As person after person silently fell into line to receive the Eucharist, one communicant fiddled with her snug skirt and tugged insecurely at the bottom edge of her belly shirt so that less of her abdomen would be exposed. All around, men and women glared in horror at the churchgoer who dared show up in such apparel, or lack thereof. With their eyes, they accused her of immodesty, setting a poor example for young girls, creating a distraction for worshippers, and any other stones they could think to throw. After Mass, as friends and acquaintances greeted one another, no parishioners bothered to introduce themselves to her or offer any sign of welcome, instead waiting for her to leave so that they could express their outrage at her attire.

Somewhere along the line, we forgot how to love. We forgot how to see the light of God in every single human soul and instead surrendered to our tendency to focus solely on faults and sins, frequently masking our judgment by pleading the second spiritual work of mercy (instruct the ignorant). Don’t mistake me: I'm just as in favor of directing people away from sin and toward heaven as the next Catholic school disciplinarian. Sin is a sorrowful, destructive presence in this world and we are called to stand strong against it, joining the battle to save the precious souls of God's people. But Jesus was very clear in equipping us with the proper weapon for this battle: Love. If we intend to employ judgment, divisiveness, condescension, and resentment, we will never be victorious.

One of Father Larry Richards’ talks, which is recorded on a Lighthouse CD about the sacrament of confession, includes his experience with a man who approached him shamefully and disclosed that he had just been intimate with two male prostitutes he’d hired. After telling the story, Fr. Larry identified the looks of disgust smeared across his audience's faces, accompanied by silent relief that they’d never towed such sins to the confessional. Then he declared them no less guilty than the penitent man on account of their immediate condemnation and judgment of him. The priest was drawing from the valuable parable Jesus tells in chapter 18 of Luke, about the Pharisee and the penitent tax collector.

Indeed, declaring ourselves less flawed and our sins less severe is in itself a grave sin of pride. Father Larry responded to the man by lovingly putting his hands on him, looking into his eyes, straight to his hungry soul and telling him he had absolutely no idea how much God loved him. The priest remembered first and foremost his call to love. Of course, as a layperson, people do not frequently approach me in states of shame over their sins. But my opportunities to reflect the love of God are equally as frequent and significant and failing to seize them may be robbing a person of experiencing God’s love.

From second until eighth grade, I attended two Catholic schools that, unbeknownst to them, employed methods of teaching and discipline that drove me away from the Church. The teachers, while meaning well, were quick to tell me that my skirt was too short, my heels too high, my nail polish too bright. But they never told me how deeply, unfathomably loved I was. They asked why I talked so much in class and fidgeted so much throughout the rosary but never if I had any idea how precious I was to God. They condemned my behavior and enforced their rules and but neglected to enforce the notion that we are infinitely valuable creations of a kind and merciful God who will obsessively love and pursue us no matter how far we stray. The God they represented was a harsh, demanding disciplinarian and I spent many years wanting nothing to do with him.

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How quickly we forget that with countless people, we have an opportunity to transform their skewed impressions of Christ. If we have any hope of attracting sinners, like us, and transforming their sadly mistaken perceptions of God and his Church, we must first love and later instruct. We are, after all, creatures of emotion, not logic. Informing people of the destructive nature of their sinful behavior is futile if they do not first and foremost feel that they are loved.

We have the uniquely human capacity to set aside our inclination to zero in on the weaknesses and flaws of those we encounter and instead focus on what there is to love and admire about them. Father John Riccardo urges, “When you find something good in someone, pull it out and hold it up in front of them.” We can build people up, revealing to them their boundless beauty in the eyes of God and the passion with which they are loved, appreciated and thirsted for, simply by finding something to like about them. We can offer sincere greetings, compliments, or even simple smiles, of which Mother Teresa said, “Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” Refuse to fuel the fire of hatred by shining an instant spotlight on a person’s faults and instead reach out in love. We will be amazed at the doors that open and the bridges that are built simply by extending love instead of criticism.

I am in no way advocating for the acceptance or ignoring of sin. But a key phrase to bear in evangelization efforts is: attract, not attack. If a child ran through his house in search of his mother, leaving muddy prints all over the floor but bursting with excitement to disclose that he’d scored a goal, a loving parent’s initial reaction would be to express great excitement for his accomplishment, praising him and feeding his hunger for approval. Only later, when the time is right and with utmost patience and kindness should his attention be turned to his error of leaving a trail of dirt. Similarly, we can first express admiration for the worthy qualities of God’s children. We can see past the mud and first and foremost, give of our love. This is how we will build the kingdom.

Copyright 2016 Elizabeth Pardi