The ‘Francis factor’: Reaching out to all people

“Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey. In this preaching, which is always respectful and gentle, the first step in personal dialogue.” –POPE FRANCIS, “Evangelii Gaudium”
This is the second in a six-part series in The Michigan Catholic highlighting the impact of Pope Francis on various aspects of Catholic life and ministry. For others in the series, visit the links below.
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A member of the St. Paul Street Evangelization group shares the Catholic faith with a passerby on the campus of University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Adam Janke, vice president of the group, said their method goes “right along” with Pope Francis’ own.

Following pope’s lead, local Catholics engage their non-Catholic brethren

The ‘Francis factor’

For others in The Michigan Catholic’s six-part series on the impact of Pope Francis on the local Church, see the following articles:
Part 1 — the sick: Going to those who cannot repay
Part 2 — non-Catholics: Reaching out to all people
Part 3 — the poor: Listening to their cries
Part 4 — the vulnerable: ‘Dignity’ at center of pope’s concern
Part 5 — the migrant: to come
Part 6 — the family: to come

Detroit — “If you start from a place of disagreement, everyone digs in their heels and you’re not going to get anywhere,” said Steve Dawson, the president and national director of St. Paul Street Evangelization.

Dawson, like many of his fellow Catholics in southeast Michigan, has been echoing Pope Francis’ call to connect with those who are not Catholic, not Christian or even not religious.

“What we try to do with people of different faiths is always start with common ground,” said Dawson, who founded the street evangelization apostolate in 2012. “It’s too easy to start from a place of conflict or debate.”

Adam Janke, vice president and program director of St. Paul Street Evangelization, said the group is “after dialogue with others.”

“Our method of speaking to others goes right along with what the Holy Father has said on faith dialogue,” said Janke, a former fundamentalist Protestant. “A desire for their good, and a desire for their salvation too, through our savior Jesus Christ.”

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Fr. Jeff Day, the archbishop’s ecumenical and interfaith adviser, speaks to a class of Muslim students last year in Dearborn. “As we do this work of dialogue, people know that we are followers of Jesus,” Fr. Day said. “And like Jesus, there is no person or group who we will not speak to or engage with.”

Connecting in Different Ways

A typical day with St. Paul Street Evangelization involves a few team members setting up a sign reading “Catholic Truth” on a city sidewalk, having rosaries and Catholic brochures available for free, and conversing with passersby in a non-confrontational way.

“We’re not ‘in your face,’” said Dawson, who has seen many people express interest in Catholicism thanks to street evangelization. “But plenty of people are willing to stop and just have those simple conversations. We’re not going to force the faith on anybody, but we’ll gladly discuss (the faith).”

Other local Catholics are reaching out to those of different faith traditions as well.

Fr. Jeffrey Day, pastor of St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills and ecumenical/interfaith adviser to Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron, serves as the archdiocese’s “ambassador” to people of other faiths.

Fr. Day said the ecumenical dimension highlights archdiocesan relations with Christians who are not Catholic, and the interfaith dimension is about relations with those who are not Christian.

Fr. Day said he is frequently invited to other places of worship, attends several interfaith meetings and meets personally with other faith leaders around Metro Detroit.

“As we do this work of dialogue, people know that we are followers of Jesus,” Fr. Day said. “And like Jesus, there is no person or group who we will not speak to or engage with.”

He explained that a lack of dialogue leads to “mistrust, division and suspicion,” while good dialogue leads more easily to “peace, respect and mutual esteem.”

“The more that Catholics know we have deep respect for people of all faiths, the more that we can help to bring about a positive impact upon our local community,” Fr. Day said.

Becoming fully Catholic

Apologist Gary Michuta explained the term “apologetics” doesn’t refer to apologizing for being Catholic; rather, it is the “removal of intellectual obstacles that prevent people from understanding Christ and his Church.”

Active in teaching apologetics since the 1990s, Michuta said Catholic apologetics underwent a makeover right around the time of Pope John Paul II.

“Before, it was very manualistic, ‘read Objection One and answer according to this,’” he said. “With the advent of resources like Catholic Answers and others, it has become more interpersonal and flexible, trying to understand other people’s positions.”

Michuta, who is based in southeast Michigan and has written several books, said this “new apologetics” style is the “handmaid of evangelism to help people embrace Christ fully.”

“It can be a big turnoff and not very fruitful if you try to argue people into the faith,” said Michuta, explaining that apologetics should instead take place “within a personal relationship you have with someone.”

“It parallels what Pope Francis says, meeting person-to-person, but growing organically through our relationships with others,” he added.

Michuta said he always tells people that there are three main components to becoming a “full” Catholic: “You need to know what you believe, you need to know why you believe it, and you need to be able to share Christ with other people,” he said, citing chapter two of the Second Vatican Council’s “Lumen Gentium,” which said the faithful are endowed by the Holy Spirit “so that they are more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith, both by word and by deed, as true witnesses of Christ.”

Learning from each other

For Michael Hovey, coordinator of ecumenical and interfaith relations with the Archdiocese of Detroit, the most wonderful thing about Pope Francis “is that he has taught both non-Catholics and Catholics alike that being a follower of Jesus should be a cause for joy — we have, after all, Good News to share!”

“Pope Francis has said he wants us to be a ‘missionary Church,’ not a Church turned in on itself,” said Hovey. “It’s also important to connect with people of other faith traditions and those of no faith … They are brothers and sisters of the same God who created us all — even if they don’t know or believe that.”

Hoevy emphasized the ecumenical perspective of seeing non-Catholics beyond that label, pointing out that in Metro Detroit, Catholics live and work with a variety of Protestants, Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and people of no particular faith.

But in terms of the true end goal of ecumenism, Hovey said it’s clear: “their conversion to the Catholic Church.”

“One of my favorite prayers about ‘conversion’ comes from Blessed John Henry Newman,” he said. “’Lord, let me preach thee without preaching, by the catching force of the love my heart bears for thee.’”

Hovey said he does not believe the Church will win converts by trying to coerce, scare or argue people into joining; nor by trying to convince people that their religion is false or evil.

“I think Pope Francis has the right idea,” he said. “We will definitely attract people to our Church by being a ‘catching force,’ — a magnetic, irresistible compelling force if we show people how much love we have for God and God’s people.”