I served for 11 years as a chaplain in the United States Naval Reserve. Chaplains’ school consisted of a seven-week training program at Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island. One of the lessons we learned was how to carry on “deck-plate ministry.” Chaplains were instructed to get to know sailors by walking around the ship and striking up conversations. One simple way to gain the confidence of a sailor is to ask him to describe what his duties entail. Most people like to talk about what they do. When a chaplain shows an interest in what the sailor has to say about his job, the sailor finds himself—perhaps for the first time in his life—doing the talking while the priest listens. It is usually the other way around: The priest talks in church, the congregation listens. It is good for the chaplain to find out what the people on a naval vessel do, but it is much more important for the sailors to find out that a man of God takes an interest in them and wants to help them come closer to the God both are called to serve.
Letting people tell us about themselves, about their lives and their concerns, is an important part of our Christian vocation. Christ sent out fishers of men, but neither hooks nor nets are the means by which people will be drawn to the Faith. It is by means of conversation that we can catch people for the Lord. Conversations are two-way streets, which means that before we can lead someone in the right direction, we may need to walk with him in what might seem to be aimless circles. But meanderings are a normal part of life for people seeking to arrive eventually at some destination. Our goal must be to help people stay fixed on doing whatever it takes to arrive at the Destination— eternal life—and, if necessary, to (gently) disabuse them of the notion that the journey through this life is, or is supposed to be, the most satisfying part of the overall endeavor.
Patience and fortitude are needed for such conversations, especially today with so many people having fallen into skepticism about religious truth. They believe in God and his goodness, but they wrongly think that God has no plan, and no laws, for human flourishing. Relativism in all its forms reduces religion to a sentimental coping mechanism that helps some people make sense of their lives and get through each day with a modicum of contentment. Religion is, in this telling, a lifestyle choice prompted by our anxieties and doubts about the meaning of life. It is a way to calm oneself down and create peace of mind, without affirming that God makes any specific demands on our belief and acceptance.
Is it any wonder that people who have fallen into this way of thinking would be offended, yet also intrigued, by what a believing Christian with firm convictions would tell them about “the Way, and the Truth and the Life”? Anger often conceals a desire not to be challenged by an idea that in fact may be worth considering. I am convinced that nobody really believes that everything is meaningless, that life is an absurdity that needs to be explained away by whatever idea makes life seem bearable.
Prolifers have a message to impart that is not their own. It comes from God: “Thou shalt not kill.” The truth of this message is guaranteed by the One who gave it to us. Our job is to spread it among others. It is worth the effort to listen to the objections of those who support abortion. Friends, colleagues, family members, even strangers deserve our loving patience when they attempt to defend the indefensible proposition that it is morally right to kill unborn children.
Hearing what they think about abortion is the necessary prelude to our responding with God’s truth in love. By patiently listening we give plain witness to them of our love. This may very well open the door of their hearts and minds to recognizing the truth about God’s gift of new life in the womb. In any event, our efforts are pleasing to God and thus worth making.