Christmas Among Catholics: Five Lessons to Keep in Mind


You sit down for Christmas dinner with your extended family, all of whom are Catholic. Uncle Philip, the Grand Poo-bah of the Knights of Columbus, leads in prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary. You wonder if last year’s train wreck of a conversation in which you described the “unbiblical and sometimes cultic regard for the Saints” may have somehow precipitated this new emphasis. Or perhaps Aunt Louise, his wife and person most offended by your passionate Christ alone apologetic, had some influence. In either case, you’re off and running—another holiday with the family in which religious discussion will create social combustion volatile enough to blow the roof off the house (if you would like to watch a brief depiction of this scene, click here).

This year, as we approach family gatherings, we have an opportunity to do so with the wisdom and grace of Christ, every bit as devoted to the gospel, and also committed to the people whom we love. At the end of the day, we understand that the word of the cross is still folly to those who are perishing, but we are nonetheless required to comport ourselves in a winsome and gracious manner; or, in the words of Paul, to make our speech gracious and seasoned with salt (Col 1:6). Following are five practical suggestions to help you toward this end.

1. Understand Grace and Truth

Jesus embodied grace and truth with a perfectly balanced poise (John 1:14). Our personalities often lean toward one or the other poles, grace or truth. Some of us naturally resemble lambs; others are more like pit bulls. That’s life in a world full of uniquely created people. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised when we disagree on how to handle specific issues. But such disagreement shouldn’t undermine the enterprise of trying to thoughtfully navigate through our differences. Although we must agree to disagree in some places, courteous dialogue is a much more Christian approach than throwing polemical hand grenades over the ecclesial fence.

One of the reasons why Christians fail to engage the process of balancing grace and truth among Catholics is overconfidence coupled with a lack of respect for the other person. In his book titled Humble Apologetics, author John Stackhouse elucidates this idea:

To put it more sharply, we should sound like we really do respect the intelligence and spiritual interest and moral integrity of our neighbors. We should act as if we do see the very image of God in them. . . It is a voice that speaks authentically out of Christian convictions about our own very real limitations and our neighbor’s very real dignity, not cynical expediency. We are rhetorically humble because we are not prophets infallibly inspired by God, let alone the One who could speak “with authority” in a way no one else can speak. We are mere messengers of that One: messengers who earnestly mean well, but who forget this bit of the message or never really understood that bit; messengers who never entirely live up to their own good news; messengers who recognize the ambiguities in the world that make the message harder to believe; and therefore messengers who can sympathize with neighbors who aren’t ready just yet to believe everything we’re telling them.[1]

Being humble doesn’t mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth any more than being meek suggests that one is devoid of strength. Jesus was all powerful, and yet he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11). It’s only when we have an informed conviction, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, that we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7). This is indeed the Christian way.

2. Be Mindful of Your Familial Position

Communication with family is especially difficult. It was a challenge for Jesus. The Lord says in Matthew 13:57, “Only in his hometown and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” In context, Jesus is referring to the people among whom he grew up, including family, who had difficulty receiving his message. This isn’t surprising; familiarity breeds contempt.

It helps to understand the position you hold in your family. Your Aunt Louise who used to change your diaper when you were an infant is probably not immediately disposed to learning from you about God. Even though you’ve earned your M.Div. and Ph.D in theology and have been a pastor for over 20 years, at one level she still sees you as the little kid who used to drool on himself. We must identify these relational obstacles and pray for God’s wisdom to handle them properly.

3. Regulate Emotional Intensity

When we discuss faith with Catholics our conversation tends to be so freighted with emotion that it is practically doomed from the start, especially in families where there has been history of disagreement on such issues. This is so largely because unlike Evangelical belief, which often centers on doctrinal propositions, Catholic commitment includes a full-orbed culture including one’s personal, familial, and ethnic history. Because these commitments run deep into one’s identity, questions about the veracity of Catholic claims simultaneously address the larger culture into which those views are woven. The potential for emotional combustion in this scenario can’t be overestimated.

4. Build on Common Ground

As mentioned in the previous point, the religious identity of Catholics consists of far more than the doctrinal tenets to which one adheres. It also includes the catena of traditions that emerge from one’s ethnic, institutional and liturgical experience. These are activities such as feasts, crossing oneself, ashes on the forehead, eating certain foods (or abstaining from them), genuflecting, lighting votive candles or having Mass said in the name of a deceased relative. Catholic journalist Peter Feuerherd has said it well, “Religious reality is complicated, and why people do what they do with their spiritual lives comes from a complex meshing of tradition, culture, and personal choice.”[2]

At the same time, there are basic commonalities between Catholics and Evangelicals. We have a common Bible (notwithstanding a few books in the Old Testament which are unique to the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles), creedal confessions (i.e., the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds), figures from church history whom we claim as our own, and holidays such as Christmas and Easter. These common commitments lay the groundwork upon which we can ask meaningful questions and enjoy productive dialogue.

5. Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

When talking with Catholics, we face myriads of potential rabbit trails. We may enter into a conversation to talk about how Jesus provides abundant life and suddenly find ourselves enmeshed in a debate about the apocrypha or Humanae Vitae. Sometimes it is appropriate to broach these subjects; but too often we do so at the expense of the gospel, which is not only a mistake, it is a travesty. What does it profit a person if he explicates all the theological conundrums of the world without focusing attention upon the death and resurrection of Jesus? This, I would contend, is the “main thing”—bearing witness to the splendor and majesty of our Savior, the one who died, rose, and now lives.

May God richly bless you and your family this season as you consider, celebrate, and testify to the beauty of Jesus Christ!

[1] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 229.

[2] Feuerherd, Peter. Holyland USA: A Catholic Ride Through America’s Evangelical Landscape. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing, 2006), 83.

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