Money, child-rearing practices, in-laws, and matters of bedroom intimacy are, according to a recent article, the four things that couples fight about the most. As today’s gospel reminds us, however, this list is incomplete. As sad is it may sound, families fight over Jesus. This is especially true, as it was in Jesus’ day, when one family member initially comes to faith or undergoes a meaningful, life-changing conversion.
When this happens, other family members and friends can be dismissive and patronizing. They’ll explain it away as "just a phase" that one is going through, implying that religion is simply a crutch some people need to get through a crisis. Or maybe they’ll suggest that Christianity is nothing more than an unsophisticated, outdated superstition. Attitudes like these can put newly-inspired Christians on the defensive. They don’t want their Lord or their faith in him to be ridiculed, so they rise to the bait, and a fight breaks out.
At other times, family and friends may feel threatened by another’s new-found Christianity. They see them embracing a new reality, doing things they haven’t done before, engaging in prayer, changing their ways, and discovering a new network of friends in the Church. They feel excluded and left behind, so to speak, because they don’t share the vision. They may fear that the relationship will end. It could be that the other’s new faith raises the issue of their own faith commitment. Perhaps, deep down, they too acknowledge a need for Jesus, but they’re too scared, or too lazy, to do anything about it. Or maybe they’re jealous. They wish they could have a faith, a meaning and purpose in life, but aren’t sure that Christianity is the answer. All this can lead to tension, strain, and full-blown fights.
Then there are those people who hate the Catholic Church. They can be downright hostile when a friend or family member becomes Catholic. It could be that they were raised Catholic, and some experience or person has left a bitter taste in their mouth. They find it absolutely maddening that someone close to them is embracing something they once rejected. Perhaps they’re members of another religion or denomination, and to embrace Catholicism is tantamount to betraying one’s family or culture. Or maybe they’re advocates of something the Church publicly speaks out against, such as abortion or certain homosexual initiatives. To them, the Church is a repressive force to be fought with, and anyone who joins it is an enemy.
All of us are familiar with the situations I’ve been describing. Perhaps we have personal experience with them. Maybe, right now, we’re in the midst of a conflict with family or friends over our Catholicism. If so, what can we do? How should we respond? I would suggest four things, which I’ll call the "four P’s": Patience, Prudence, Prayer, and Perseverance.
First, be patient with them. To lash back in anger is counter-productive, and a poor witness to our Lord. They may indeed come to be reconciled with our faith. Hopefully, they’ll have the joy of sharing it themselves. But such a change of heart doesn’t often happen overnight. Time and patience are needed.
Consider the story of Father Brian Barrett. Once he served as the Church’s spokesman with a hostile woman journalist. She described herself as a radical feminist, an "ex-Catholic" who detested what she understood to be a backward and repressive Church. Her interviews with Fr. Barrett were filled with animosity, insults and taunts. But throughout it all, Fr. Barrett was courteous and patient, never losing his cool. Then one day he died, and the journalist found herself in tears at his funeral. The patient, gentle witness of this holy man had opened her heart to the Holy Spirit. She embraced the faith she once rejected, and is now a happy, practicing Catholic.
Second, Catholics need to be prudent with those who don’t share their faith. Sometimes, filled with zeal, we can be self-righteous and holier-than-thou, wielding our faith like a big stick. But this approach never touches other people’s hearts; it just gives them a sore head. As Pope Saint Pius X once wrote, "It is utter folly to think that one can draw souls to God by bitter zeal. On the contrary, more harm than good is accomplished by harshly taunting men with their faults and bitterly reproving them with their vices." This is especially good advice for parents whose adult children abandon or neglect their faith. At times it may be best to be low-key about our religion, knowing that for certain people it may be more of a "put-off" than a "turn-on." As Blessed Charles de Foucauld once said, "To be an apostle, yes, but how? To some, without ever saying to them anything about God, being patient as God is patient, being good as God is good."
Third, we need to pray for those who persecute us. We need to pray for their conversion and the strength to forgive any hurts they may have inflicted on us. We need to pray for patience and wisdom in dealing with them. And we need to pray for the grace to love them, just as Jesus loves them.
Fourth, and finally, we need to persevere in faith, in spite of the difficulties and pain, remembering that Jesus warned us about this beforehand. Some of our relationships will need to change; a few may have to end, at least for awhile. This will test our faith, but with grace it will strengthen it too. And throughout it all, even when family and friends turn their backs on us, we’ll find consolation and hope in the friendship of Jesus, and in our membership of his family, the communion of saints.