As Bishop David Ricken, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, which released the document, said, we all have a role as witnesses. In fact, as the bishops note, we are called to “cultivate a culture of witness” in the world.
But what does it mean to be a witness? Last month, we looked at what being a disciple means — to be a student of Jesus’ teaching and live out that teaching in ways that bear fruit: being missionaries, trusting God, living lives of mutual service, bringing the good news to others.
So, if we do those things, we stand a good chance of being convicted of knowing Jesus, or being his disciple. All that is part of being a witness — but there’s a bit more.
It isn’t just about doing things that proclaim Christ; it’s about where and how you do them. That’s the culture of witness part.
Just saying you’re a disciple isn’t enough. Yes, people could convict on your words alone, but say you deny those words? It’s your word against theirs. Not always enough in court.
When we first become disciples, we’re like the man born blind in the Gospel of John (9:9-38). First, the man is a tentative about proclaiming Jesus in court. However, over time, his heart becomes more sure and he gets himself tossed out of the synagogue — which meant he was out of most of his society, his culture. At that point, Jesus comes to him and the man soon accepts him as Lord. The man is at the point where we have left another healed blind man: Bartimaeus, whose story (Mk 10:46-52) we heard a few weeks ago (Oct. 30). Bartimaeus tossed aside his cloak — an important piece of clothing for a beggar — “and followed him on the way.”
“Followed him on the way” is a catch phrase; it means Bartimaeus became a disciple. And where did he follow? Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus was about to give his life. And, after him, many disciples also gave their lives.
The word “martyr” comes from the Greek martus, meaning “witness.” Originally, the term referred to the apostles, who had witnessed Jesus’ life — and died for the faith (except St. John). However, as other early Christians also died witnessing to their faith, “martyr” soon meant those who, while not seeing or hearing the ministry of Jesus, so firmly believed that in him that they were willing to sacrifice their lives as a witness for his Gospel.
“Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith. … The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2473).
Before they died — convicted for their witness — where and how did these martyrs live?
They prayed in house churches; they cared for the sick and the poor (no matter what faith the needy professed); they prayed and sang hymns in public; they celebrated the sacraments; and they let others see that they were “following Jesus on the way.” They lived a culture of witness.
It’s not different today, as we face the call to the new evangelization: We are called to show the way to those who may have heard it before, but who have forgotten and turned away. The U.S. bishops tell us that all Catholics must reach “out to our missing brothers and sisters, must touch the lives of others, interact with them, and show them how the faith answers the deepest questions and enriches modern culture.”
We can do that in the same ways and places that the early Christians — and yes, the martyrs — did. The bishops listed these ways:
As disciples — learning more about the teachings of the church;
By committing ourselves to Christian life — most especially living out the beatitudes;
In parish life — celebrating Mass and participating in other sacraments with other disciples;
In the liturgical life — praying at times outside of Mass and taking part in devotions such as the Stations of the Cross;
In our families — here we teach children, learn from the elderly, care for the sick;
As teachers — we can all become catechists, prayer partners or accompany someone preparing for the sacraments.
In every human experience, the Lord offers us a chance to give witness to him and the Spirit prompts us to know what to say and how to act.
So if we, like Bartimaeus, start to follow on the way, we will find ourselves being both disciples and witnesses more and more frequently. It will become second nature to us as we become more like Christ. And, joined with others around us, we will form a culture of witness.
Yes, that will probably also get us convicted in court of being a disciple of Jesus. Just remember: that’s a good thing.
Sources: Catechism of the Catholic Church; “Disciples Called to Witness”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; and “Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States.”