My Godmother, Aunt Emily, used to keep religious tracts all over her small railroad apartment. Some were in her worn pine green Bible, some were scattered on the dining room hutch, some in various places where she would sit and read while resting from cooking or cleaning. I remember one vividly. It covered, cartoon style, panel by panel, the life of a man, from boyhood fun to adolescent rites of passage, to adult success. He was a decorated graduate, then a neatly dressed executive, then a proud grandfather. After each panel, and a description of his earthly command of each step down the path of life, it asked, "And then?" Well, you can guess what the last panel was: his gravestone. These may have been doomsday Chick tracts for all I remember. The message stuck with me. All your life you pursue, seek, want, get, and then? Then to dust you shall return.
Did the man in the tract attend church and read his Bible? No, he forgot that! This was the simplistic but legitimate warning of the tract. Once under the earth, it was too late. As a child, I wasn't disturbed by the somewhat heavy handed tract, but I was intrigued by it. It made me ask myself the question, even at seven years old. I would go to school and be good and have fun, and eat cake and share Barbies with my sister, and then? How did I know if I was going to end up in Heaven? Even at my tender age, I had a very firm grasp on one inevitability: I was going to die at some point. My Protestant religious education was pretty soothing. All I had to do was believe in Jesus as my Savior and I was a lock. But then the tract didn't make a whole lot of sense. What was wrong with the man's life? Even if he never walked into a church, if he was a nice businessman and a giving father and a doting Grandpa, and he believed in Jesus, he was a shoe in for Heaven, right? So why all the scary imagery? Why the fuss? Why were they creating requirements that didn't exist? Who could read the man's heart?
The biggest misunderstanding I encounter about the very broad topic of Christianity is that it's a relativistic, open ended, and fuzzy sort of business. That it is NOT an exact science, with tomes written about it, with a formula, with defined Truth and a history of defending it against heresies and lies. I know a handful of people who "get it" and the rest, quite candidly, still have a very blurred-edge idea of who Jesus is, why He came, what His divinity entails, and, on a whole other level, what Catholicism teaches about these things. And for how LONG we've been teaching it! (Hint: the beginning of Christianity).
I almost wish we had Catholic Chickesque tracts. But our message is not that simple. If you have the faith of a child, if you have been GRACED with that, then you may not ever encounter complicated theology. But if you have an educated mind and you let many forces influence you and fall in love with many things created, then you have to counter balance those things with not equal but GREATER parts theological. The risk of NOT doing this is, that when you reach a crisis point, a death in your family, an illness, a loss of a job, a betrayal by a friend, or a critique of your Church by a friend of relative, you're going to crumble like a gluten-free saltine. Because you have heard the words that you should build your house on rock and not on sand, but the truth of the matter is that you have used very very firm sand and called it rock. There is only one rock, only one Petra, only one Bride of Christ, only one Christ Himself.
I cannot say enough times that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is essential reading. Even if you are a hardcore Protestant, you can buy yourself a used CCC. I dare you. I dare you to even buy the YouCat, our youth Catechism as prepared and approved by The Church. Or buy an old Baltimore Catechism. It has visuals like a Chick tract, if you're into that sort of thing. In my view, nothing is like the real deal, the BIG Catechism, signed by our beloved Pope John Paul II. Read and learn.
There are three levels you will hit at different times during catechesis if it's done correctly: comfort, challenge, and close the book. Comfort comes from reading that you can do nothing to separate you from the love of God, and why. (I bet you don't REALLY know why.) Challenge comes from the teachings themselves, and how they are hated by "the world," and how you will suddenly see that, uh-oh, they are backed by Scripture (because the Catholic Church is responsible for compiling the Bible. Say what? Yes.)
So what do I mean by close the book? Those are the moments when you read something that knocks the wind out of you. And you have to close the book, rub your eyes, or exhale, or call someone, or check your Bible, or look in the mirror, or call someone you are very pleased that you have been holding a grudge against and say, "I'm sorry we fought. Let's stop it now." These moments are the Holy Spirit coming up actively within you. He's always there, but you keep him very quiet and inactive in there. When you read Scripture, or the Catechism, or the early Church fathers, or any spiritual reading, or you pray the Rosary, or you contemplate the Passion, the Holy Spirit becomes active within you, giving you graces of understanding and empathy, charity, wisdom, peace of mind, and clarity. These are fruits you will then be able to share with those in your family, your co-workers, your friends, even those hostile to religion (a lot of people.)
I flew recently (not for a very happy reason) and again heard the yada yada warning about putting on my oxygen mask before trying to put on someone else's . Boy does that one irk me. I am so conditioned to say, no, I will get the mask on my neighbor first because in third grade I learned that JOY = Jesus, Others, and then Yourself. But they are trying to save more lives with this rule. You can't put on someone else's mask if you are losing oxygen and passing out. Now you and your neighbor are slumped over. And then?
It's the same way with spiritual food, with spiritual oxygen. Take YOURS first, and then you can supply it to others. You can't share what you don't possess, and you can't tell anyone about Jesus if you don't KNOW Him yourself. You certainly can't teach anyone about the faith if you don't know it yourself. If you are challenged about contraception and you start stuttering, that's IT. Opportunity for catechesis and possibly saving someone's soul GONE. 'The Bible says that the Holy Spirit will help me know what to say', you retort! No! He is there NOW, waiting for you to read and learn and absorb and pray and be filled with the Trinity's massive and precise theology.
You can be a walking and talking tract. You can help someone move from a house built on sand to a house built on The Rock. But you can't do that if all you have is Mass attendance, or a vague picture of a loving blue-eyed Jesus. You need to get your mask on, get your oxygen, and then you can supply that lifesaving oxygen to someone else. There is no other help that matters. Good listeners are in short supply, I grant you, and so are those who are willing to give materially 'til it hurts to aid the poor. But most lacking of ALL are those who are gutsy enough, catechized enough, and loving enough to spread the Gospel in its entirety and its complexity to others at risk of their own popularity. Be that person. And then? Well, you'll see. But trust me, it will be worth the effort, even if you don't see the reward in the short term. I taught high school for eight years. You don't get a lot of immediate gratification in that line of work. In fact, you more frequently find yourself on the receiving end of ungrateful parents, disrespectful administrators, and indifferent students. But maybe, if you run into a "kid" years later, he will tell you, "I'll never forget when you said . . . " or "You changed the way I looked at . . . "
You plant a seed, and then you walk away, and it may take years, my friends, to germinate and produce a flower, or even a little green head popping out shyly from the soil. Plant it anyway. Jesus wants us to be spicy salt and bright light for the world, not lukewarm and complacent quasi-disciples who are convinced we just have to do our seventy years here and then collect our ticket to Heaven at the end of the ride. It simply doesn't work that way. Discipleship doesn't work that way. Theology cannot be condensed to a tract, and evangelization cannot be reduced to you saying in a half-hearted voice, "Yeah, I'm Catholic," or "I was raised Catholic, but. . . " or, God forbid, "I believe in something, but since no one knows what is out there, you know, I don't really believe in religion." All you are showing with these statements is complete ignorance of a body of teaching that is comprehensive, exacting, and completely lucid. Tap into it starting now; don't rely on those "other people" out there to increase the numbers of adherent religious. If not now, when? Like the busy man in the old-fashioned tract, you may not be doing anyting egregiously WRONG, but you're not living abundantly either.