I often see how the laity play a vital role in bringing people to Jesus! I, as the priest, am visible at my parish, visit with as many people as I can and celebrate the sacraments. But I’ve come to see how the non-ordained lay faithful can really make Catholicism come alive in everyday life.
A couple of years ago, during the fall semester at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a collegiate sophomore—let’s call her Liz—was in my office sharing why she wanted to come back to the Catholic Church. Growing up, her parents insisted that she attend Mass every Sunday with the family. When she graduated high school and left home for college, she also left her Catholicism.
Liz found out that trading weekend Mass for weekend parties was not making her happy. Liz was frustrated because she was doing everything the culture claimed would make her feel fulfilled. Instead she felt empty.
One day in class, Liz noticed a classmate had a picture of the pope on her folder. Liz asked the classmate, “Are you a Catholic?” The classmate with the photo affirmed her Catholic identity and the two struck up a conversation.
Liz was amazed by how well this student answered her questions about Catholicism. Liz also noted that this practicing Catholic was not involved in the party scene, yet she seemed genuinely happy. Liz and this student soon entered into a friendship, and Liz was soon introduced to other practicing Catholic students who attended Roncalli Newman Parish.
As a side note, St. John Cardinal Newman was a famous convert to the Catholic Faith. He was a brilliant man who had been an Oxford tutor before his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Newman had a great love for learning and the university, so in his honor Catholic organizations that serve a public university population are often called Newman Clubs or Newman Centers. Additional saint names were added to differentiate each Newman facility—e.g., St. Paul Newman, or Roncalli Newman, in our case.
Back to Liz! She felt supported and loved by these Catholic students at Newman. These Newman students did not binge drink, hook up or use foul language. They were genuinely kind and were active volunteers. They were going against what the popular culture was telling them to do to be fulfilled. Despite living this counter-cultural Catholic Christian lifestyle, they exuded more joy than her other friends. Why were these Catholic students so different? The answer was their relationship with the living God in Jesus Christ. These students actually believed God exists and loved them. They wanted to grow in their relationship with Jesus through daily prayer, frequent reception of the sacraments of holy Communion and confession and were active in Bible studies. It was easy for them to talk about Jesus because they had a real relationship with Him. The love and mercy they experienced in Jesus in the Catholic Church were too good not to pass on to others.
Liz wanted what these Catholic students had, so it led her on a journey to Jesus and His body, the Church. She had been drawn to Jesus by the Faith of her peers, and as Liz grew in her Faith, she was also becoming a beacon of the light of Christ. Her story truly is an example of how the Faith needs to be caught before it can be effectively taught. When we fall in love with Jesus, we want to learn more about Him and the Church He established.
All of us are called to be witnesses of Jesus Christ. Our witness comes from our spending time with Jesus in prayer and retreats, learning about Jesus through reading the Bible—especially the Gospels—and good books or online materials. We are helped in our growth as disciples (i.e., followers) of Jesus by being in community with other disciples. All of us, including priests, need friendships with other disciples who build us up in our relationship with Jesus and the Church. The world needs to see ordinary Catholics living their Faith. Then, after seeing your witness, they will be ready to talk to a priest like me!
Father Billy Dodge
Pastor of Roncalli Newman Parish in La Crosse