“Praise often creates in us a false impression that we deserve it.”
-Ven. Fulton Sheen
“How can I do what you do?”
Whenever Jackie or I get this question after a talk or an event, we sometimes respond with a tongue-in-cheek, “What? Share the Gospel with other people?”
No, silly. “Travel. Be a speaker. Stand on a stage in front of people.” What’s never said is often the hidden desire, the true motivator behind the question that may not be rooted in a desire to evangelize at all, but in self-centered glory: “Be famous.”
Ego. Vanity. Pride. We all suffer from a dangerous preoccupation with ourselves, and our generation more than ever. A few studies I’ve read note that our youth would rather be famous than achieve a high degree of education or make a significant scientific discovery. Many men and women think that getting famous quickly through reality TV or websites like YouTube will yield a financially easy life or fill that God-shaped void inside all of our restless hearts. “If only I were famous,” we think, partly because celebrity-worship is one of our greatest false religions today.
Vanity of Vanities
We live and breathe the air of celebrities. Their mundane nonsense dominates our newsfeeds and the magazines at the supermarket. Their breakups and implosions feed the voyeurism that we’re all susceptible to. We’re taught from a young age to worship people on TV simply because they’re on TV. We’re all taught from a young age to violate the very first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
This temptation to “celebratize” (yes, I made up the word) can infect even how we view the efforts of Catholic Christian speakers, musicians, and evangelizers. These ordinary men and women who are simply using their gifts and talents to witness God’s love somehow become superhuman figures or superstars to be adored.
Even the clergy—dynamic bishops, priests, and sisters—who are doing God’s work humbly and find themselves in the spotlight can fall prey to the cult of celebrity. Great priests have used their media influence for the good of many souls (Venerable Fulton Sheen or Bishop Robert Barron, for instance) while others have fallen prey to the dangers of fame and become enslaved by personal sin.
In some ways, I’m sure the concept of “celebrity-dom” has always been with the Church. I imagine Peter and Paul were pretty well known and people flocked from all around to be with them. The saints of the Church often had followings from local towns and beyond as word spread about their holiness or their great works. Even Jesus acquired notoriety and popularity before, well, you know…everyone turned on him.
In fact, I’m pretty sure we’re the ones who invented the whole memorabilia thing. Today it’s selfies and signatures, but we Catholics have been collecting and venerating clothing, hair, and shoot, even bones of the men and women we honor for two millennia. Bones, people. That’s just weird.
But all the great saints and speakers would echo the cry of John the Baptist, “the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals” (Mt.11).
Jesus Christ should be the only recipient of our worship because he is God and no one else is.
The great irony is that most speakers naturally love being the center of attention, but God uses this temptation for vanity for His glory. “Oh you want to be on stage?” God seems to say. “Cool. But you’ll be glorifying Me, not yourself.” The best speakers constantly remind themselves of this fact. The virtue of humility helps to redirect energy from vanity back to a healthy sense of self-forgetfulness. “He must increase and I must decrease.”
If you’re feeling called to spread the Gospel in a more dynamic and extroverted way, first spread the Gospel where you are right now. Locally. With your family. With your parish. With your campus. Be grateful with the territory that God entrusts to you, whether that’s your school, your town, your state, or beyond. No one is entitled to be a witness of Jesus Christ; that’s a supreme gift and great responsibility. Your life should be consistent with the Gospel values you preach; make your holiness a priority, not your success or your fame. As soon-to-be saint Mother Teresa said, “God demands that I be faithful, not successful.”
Oh, and expect persecution…because if you really are preaching the Gospel, you will be persecuted. When you call young people to purity and witness chastity, expect anger, indifference, and the cross of misunderstanding. When you talk about vocation and the power of a joyful priest, expect pedophile jokes and hurtful language to be thrown at the Church you so love. When you write anything on social media about your faith, remember that the Internet is a dark place where trolls and miserable people live. “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” Our road is the road of the Cross and if you’re preaching the Cross people won’t exactly love you for it.
But if you can do all this and still evangelize with joy and a humble indifference to the results and your reputation, yours will be the Kingdom and the embrace of Jesus Christ: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” (Mt. 25:21)
That’s the only glory you will ever need.
“The Lord does not choose the best…He often chooses weak instruments in order that His power might be manifested; otherwise it would seem that the good was done by the clay, rather then by the Spirit.”
-Ven. Fulton Sheen