During a recent Catholic conference, I saw a Scripture quote on a poster that read: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence . . . ” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
A series of talks by Catholic theologians and public figures drove home for me just how applicable these words are today.
From the recent scandals in the Church to the continued legal threats to religious liberty, traditional marriage and family and the dignity of human life, the times in which we are living seem catastrophic for Christians. Is there any hope for the future of the Church in western societies like ours? What are we ordinary Catholics to do?
As I pondered these questions, the words of St. Peter provided me with two take-aways. First, we should not be afraid to speak up for Christ and the Gospel in the public square. And second, we will be able to make a difference only if we do so with kindness and humility.
St. Peter advised the early Christians to always be prepared, which presupposes we have done our homework. A Dominican speaker at the conference emphasized the need for serious study because standing up for our Catholic faith today requires intelligent answers. But he added that effective evangelization is not purely a matter of intellectual effort; it involves both knowing and authentically living our faith. Actions speak louder than words — and when we do speak, our personal witness of grace can touch hearts more effectively than theological treatises.
I think this is what St. Peter meant when he spoke about “the hope that is in you.” This hope is not something remote or academic — it is the living presence of Christ in our hearts.
We all share in the pledge of an imperishable inheritance by virtue of our Baptism, but this living hope is not bestowed on the church as a corporate body. It is a promise given to each of us individually as a beloved son or daughter of God. “Christ in you — and in me — for each of us, our hope of glory! (cf. Col 1:27).
If we are tempted to become discouraged in the face of so many threats to our Catholic faith, perhaps it is because we have not yet taken full ownership of the hope that is in us.
Saint Jeanne Jugan, foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor, took hold of this living hope and exercised it as confidence in Providence and sure faith in what awaited her in heaven (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-4).
Jeanne Jugan often reminded the young Little Sisters about the presence of Christ in the tabernacle, in the poor and in their own hearts. She advised them to look to Jesus for strength in all their trials and difficulties. Faced with challenges she would say, “That seems impossible, but if God is with us it will be accomplished.”
As strong as her faith and hope were, Jeanne Jugan was fully aware of the limited power of words to win over hearts and souls. She counseled the Little Sisters not to prolong chapel devotions, lest the residents become bored and walk away.
She also advised the sisters not to rush their begging rounds, impetuously blurting out their needs as if they were their due.
Finally, she taught the Little Sisters to pray discreetly when out in public so that they would neither draw undue attention to themselves nor offend nonbelievers.
In a word, Saint Jeanne Jugan taught the Little Sisters to let their humble acts of charity do the talking in drawing others to Christ. The annals of our congregation are filled with stories of elderly individuals who were converted or led back to the practice of their Catholic faith through the quiet but heroic charity of generations of Little Sisters.
Many of the speakers at the conference I attended talked about missionary discipleship. Even the most well-known and intellectually intense spoke about service and solidarity with the poor as essential means of evangelization in today’s polarized world.
“Nothing is more exhilarating than bringing others to Christ,” George Weigel exclaimed with an enthusiasm that made me want to go out and announce the Good News — knowing that the only convincing way to do this today is through the language of closeness, generous love and humble service.