I had been working for two years in my first job out of college. I was a computer programmer, and, as someone who converted to Catholicism in college, this was my first taste of living my Catholic faith in the “real world.” I tried to be a good witness to the faith — working hard, being punctual and honest and controlling my tongue. But I was disappointed that I never really had conversations about Catholicism with any of my co-workers. Sure, the topic came up lightly sometimes — like on Ash Wednesday when everyone noticed the smudge on my forehead — but I didn’t ever have the opportunity to discuss my beliefs. In fact, sometimes I wondered if others at the office even knew I was a practicing Catholic.
And now it seemed too late: I had accepted a new job and given my two-weeks notice. Most likely, I would never see most of my co-workers again. Near quitting time on my last day, however, one of my closer friends at the company — a good-natured atheist with a foul mouth — came into my office and closed the door. He began to bring up the important questions of life — Why are we here? Is there a God? Is there anything after this life?
He wanted to know what I thought about these things because he knew — even though I hadn’t paraded it around the office — that I was serious about my Catholic faith. I didn’t attend the bachelor parties held by other co-workers, and didn’t swear, and I highly valued my wife and new baby — this was the evidence that told him I saw life in a different way than most people he knew, and he sincerely wanted to know why I lived the way I did. Although I had been frustrated that I didn’t explicitly share my faith with others during my time at this company, this incident showed me that the workplace offers many diverse means to introduce Christ to others — not all of them verbal.
Treasure trove, minefield
The modern workplace is both a treasure trove of opportunities for evangelization as well as a minefield for offending others, risking our jobs and compromising our own faith. On the one hand, the workplace is where most of us spend the majority of our waking hours, and this allows us to come into close contact with both non-Catholics and Catholics who desperately need to encounter Jesus Christ in the Catholic Church. Yet American culture typically forbids any discussion of religious topics there, and in some jobs just living one’s Catholic faith can be fraught with perils. But our Lord has commanded each of his followers to share their faith with others, and this command doesn’t exclude our co-workers. We, therefore, must navigate the dangers of workplace evangelization in order to bring the saving message of Jesus Christ to those people whom God has placed in our lives.
Avoid the extremes
There are two extremes we can go to when it comes to sharing our faith in the workplace. On the one hand, we can hide our Catholicism, considering it a strictly “private” affair that no one else needs to know about. We have been told relentlessly by our culture that any discussion of religious beliefs is unwanted proselytizing.
But even a cursory reading of the New Testament should make it clear that this is not the Christian view of religion. The first Christians realized that they had been given a great gift, and thus they had a burning desire to share this gift with anyone and everyone they met. This often led to persecution and even martyrdom, but instead of slowing down the Church’s evangelizing mission, these hardships just strengthened it. Hiding one’s faith might be an American way of life, but it is not a Christian way.
The other extreme is obnoxiously to push our beliefs on others. Although it is less common, some Christians who rightly reject American religious reticence can do so in a reactionary way. Instead of naturally sharing the faith when appropriate, the obnoxious evangelizer is constantly inserting Catholic dogma and belief into every conversation without any consideration of the thoughts of others. Although others may hold to belief systems or worldviews that are difficult to respect, every person is an image of God who deserves to be treated as such.
Instead of falling into one of these extremes, Catholics should realistically assess their workplace environment and then boldly, yet naturally, insert their Faith into their work and into their conversations with co-workers. This might sound like something only a St. Paul or a St. Francis Xavier can do, but it is actually something that God gives every Catholic the grace to do. Practically, it involves a few basic activities: pray for your co-workers, look for opportunities and live the virtues.
Begin in prayer
As with all our activities, we must begin in prayer. All of our efforts to help our co-workers will come to naught if we do not base them in prayer. Furthermore, the effectiveness of our efforts will expand exponentially if they are girded in a strong life of prayer. But our prayer should not be nebulous or generic — we need to lift up specific individuals and specific situations to the Lord.
For example, if a co-worker is going through a particularly rough time in his marriage, tell him that you will pray for the situation, and then be sure to spend time every day beseeching the Lord’s help for that co-worker and his wife. If another co-worker is a strong atheist, beg God to soften his heart and be open to God’s grace. We believe that God can do anything, so we need to act like it: For every minute we spend evangelizing our co-workers, we should spend at least 10 in prayer for them.
Look for opportunities
One of the results of prayer is that God will give you more opportunities to witness for your faith. In my own life, at times, I have been frustrated with what I perceived were limited opportunities to tell others about Christ. But when I remember the source of all things and turn to God in prayer, I find it amazing how many more natural opportunities I have to share my faith. It is important to be on the lookout for such opportunities: They sometimes come in ways we least expect. For example, perhaps a co-worker is struggling with a difficult teenage child. One can naturally offer to pray for this child, but also can offer some friendly advice or even suggest a Catholic youth group or youth conference in the area.
The important thing is that responding to such opportunities comes in a natural way — don’t try to force the issue or push something that is clearly unwanted on another person. Instead, trust that God will open the hearts of others and direct conversations in such a way that your witness will more likely be accepted.
It is vitally important to always be ready for the opportunities that God does give us. Once I was waiting in a doctor’s office when I struck up a conversation with an elderly man who was also in the waiting room. We had a pleasant conversation and it came up naturally that I was a practicing Catholic. After a few minutes I was getting ready to leave and he asked me if I wanted to go get a cup of coffee. I politely declined, however, because my mind was on my own affairs at the time. Afterward I realized that I had failed to be open to a perfect opportunity that God had given me to talk naturally about Catholicism to someone who was interested.
Note, however, that even if you are looking for opportunities and are ready for them, courage is still necessary in order to speak up when those opportunities arise. We must remember that many people reject Catholicism and look antagonistically at those who practice it. But God might be calling us at times to proclaim it even to those who don’t want to hear it. In those situations we must pray for the courage to face rejection and even persecution as have countless Catholics down through the centuries.
Live the virtues
Finally, live the virtues. Would you take financial advice from someone in bankruptcy? Would you learn how to drive from someone who had caused multiple car accidents? Likewise, no one is going to listen to someone who is dishonest, lazy or a gossip. This does not mean we have to be perfect — sometimes the most powerful witness is someone who says, “I was wrong, please forgive me” — but it does mean that we need to strive every day with God’s grace to live virtuously. Many of our co-workers have lives that are falling apart. If they see that we live stable, upstanding lives they are much more likely to approach us for advice and direction.
Living the virtues is not a matter of being showy or trying to look better than others. It is best to keep it simple: Be honest, take responsibility for your actions, don’t talk against others, help those in need without asking for something in return — these actions all go a long way toward setting an example that others want to follow. Although our culture, at times, appears to exalt those who skirt or even reject basic human virtues, it is still true that most people value them and trust and listen to those that practice them on a daily basis.
Ultimately, we must consider our workplace one mission field that God has given us. St. Paul felt compelled to share the Gospel with others (see 1 Cor 9:16) — do we feel the same compulsion for those people whom God has put in our lives? We can live our lives in a self-contained bubble, never worrying about those around us, or we can live as God wants us to live — always looking beyond ourselves to those around us. If we have that attitude at all times, we will be surprised by how much of a positive impact we can have on our co-workers.
Eric Sammons writes from Florida, where he is the director of evangelization for the Diocese of Venice. His next book is “Holiness for Everyone: The Practical Spirituality of St. Josemaría Escrivá” (OSV), to be published in spring 2012.
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