Trusting that God speaks in the hearts of our loved ones can be a challenge
By Mike Allen
Several years ago, my friend was preparing to enter into full communion in the Catholic Church. Stuart (not his real name) and I had become acquainted a few months earlier at a diocesan golf scramble, sharing a common parish and an affinity of obscure Cincinnati Reds trivia. A few months later, he asked me to be his confirmation sponsor.
Over a Frisch’s lunch, he shared his story with me. He was already a Christian, baptized and raised in the Presbyterian faith, but his wife was a lifelong Catholic. During their dating years, he assumed they would eventually find some “middle ground” congregation between her Catholicism and his Presbyterian faith. Chuckling to himself, he later realized that, for Catholics, “there is no middle ground.”
And so, for 15 years, Stuart attended Sunday Mass with his wife while remaining officially Presbyterian. “I guess you could call me …” he paused for effect, “a practicing non-Catholic.”
“Why take this step now?” I asked him.
After he described his own slow interior journey to Catholicism, he observed, “You know what I love about my wife? In 15 years of marriage, she never pressured me.”
Not all spouses are like that. Nor, for that matter, are many siblings, parents, children or grandparents. Family life can be a place of considerable religious tension, even when all the relatives are Catholic. Conflicts are inevitable, since religious convictions have existential and even eternal consequence, but friction provoked in the wrong spirit is rarely persuasive.
Pope Francis shines a light on this dynamic in his 2016 exhortation on marriage and family life, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”). “It is important,” he writes, “for Christians to show their love by the way they treat family members who are less knowledgeable about the faith, weak or less sure in their convictions.” He continues, “At times the opposite occurs: The supposedly mature believers within the family become unbearably arrogant.”
If the pope’s words sting a bit, they also provide ready grist for self-examination. Religious pressure, even arising from a noble concern for someone’s present and/or eternal well-being, can feel arrogant to the one on the receiving end. Such pressure seems presumptuous, as if the one applying it is more enlightened and moral. As St. Paul reminds us, “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” (1 Cor 10:12)
In contrast, Pope Francis encourages families toward a “culture of encounter,” which has been a major theme of his pontificate. In a world marked by acrimonious division and debate, Francis has been tireless in his call for persons to really “see” the other, and not just look at them, and to really “listen” to the other, not just hear them.
This encounter, he believes, is rooted in the knowledge that the person we encounter, even in our own families, is created in the image and likeness of God, possessing infinite worth and mystery. He believes that in encountering each other, we can encounter the living God.
In his plea for a culture of encounter, Francis has his critics. His gestures lack doctrinal clarity, some say, and create an ambiguous message that can be manipulated by those on both sides of an issue. By now, it’s clear that the pope believes the risk is worth it. And, to a certain degree, his critics are both missing and proving his point.
In our families, we would benefit from a genuine culture of encounter. When it comes to faith issues, we practicing Catholics too often view non-practicing family members as projects to fix. In his 1960 book “Love and Responsibility,” Bishop Karol Wojtyla (later St. John Paul II), wrote, “A person’s rightful due is to be treated as an object of love, not as an object for use.”
Use, in that regard, can take on many forms, such as wanting our spouse or child or sibling or parent to be whom we think they should be. Saying “I am praying for you” may be well-intentioned, but in some family contexts it comes across as passive aggressive.
A culture of encounter stands in the confidence that we all have something to learn from each other, and that our beloved’s lack of outward faith expression is less immediately important than our need to love them as they are.
Before you are impressed — or angered — at my words, please hear me. I am bad at this. Really bad. Just ask my children. But I appreciate the pope’s prodding, even when it makes me uncomfortable.
As he points out, “Love … is marked by humility; if we are to understand, forgive and serve others from the heart, our pride has to be healed and our humility must increase. … In family life, the logic of domination and competition about who is the most intelligent or powerful destroys love.”
Mike Allen is director of family life ministries and evangelization for the Catholic Diocese of Lexington.