This past Friday (the 24th) was the Memorial of St Francis de Sales, an evangelist and apologist who famously wrote that folks could attract more flies (presumably the better kind!) with a teaspoon of honey than with a barrel of vinegar. He was extraordinarily successful in his ministry of evangelizing those who had become Calvinists in Geneva. What exactly did he mean?
Francis’ approach to evangelization is a lesson for us. It can be described as the difference between “Get back over here or else!” versus “Come join us!” Born in the times of what has come to be called the “Baroque” period of architecture, it was a time of celebration of benefits more than fear of punishments. To quote Mr James Lees-Milne in his book St Peter’s: “…the attitude of the Church had changed. It set out to win, not to repel. Instead of a gloomy, rebarbative front, it assumed a milder, more cheerful aspect…. There was much wisdom in this novel step… [It concentrated] upon the blessings to be reaped from observing Christian dogmas, rather than the penalties to be incurred from ignoring them… Above all, it sought to demonstrate the glory and benefit of the Sacraments in the most attractive manner…”
This is the logic that led Pope Saint Paul VI to write that in our times people needed witnesses more than teachers, and if they followed teachers it was because they were also witnesses. And I (and Francis de Sales) would add: witnesses of joy.
From my perspective, the best evangelization is not, strictly speaking, evangelization at all, but what used to be called “pre-evangelization.” It is the lived witness that leads people to ask us, “Why do you do—why are you—the way you are?” From then, with an initial reply “I do this—am this—because of my faith in Jesus Christ.” And away we go with authentic, effective evangelization! But we must never forget that whether we make a convert or not, we do what we do because of Him who requires it of us to be His disciples.
We want to draw people to the light and not threaten them with remaining in darkness (which they may or may not recognize—John 3:19-21). The phrase I used to use when a teacher was that we needed to be people who would present Jesus to others as an “attractive confrontation.” By that, I meant to draw them to Him, and then to see the ways they would be challenged to change—only because of having fallen in love with Him first. We’ll do anything for the ones we love, after all! Let’s be effective evangelizers by being honey and not vinegar: no threats–let’s draw others to Him for the sake of joy!