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First question: What is your religion?

Posted By November 20, 2012 | 2:58 pm | Commentary

This  2012-2013 Year of Faith logo features a boat, which is a traditional symbol for the church. Its main mast is the cross and, with the sails, it forms the initials IHS, the “Christogram” standing for Jesus, savior of men. Behind the IHS, the sun evokes a eucharistic host. (CNS)

By Dr. John Zawacki

“What is your religion?”  This is a question I ask every patient I am seeing for the first time.  I never thought of this as an evangelization question  until I meet Lillian.
“I’m a black Catholic”, she exclaimed.
“What is a black Catholic?”
“Oh, it is a Catholic who marries a Protestant. You can’t attend Mass or receive Holy Communion anymore.
“Well, Lillian, that was many years ago. Have you thought about going back to the Catholic Church?”
“Sometimes, but I don’t have a need to do it.”
“A lot has changed in the Catholic Church since you were married.  If you would like help going back, I know a few priests who could help you.”
“Tell you what,” she said, “when I am near death, you let me know.  Then, I will talk with a priest.”
About a year later, Lillian became very ill.  She was hospitalized with a high fever which wasn’t responding to treatment. After several days of Lillian becoming weaker, I  reminded her of our previous conversation about her willingness to see a priest if she was near death.  After explaining my concerns about not being able to control the fever, I told her, “It’s time.”
Lillian gave her OK.  I visited the priest assigned to our hospital at the time and explained the details of Lillian’s life and present illness, I told him she was finally ready to talk with a priest.  Before leaving, I said, “Father, don’t blow it.”  A giant, gentle smile spread across his Irish face as he reassuringly replied, “Don’t worry.”
She received three sacraments that day. The next day, her fever broke and her nurse reported she was up and around visiting other patients on the floor.
Several months later, I received an emergency phone call from a surgeon. “John, I think Lillian is going to die!”
“What are you talking about?”
“I just tried to dilate her esophageal stricture and put a hole in her esophagus. You better get down here. She is making a hell of a racket.”
I ran to the surgical suite.  Before I saw Lillian, I could hear her shouting, “I’m going to die! I’m going to die!”  When she saw me she yelled louder.  Everyone was looking at her.  I said a silent prayer and said.  “Lillian, you may die. But you are in the hands of the best man I know to help you live.  So, I would make your peace with God to get ready for surgery.”
Instantly, Lillian raised her arms above her head and shouted, “God, if you want me, take me! Otherwise, let me live!”  She then looked at me, winked and with a calm voice said, “I’ll be back.”  And back she came from that surgery. She did very well for about a year, but then, became deathly ill from chronic lung disease worsened by severe pneumonia.
I was called to her bedside. Her breathing was labored and shallow. She was in and out of consciousness.  While I held her hand, the Protestant minister came by, stood at the foot of her bed, leaned forward, and urged, “Lillian, it’s time to pray and make your peace with God.”  She opened her eyes, pointed at me, and in a barely audible voice said, “He’ll pray for me.”
I was stunned by the request and the reality. I was being asked to speak to God on behalf of Lillian who shortly would be seeing God face to face. I knew this was holy ground.  Reflecting on this moment over the years, I wondered if Moses felt similarly unworthy as he drew nearer to the burning bush. The words I spoke came from my heart and were offered with tears in my eyes. Lillian died peacefully a few hours later while I was holding her hand.
Today, I still think of Lillian each time I ask a patient, “What is your religion?” I will be forever thankful for Lillian’s answer and the relationship it created.  Evangelization can be like that – a question, a conversation, being a friend, praying for a friend, reuniting a friend with God.
When I die, I feel assured that Lillian will be among the communion of saints who will come to guide and greet me.  I look forward to seeing her again.
– Dr. Zawacki is a member of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Northborough. He is a co-chair of the diocesan Parish Renewal and Evangelization (PRAE) ministry team. A gastroenterologist at UMass-Memorial, he recently received the 2012 Schwartz Center Compassionate Caregiver Award, which honors healthcare providers who “display extraordinary compassion in caring for patients and families.”

Unexpected encounters

By Dwain Robbins

They usually come every other Saturday morning.  When the neighbors see these two well-dressed individuals walking down the street, it usually clears people from the yards.  It also tends to clear my living room. My son announces,” Dad, those Jehovah’s Witnesses are here again.”  Then he disappears.
Following some time in dialogue with Darlene and Bill, I find their sense of the Bible to be skewed and incomplete.  Nevertheless their dedication and zeal are strong.  Some people are willing to risk frustration and hostility to evangelize their faith.
Recent surveys cite Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons as most proactive in reaching out to others. Protestants, especially Baptists, often invite others to attend church with them. There is an expectation, especially among Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, and many Baptists, to evangelize. It is part of the mission they are given as a faith community.
How do American Catholics fare in evangelization as compared to other faiths?  We fare poorly.
Among all of the Christian denominations, Catholics are, in fact, least likely to share the faith with others. Many have in some way come to see their faith as a private matter that is of concern to no one else.
Yet if we Catholics look deeply into our faith, and that of our fathers, we will see that the expectation to evangelize is just as strong.  The last words of Jesus on earth were, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  (Matthew 28:19)  The command was not given just to the apostles or just to the clergy.  It is a command to all the baptized – to us.
So even for Catholics who truly love their faith, a dilemma might arise.  We understand the compelling need to evangelize, to bring Christ to the world.  However, the word evangelization brings to mind the discomfited image of knocking on the doors of strangers. “You shouldn’t talk about politics or religion!” we’ve been told.
Granted, it is not likely that we will see armies of Catholics going door-to-door in the near future. The very thought of this may send chills up some spines.  Truth be told, however, most evangelization does not take place on someone’s front steps during an outreach campaign.  It happens often unexpectedly in the many ordinary venues of daily life.  We can go out looking for opportunities to evangelize.  More often, opportunities to evangelize will come looking for us.
Consider these scenes from daily life, these “unexpected encounters”:
Rose was riding the train home from Boston reading “The Story of a Soul” by St. Therese.  The man sitting next to her remarked, “Oh, my mother’s name was Theresa.”  The conversation began with “I was raised Catholic but…” and went to a candid, in-depth sharing of his spiritual wandering.  Rose listened kindly, rather than judgmentally.  Suddenly she felt the urge to begin sharing the joy her faith brings to her daily life.
As Bob unpacked his lunch in the company cafeteria, Gary asked, “What’s that black cross on your forehead?”  Bill explained Lent, sacrifice, and how a lived faith can enrich one’s life.  Later, Gary bought a book on Catholicism.
After Pat lost her son in an auto accident, Terry invited her to lunch.  Pat asked the heart-rending cosmic question – “How could God allow this to happen?”  Terry listened compassionately. She replied, “Few know this. I lost my first child when he was 5 months old. I angrily confronted God with your same question.  After a long struggle, I came to see his love despite my pain.  I know now I will see my son again.”
In each of these scenarios, the person did not anticipate the encounter or its consequences.  The Holy Spirit did. There are no accidents with God.
If you find yourself asking, “What on earth would I say?!”  Remember this, if God wills the encounter, he will give you the words. “For the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said.” Luke 12:12
If you hear yourself lamenting “I don’t know enough about the faith.”  Take heart.  Learning about God and being formed in our faith is a life-long task, right up until the moment we take our last breath. There are many ways to deepen your knowledge through adult faith formation classes offered here in our diocese, on-line, or perhaps through the very pages of the publication you’re now reading. Just as relevant as the knowledge you gain is your own personal experience of Faith.
God will be sending each of us some unexpected encounters as opportunities for evangelization. Pray that the Holy Spirit may give us the courage to respond with openness and enthusiasm.  May God make us his instruments that will help connect a soul to Christ.

– Dwain Robbins is a parishioner of St. Mary Parish in Uxbridge. He is also a member of the Parish Renewal And Evangelization ministry team (PRAE), a subcommittee of the Diocesan Pastoral Council.