my papa showed me her Bible. In the back, on a few blank pages, she had written notes about her life. She suffered from dementia, and in the earliest days of the disease, as she was beginning to forget, she wrote things down to keep a record of the most precious memories she knew she was losing.

One of the notes was about her conversion to Catholicism.

“It is a joy to see Katie and Laura so love their Catholic faith, and I thank God I joined them in the Church to have that joy too.”

There’s no greater comfort than knowing my grandma became Catholic because of a faith we lived and loved, and that she saw. No talk I’ve given, book or article I’ve written, or podcast recorded could ever hold a candle to the work of evangelizing my grandma, without even realizing it was happening.

As we set out to do this great work of sharing the Faith, teaching and giving witness to the Church of which we’re a part, we must do so, not only with formulaic plans at the ready but first with eyes wide open to watching the ones we may be teaching, so we can first see what we can learn from them.

Katie Prejean McGrady is an international Catholic speaker and author. She writes from Louisiana.

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