By BENEDICT AUGUSTINE
Jesus sent out these Twelve after instructing them thus, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”
Whether modern Christian like it or not—and some nasty periods of history have shown that they have not—Christianity started with Judaism, and Jesus Himself was Jewish. Jesus did not disavow the Law of Moses, but strengthened and deepened it with Himself. He did not create a new religion, nor did He reinvent the concept of religion; He did something even more startling: he actually practiced His religion.
Most people, including His Jewish kindred, practiced politics, morality, or science, and saw religion as useful tool to these other endeavors. The early Jewish kingdom that Hosea addresses used their religion to curry God’s favor in order to establish their own autonomous state. Once God allowed them to accomplish this, they adopted another religion, usually from a more successful neighbor like the Philistines, the Canaanites, or the Assyrians, in the hopes of expanding their newfound kingdom into an empire. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day used religion to practice morality successfully in order to gain the authority that comes with moral excellence. Lovers of superstition, the pagans practiced science while using religion as a means of elevating their discoveries or themselves. It was not enough for Pythagoras to create a theorem that could calculate the hypotenuse of a right triangle; he had to go and make a cult of it. Science, as people today understand it, did not even exist apart from religion until Christians in the Middle Ages started to distinguish it as a separate mode of inquiry. Unlike most of the people around Him, Jesus was one of the first to practice religion for its sake, seeking nothing but God.
Because Jesus practiced Judaism so faithfully, he established His Church with His fellow Jews before He ministered to the Gentiles. He knew that one could not share his faith with strangers if he could not share it with friends and family. The gentiles would certainly not convert, if even Jews did not convert. With this in mind, Jesus told his Twelve Apostles, “Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Keeping with this command, Jesus and his Twelve Apostles always started their missions with the synagogue (which was more of a school/forum than a church/temple) talking with other Jews, upsetting most of them while convincing a few of them, and then finally opening up to the Gentiles after the synagogue threw them out.
Even though Jesus will later tell his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19), He first told them to preach to their own people, who would understand and could help others understand. Long after the founding of the Catholic Church, great preachers and saints continued to spend a great deal of time converting Christians to their own faith while they proselytized non-Christians. In his analysis of St. Francis and St. Dominic, G.K. Chesterton remarks, “It is an old story that, while we may need somebody like Dominic to convert the heathen to Christianity, we are in even greater need of somebody like Francis, to convert the Christians to Christianity.”
In Chesterton’s time and now, the Church’s still needs Catholics to gather the lost sheep. The second largest Christian denomination in the U.S., after Catholicism, is ex-Catholicism. In Western society, more Catholics leave the Church than enter it. Where do they go? Sometimes they go to different Christian denominations, but the younger Catholics more often leave Christianity altogether. Like the Israelites, they used their religion to have a good family life, a good foundation of moral values, and a working knowledge of Holy Scripture. After that, they then “grow out of their faith” and define success on their own—or more often, someone else’s—terms and stop attending Mass. Once they fail, as they inevitably will when they try to succeed without God, Catholics who did no stray need to go out like the apostles and bring these souls back home to God.
To do this, practicing Catholics desiring to convert others need to befriend other practicing Catholics and read the books of practicing Catholics. Reading Catholic books and working with people at my Church allowed me to see the joy that comes from sharing religion with others. A common interest, a common profession, even a common living space, pale in comparison with the bond that comes through a common religion. I love talking about the faith to other Catholics; I love writing about it for fellow Catholics; I love reading about the faith from talented Catholic writers. This love helps me to convert everyday—as Pope Benedict XVI said, conversion is a lifelong process—and it gives me strength to try and convert others. Sometimes this is difficult, often my bewildering enthusiasm for Catholicism will sometimes strain friendships with my non-Catholic friends. Nevertheless, Christ calls us to do it for His sake, and commands us to start at home for our sake.