Catholicism has glorious liturgical and intellectual traditions, but because we have not excelled in training Catholics to give joyful witness to wonder of the Lord and our faith, they are among the best kept secrets around.
In certain denominations, giving witness is a major focus, and congregants are well-trained for it both through personal testimony (witness talks are common in Protestant liturgies) and in their musical tradition. Pastoring in African-American parishes for most of my priesthood has introduced me to this training ground. The “Black experience” is more relaxed with testimony and witness.
Even when I am in a store in an African-American area it is not uncommon for people to say to me, “You got a word for me today pastor?” They are interested in knowing about my church and tell me of their own. They ask for prayers and often engage in certain “call-response” acclamations. Someone will say to me, “God is good!” I reply, “All the time!” To which the response is “And all the time …” I then call back, “God is good!” Then we conclude the ritual with a joint “Amen.” Right there in the aisle of the local Safeway we “have a little Church up in here” as the expression goes.
The testimonies exchanged in this sort of tradition are not highly theological or complex, but they don’t need to be. It can be a simple and joyful statement such as this: “God’s been good to me,” or an expression of hope in a difficult moment: “God’ll make a way for you,” or “I know He’ll see you through.”
Much of this courage and relaxed sharing is the result of a certain kind of liturgical training. The giving of testimonies is common both in and out of church.
There is also the musical tradition that teaches worshippers to recall that God is in the blessing business and that His mercies are not exhausted. It also teaches that one’s relationship with God is transformative and that reform and healing should be expected.
The song “He’s Blessing Me” says,
He’s blessing me, over and over again, He’s blessing me, right here where I stand, Every time I turn around, he making a way somehow. Over and over again he blessing me!
You may not be able to see, just what the Lord is doing for me, but over and over again he’s blessing me! He’s in my heart and soul, from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes, Over and over again he’s blessing me.
The message is simple and yet attractive and beautiful. It trains people for joyful testimony and witness.
The song “He’s Done So Much for Me” says says,
He’s done so much for me,
I cannot tell it all….
He washed my sins away;
I cannot tell it all,
He walks and talks with me;
I cannot tell it all,
He gave me victory;
I cannot tell it all, I cannot tell it all!
Other songs speak to conversion. One song says, “Something on the inside, working on the outside, I’ve seen a change in my life.” Another song says, “I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be. A change, a change has come over me.” Yet another song goes like this: “Great change since I’ve been born! … Places I used to go, I don’t go no more. … Things I used to do, I don’t do no more. … Company I used to keep, I don’t keep no more. … There’s been a great change since I’ve been born.”
These are just a few examples of the kind of “training” that many receive in the evangelical denominations. Frankly, we Catholics have received far less of this. As result, many Catholics are uncomfortable speaking about the Lord and what He has done. Sometimes we simply lack the vocabulary and the models that others have. Even more tragically, many are not even taught to expect a great deal from their walk with Christ. How many Catholics are told to expect a “great change”? Not expecting much often leads to not experiencing much, and not experiencing much makes it pretty hard for a person to testify to what he has seen and heard.
The Catholic faithful need to be better prepared for evangelization. This is more than manifesting joy; it also includes the ability to witness to a moral renewal that also serves to call others to soulful repentance. If we know deep down that we have been rescued from sin and from this present evil age, we are grateful and joyful and we have an experience to speak of that will encourage others.
As a concluding model, perhaps the following song is of value: “I really love the Lord. I really love the Lord. … You don’t know what He’s done for me. He gave me the victory. I love Him, I really love the Lord!”
Can you honestly say that?