“Faith is an encounter with Jesus Christ, with God, from which faith is born, and from there it brings you to witness,” Pope Francis tweeted.
That’s what happened to the Virgin Mary.
Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger changed her life. The Holy Spirit overwhelmed her with such joy she could only respond by telling those dearest to her what God had done in her.
What questions did Mary ponder on her way to visit Elizabeth? As Mary told her faith story the angel’s visitation became more vivid, more powerful, more real. The reactions and questioning that followed her initial experience during the Annunciation made the action of the Holy Spirit clearer in her mind.
Knowing and pondering our faith story helps clarify our thoughts. Like Mary, when we share our story, we see how God intervened and steered us to the path he planned for our greatest happiness. Then our deepest beliefs naturally emerge — like Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-49:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. … The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
A different path
My path was vastly different than Mary’s. When Mary was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and given the life of Jesus in her womb, she hurried to share the news with those closest to her. When I was overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit and given the gift of Jesus’ living in my heart, I kept silent.
From my early childhood, my mother, two sisters and I showed up at our beloved Protestant church every time the door opened. Sometimes Daddy came with us. We were devout but private about our faith — we just didn’t talk much about it.
At 15, I quietly committed my life to Jesus at a mountaintop youth retreat. He overwhelmed me with his love. I was shy and didn’t share that glorious moment with anyone, not even the youth director or my mother. From their questions, I suspected the change in me showed on my smiling face and in my lighter step. Perhaps in a little more patience with my bossy older sister and my tag-along younger one.
I thought talking about how Jesus loved me would spoil something precious between us. I could never find the words to fit the awesomeness of the experience of knowing for sure that Jesus loves me – me! His love was alive in my heart. His love grew in my heart, filling me with new life.
Filled with the Holy Spirit
Mary received the fullness of the Holy Spirit, and the life of Jesus began to form within her womb. She was compelled to share the Annunciation with those close to her. Unlike Mary, I couldn’t share the new life in me even with those dearest to me. How could I even express what God meant to me? If I could find the words, I feared that saying them aloud would somehow dissipate the fierceness of my attachment to my Savior. I kept my growing faith in Jesus just between the two of us. Although I couldn’t share my secret relationship with Jesus, it fortified me for the shock of my life. Three years later my father died suddenly. Jesus was the only one who could comfort me as I dragged myself through the wretched days and longed for the peace of sleep each night. I knew Jesus would never fail me. As our relationship deepened so did my determination to keep this treasure in my heart for me alone.
Thunderbolt of love
Then God hit me with a thunderbolt of love for Phil, whom I dated in college. He was what I prayed for — a strong Christian man to build a Christian family with me. The trouble was, he was Catholic!
Because I didn’t talk about my relationship with Jesus, it was hard to explain how that relationship intertwined with how I worshipped him. Again, Jesus was there for me, assuring me that he would work it all out. With peace in my heart, Phil and I married in the Catholic Church, but without Mass.
Soon I was a bride of a few months, newly pregnant and living away from home for the first time. The 2½ years we were required to serve in the military, my husband was at sea more than he was at home. I used that time to practice the disciplines of the Catholic Church, which at that time meant no meat on Fridays and trying to follow the Latin Mass.
Since this was before RCIA was instituted, three different pastors catechized me one on one as we moved up and down the West Coast. I was comforted by the consistency of teachings and liturgies, even while my only connection to parish life was the instruction sessions with the priests.
The last priest stopped short during one session and said, “Nancy, you know enough to become a Catholic. When you get home, have the priest who married you, baptize you.” (He explained that Protestants are conditionally baptized in case the Trinitarian form was not used in their first baptism.)
The finality of his proclamation cinched my deal with God that he would work it all out. The Lord assured me that I belonged in the Catholic Church. Three years and two children after my wedding, I was received into the Church in the same cathedral where I received my first sacrament, the Sacrament of Matrimony. This time I received three sacraments. I was baptized conditionally, confirmed and received the Eucharist for the first time.
A few years into Catholicism, I went to a Cursillo and found people who declared their faith through the stories of how God worked in their lives. Conversion stories. Miracle stories. Healing stories.
A second dose of this Catholic witnessing came during a Life in the Spirit Seminar four years later. With many role models, I learned to share with others the story of my conversion.
Through the sacraments and these experiences in the renewal ministries of the Church, I have become one of those faithful Catholics that I saw in Phil so many decades ago. I have never looked back except to thank God and my mother for a solid Christian upbringing, which nurtured my personal relationship with Jesus. The tenets of faith I learned and practiced in my childhood enabled me to leave that denomination, but not my relationship with God. And now I joyfully talk about my journey of conversion.
The secret to evangelization
Looking back, I see that Mary was my first example of personal witnessing. She taught me that we aren’t all called to preach to multitudes like the disciples. We are called to share our faith story as she told those closest to her that Jesus was living within her. That’s where evangelization begins.
Unlike Mary, I did not share my story with those close to me anywhere along the way, even when asked about my conversion. I didn’t get the benefit of clarifying my encounter with God through their questions, feedback and support as Mary did.
Mary was the first to show me the secret to evangelization in sharing what God did in her: her own joy during the Visitation with her cousin Elizabeth. That opened the way for me to appreciate the boldness of other jubilant mentors who inspired me. Theirs and my own experiences confirm the St. John Paul II was right. The most effective way to evangelize is through our personal witness.
Always be ready
Through Mary and many everyday evangelists around me I’ve learned the secret to evangelization. Through crises and blessings, surrendering my life to God countless times, and delighting in his healings, my forever song is,
“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.” (1 Peter 3:15,16)
Mary was the first to show me the secret to evangelization in sharing what God did in her. Her joy at the Visitation and the boldness of others inspire me.
Who inspires you to share how God has worked in your life?
Copyright 2017 Nancy HC Ward