If one were to visit Kerala (the southernmost state of India, known for the early Christian community founded by St. Thomas the Apostle) and drive through the various towns and villages, one would find bold displays of Christianity amid a predominantly Hindu country.
A Catholic parish is not hidden away in a town but exhibited brightly in the center. There are pictures of Jesus and Mary on billboards and banners. Every Catholic business and home has the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus prominently showcased.
We can learn from the Catholics of Kerala how to be unabashed in our faith.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Many of us might feel pressure in our non-church settings to come across as religiously neutral. During conversations among work colleagues about the weekend, for instance, we might sidestep mentioning activities such as Mass attendance, catechism classes, and the celebration of our children’s sacramental initiation. As famously stated in DC Talk’s lyrics:
What will people think
When they hear that I’m a Jesus Freak?
What will people do
When they find that it’s true?
But the early Christians exemplify that we are called to be bold witnesses to the faith:
“As (the community) prayed, the place where they were gathered shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:31)
“So (Paul and Barnabas) stayed for a considerable period, speaking out boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the word about his grace by granting signs and wonders to occur through their hands.” (Acts 14:3)
“(Paul) remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Acts 28:30-31)
The early Christians proclaimed the faith amid fear of losing their lives. The Greek word for martyr, μάρτυς, means a “witness.” All of us are called to martyrdom, whether it requires our lives or our reputation. The early Christian community shed blood for the faith, and here we are worried about what people might think of us.
In 2009, when I made the decision to enter religious life, I was taking the elevator down to the company parking lot with my supervisor when he asked me what my summer plans were. I didn’t expect to tell him in that moment that in a few months I would be leaving the firm to pursue a vocation to the priesthood, but that’s exactly when and where I told him.
Though he was a private person, I knew my supervisor was a devout Evangelical Christian since he had mentioned he was in a Christian fraternity during college and was active in his church. But it wasn’t until that moment that he knew of my involvement in the Catholic faith. I shielded this out of fear of being seen as different. I wrongly allowed shame to motivate me to keep my faith to myself, even though St. Paul commands us not to be ashamed of our testimony to the Lord (see 2 Timothy 1:8).
Sheepishly disclosing my bold decision to enter religious life built a bridge to my Evangelical supervisor. More than 10 years later, we are still in touch, communicating how the Christian faith is present in our family lives and in our respective forms of outreach.
I had other colleagues who did not appear religiously inclined but were absolutely fascinated and moved by my decision to enter religious life. One was an active Catholic who was also private about his faith in the work setting, and several others were fallen-away Catholics. This experience gave me confidence in the faith rather than an urge to hide from it in a secular setting.
While I was worried about what people would think if they knew my devotion to the Catholic Church, I discovered that this fear prevented the Gospel from being witnessed. As Austin Ruse emphasizes in Under Siege: No Finer Time to be a Faithful Catholic, the “nones” are not “nothing” as the term implies, but deeply religious.
Although secular forces militate against the name of Jesus, deep down we all desire to be connected with the God who formed us and loves us. Witnessing to our faith is not an obstacle in our dealings with friends, neighbors, and colleagues outside the church setting, but it can be a bridge that leads both parties closer to God.
Therefore, following the example of the early Christians, inclusive of their present-day descendants in Kerala, let us choose to be bold witnesses to the Catholic faith. As St. Paul expressed, boldness is contagious: “…and so that the majority of the brothers, having taken encouragement in the Lord from my imprisonment, dare more than ever to proclaim the word fearlessly” (Philippians 1:14).
[Photo: A procession at the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church of St Mary in Kuravilangad, in the Kerala region of India (Catholic News Live)]