Hardly a winter weekend went by during my twenties when I was either on skis or planning to be on skis. A fresh snowfall was all it took, and my friends and I would get up long before the sun in order to be on the slopes the moment the lifts opened. The rare times we were flush we went to Mammoth or Tahoe, but we were just as content to head for the local mountains and eat our lunch out of fanny packs.
If the trip involved an overnight stay, my habit was to find the local parish church and go to the Saturday vigil Mass. This would inevitably arouse curiosity in whatever non-Catholic friends happened to be along, and it wasn’t unusual for them to ask if it would be all right if they came with me.
I was happy to act as tour guide, and I prepped them simply: be ready for a lot of changes of posture, and when the Sign of Peace arrives, shake hands and smile.
I’d love to say that these little expeditions were thumping successes and that my skiing pals came away overwhelmingly impressed every time, but the truth is that I was probably the most unlucky would-be evangelist in the state. The reason: almost without fail, the regular homilies at these Masses would be shelved in favor of an appeal for money.
It was just odd luck. These weren’t just capricious requests for a quick infusion of cash, but long-planned appeals for specific collections that were used to fund worthy ministries on the parish, diocesan or national level. We just happened to show up on the weekend of the Parish Snow Removal Appeal collection, or some such.
I was always a little mortified, but I needn’t have worried. My friends were solicitous and understanding, and always told me they enjoyed attending a Catholic Mass, some of them for the first time. And they usually had questions that I did my best to field. I like to think that they came away with a better opinion of the Church and a somewhat closer understanding of the Mass. I also like to think that they were disabused of one or two prejudices that might have been born of simple ignorance.
Some of them actually ponied up for the collections.
In the years since, I’ve had Catholic friends who have told me about their elaborate efforts to get their non-Catholic friends to attend a Mass. Others have said that they would be reluctant to extend an invitation, not wanting to be seen as proselytizing. The better, and more effective approach, it seems to me, is somewhere in the middle ground, and it involves nothing more than providing a good example: if you are known as a person who practices the faith regularly and faithfully, others will eventually ask you about it. Active faith, at its best, is countercultural, and that’s often irresistible.
Jesus was subtle, but solid. We can be, too.