Religion and politics. The two subjects you’re supposed to avoid in polite conversation.
Except that the holiday season is when faith and family collide. Feasts like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s bring moments ripe for conversation with relatives — for better or for worse.
What can we do when talking about our beliefs with family feels as dangerous as driving on ice-covered roads?
A 2019 survey found that 49% of Americans reported skipping a family gathering because conversations with relatives have become so uncomfortable and divisive. But 70% also wish their interactions with family members during the holidays were more meaningful.
When faith is central to our lives, how can we approach family gatherings, office parties or neighborhood potlucks when we know those closest to us may not share our beliefs?
Jesus is the perfect place to start.
Remember that he ate dinner with prostitutes and tax collectors. Known sinners. Social outcasts.
But he sought them out, moving out from his comfortable circles of like-minded friends to those who were completely different from him.
He sat at table with people whose lives looked nothing like his own. He passed food and shared conversation with those who might not have held any beliefs in common with him.
Yet he still offered them radical welcome, grounded in love.
Jesus knew what it felt like to be in the midst of uncomfortable conversations. The Gospels are full of tense moments — Pharisees plotting to trick him, enemies laying traps and unexpected encounters interrupting his plans.
Yet over and over again he moved out to meet people where they were. Not standing at a safe distance, judging or gossiping, but pulling up a chair beside them and seeing them as beloved by God.
There’s no magic formula for navigating holiday gatherings with difficult relatives. But we have the model of mercy in how God himself sat down at the table next to sinful, imperfect humans.
He listened with love. He asked questions. He challenged when necessary, but not before listening and loving — and never without mercy.
Imagine how our family parties could change this year if we offer a quick prayer to Jesus for a loving heart and a gentle tongue when we find ourselves seated next to a complicated conversation partner at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Remember those wise words that often surface when people of faith debate how and whom to help after a disaster: “We don’t help them because they’re Christian; we help them because we’re Christian.”
The same holds true for our holiday conversations.
We don’t show love and mercy to someone simply because they’re Catholic — because their beliefs align nicely with ours or their comments never ruffle any feathers. We show love and mercy because we’re Catholic, followers of Christ who moved out to the margins and sought out the ones whom polite society dismissed and righteous folks shunned.
By definition, every human family is complicated and imperfect. Ironically, the ones closest to us can be the ones hardest to handle. We’ve all felt that ache — or anger — when someone dismisses or denies the faith we love.
Does it bother us, as committed Catholics, when family members don’t share our beliefs? Of course. If we have found beauty, truth and goodness in God, we naturally want to share it with others.
But no matter what, Christ calls us to pull up a chair and meet each person with compassion. The God of the Eucharist is waiting to meet us around the holiday table, too.