“When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy
and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.
Both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly and said,
‘It was necessary that the word of God be spoken to you first,
but since you reject it and condemn yourselves as unworthy of eternal life,
we now turn to the Gentiles.’...
The Jews, however...stirred up a persecution against Paul and Barnabas,
and expelled them from their territory.
So they shook the dust from their feet
in protest against them, and went to Iconium.
The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.”
When I was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, two friends I met through the base chapel programs were fundamentalist Christians. They were the hard core, the Roman Catholic Church is the whore of Babylon, kind of fundamentalists. They were good guys and their concern for me was authentic. As long as I remained in the Catholic Church, they were convinced, I would spend eternity burning in the fires of hell. I was willing to concede some wrongdoing, for we have been far from perfect, but dogmatically they were opposed to saints, the role of Mary, the Pope, hierarchy, ordination, confession, any formal liturgy, the role of works in salvation, tradition, most of the rest of the sacraments, and, especially, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Rather than being part of God’s work and grace by which we enter more deeply into communion, they viewed these things as lies that blinded me to the truth and led me far away from God. We had some great conversations.
And I mean that. I had been involved with Protestant bible studies, prayer groups, retreats, courses, and churches for four years at that point. I had honed my understanding of my own Catholic faith, as well, using scripture, participating in the liturgy, going to Catholic religious education classes, attending Cursillo and TEC retreats, and reading the catechism cover to cover twice. One of my favorite quotes was from Archbishop Fulton Sheen who said, “There are not even 100 people in this country who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they think the Catholic Church to be.” I rarely sought to win any arguments, but I did seek to bring understanding of the Church’s real teachings (as best as I understood them) to my friends who had incorrect caricatures and, also, to learn more about their beliefs. I wasn’t trying to convince them I was right, but to open their eyes by word and example to the possibility I wasn’t wrong or going to hell—at least not for just being Catholic. It usually worked and I learned a lot.
I was prepared for my two Goodfellow friends, or so I thought. Occasionally, our conversations devolved into arguments. I would pause, breathe, and engage again from a different perspective. One time, the argument became so heated and the unwillingness on their part to hear what I was saying so staunch, that I stopped. I said something like, “This is unproductive and I’m not willing to continue unless we can seek the truth together and are willing to listen to each other.” A little more strongly and paraphrasing Jesus, I said, “I won’t throw pearls before swine.” I walked out, thought that I had just lost two friends, and prayed for them. Two weeks later, they called, we all apologized, and we picked up our conversation about the Eucharist with respect and openness. They learned the truth of Catholic teaching and we became closer friends.
We are called to be faithful witnesses, sometimes with boldness, although, like Paul and Barnabas, we can’t control others’ responses and sometimes we have to move on. The key is not about winning the argument, but about allowing God to work through us, even in our imperfections. We form relationships and friendships and bear witness by word and deed to the truth. The Holy Spirit does the rest.