There is a video going around the internet—it seems to arrive in my email box every other day from another Catholic offering it as evidence of Americans’ antipathy toward the church. In the video, which was taken in early August, some gay-rights activists protesting outside a Chicago Chick-fil-A are joined in their circular march by Father Gerald O’Reilly, who proceeds to pray the rosary out loud, contra their shouting, until the activists begin to crowd around him, shouting, “We don’t want your bigoted prayers!” “Get him out of here!” and the always tiresome “Shame! Shame! Shame!”
It is not clear to me whether the priest is smiling in amusement or nervousness as the police lead him away from the confrontation, but once he is in a quieter place, he identifies himself for the cameraman, who asks if he has ever been treated that way. O’Reilly says no and adds, “I might ask about being tolerant; where’s their tolerance?”
There is no denying that the notion of “tolerance” has become somewhat fluid in the United States over the last decade, or that double standards apply to its application. Just last week, the Boston Globe scolded Vice-President Joe Biden for offering politically expedient racially tinged remarks that—had they been uttered by a Republican veep—would have provided high drama, headlines, and speculation about his ability to hold his office, for weeks on end. “[When] conservative speakers get overly exuberant and cross a rhetorical line, they are presumed racist or culturally insensitive, rather than refreshingly free-spirited,” wrote the editors. “One standard should apply.”
As I write this, Missouri Republican Todd Akin is preparing to withdraw from his senate race against the sitting Democrat Claire McCaskill, after having made an ill-advised assertion about pregnancies resulting from “legitimate rape.” Recalling how Hollywood has recently finessed the statutory-rape proclivities of film director Roman Polanski, (“it wasn’t rape rape” said Whoopi Goldberg”) one watches the shifting sands of “tolerance” whirl once again, as they cover and suffocate the fellow for a boneheaded and inarticulate distinction that we may, with good reason, assume would be found less-objectionable were it uttered by lips first purified with a Democratic Party cinder.
Nevertheless, though one may find a thousand instances of genuine “intolerant” hypocrisy and dozens of double-standards in the headlines of a day, though the very word “tolerance” be overused and misapplied unto meaninglessness, it is difficult to feel sympathy for Father O’Reilly; his actions toward the gay activists were intentionally provocative, which rendered his mumbles about “tolerance” insupportable.
It’s one thing to stand away from a protest, praying, and have the protesters come after you; there, you might legitimately ask, “Where’s the tolerance”? It’s quite another—and a patently disingenuous thing—to invade a protest circle with your vocal prayers and then wonder that you are unwelcome there. Whatever his motives might have been, the Gospels suggest that Jesus would not have endorsed the priest’s methods. Jesus lived among the people he wished to evangelize. He met with them as people, and he ate with them, or he served them. He attracted converts with his love and his stability. Jesus did not burst in where he was not welcome and start praying at people (or for them) in a way that could be regarded as both separatist and condescending by the very people he wished to engage. He pointedly urged sympathy for the publican, not the Pharisee.
As this video hits my email again, and again, I can’t help but wonder if the offended senders would be writing, “so much for ‘tolerance’” in their subject lines if their own peaceful gatherings, at church or at a kid’s soccer game, were intruded upon by a gay person or an atheist with a clear intent to showboat and provoke. I don’t think they’d appreciate it.
Leah Libresco, a smart young blogger who recently made headlines when she announced that she was leaving atheism behind to become a Catholic, recently chatted with a member of the St. Paul Street Evangelization project, and therein found Evangelization as Jesus might have recognized it:
The goal is to respond to the mandate of Jesus, and to take the Gospel to all nations—meaning, starting with our local area, to take our Catholic faith to the streets, but to do so in a non-confrontational way, where we just allow the Holy Spirit to bring the people to us that He wants us to speak to. That way, the people we talk to actually want to talk to us. It works great.
We find a high pedestrian traffic area, where lots of people walk by. We set up, we start praying the rosary, and we’ll just sit there, and pray at first. Generally, people will start coming right away, at least within a half-hour. But if it’s slow, and people are coming close enough and looking, we’ll offer them a rosary. If they stop, and start talking to us, that’s great.
What we’re doing is speaking to people about the faith, we’re meeting them where they’re at. People are asking questions, people are asking for prayers. We’re bringing people back into the faith who have fallen away, we’re having good conversations with Protestants about misconceptions that they have about the faith. At the very minimum, we can usually convince a Protestant who used to think that Catholics were not Christian that we actually are Christian.
I think of Jesus sitting by a well, or a healing pool, and striking up conversations with the people who crossed his path. It’s a street evangelization I can get behind.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Priest and Protest Video
Boston Globe on Double Standards
Akin and "legitimate" rape
"It wasn't rape, rape"
The St. Paul Catholic Street Evangelization
SPSE Interview Part I
SPSE Interview Part II
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