Valiant Witnesses

By Dr. Tom Neal

“Help each other to live and to grow in the Christian faith so as to be valiant witnesses of the Lord. Be united, but not closed. Be humble, but not fearful. Be simple, but not naive. Be thoughtful, but not complicated. Enter into dialogue with others, but be yourselves.”
– Pope Benedict XVI

This B16 quote on the authentic characteristics of an evangelizing community of faith is packed with immense insight, and bears a vision that has burned in the heart of Christian martyrs of every age.

Twofold Pitfall

The dual temptation for the Christian community in every age is to either lose its distinctive voice and identity by assimilating into the surrounding socio-cultural environment, or to become an embattled or irrelevant sub-culture by isolating/isolating itself from that environment.

However, I argue that in medio stat virtus, ‘virtue is in the middle.’ And the virtuous middle between these two extremes involves a ‘community of virtue’ in sustained tensions that, though they admit of no final resolve, offer a marvelously fruitful environment for creative engagement in the ‘dialogue of charity.’ These tensions can be creative tensions.

Deft Dialogue

Dialogue, which etymologically roughly means ‘through reason,’ is a thought-exchange that has as its goal a fuller grasp of truth. Hence, this thought-exchange is not a mere game of ping pong, with ideas simply being shared back-and-forth out of mutual interest and respect.

As a quest for truth, dialogue requires clear thinking, and clear thoughts on both sides, which means that those who dialogue must be firmly rooted in their given-identity to be of any use to their dialogue partner. A Catholic who wishes to enter a dialogue must know who they are, what they believe, and be prepared to pass that belief through the reason of another.

All too often, dialogue is thought to begin with some amorphous common ground of ideological agreement that levels the playing field by reducing differences and makes the conversation more friendly and matey, without consideration of the actual positions each brings to the dialogue. Though genuine dialogue may yield important ‘common ground,’ the common ground that ‘dialoguers’ first bring to the table is their common reason, their sincere commitment to seeking truth and to abiding by the demands of charity.

Crucible Dialogue

Although it may be true that saintly Christians often face hostile dialogue partners who fail to play by the rules, it is also true that Christ-like Christians relentlessly cling to their desire to engage the ‘other’ in a dialogue of charity, ‘playing by the rules’ even unto death. Like Christ Crucified, they are willing to remain in that ‘virtuous middle’ regardless of the cost. Though they are always ready to ‘speak the truth in love’ they are always equally ready to ‘seek the truth in love’ with anyone who is prepared to sup with them and transact with Reality.

Splendid Witness

When I ran an R.C.I.A. program years ago, I came to know a university professor who, after being a professed agnostic for many years, had decided to become Catholic because of the witness of a Catholic colleague named John. In her ‘faith witness’ she said of this gentleman, “Two things about John convinced me that he was worth listening to: (1) He was serenely confident in his Catholic worldview and (2) he was sincerely interested in giving ear to others’ worldviews. That combination opened in me a new way of seeing life as I felt he truly listened to me, learned from me (which totally dropped my defenses); and I felt that his passionately held and thoughtful faith was utterly compelling and really attractive. Mostly I was convinced because of the way it looked in him. He was a splendid witness.”

I think Pope Benedict was thinking of ‘John’ when he penned those above words. And it is at the heart of the vision of the Second Vatican Council’s call for the Church to become lumen gentium, a ‘light to the nations.’

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