When I was 23, I was restless, so I moved to Philadelphia with the determination to start an intentional Catholic young adult community with some friends. It is a chapter of my life I don’t talk about too often because we kind of failed at what we tried to do. In the eight years since, however, I have noticed how that failure was just what I needed at the time.

Fresh out of Franciscan University, the world was one big missionary field to me. I didn’t know the intricacies of reaching out to people with the message of Christ. Our community of four believers had an action plan to evangelize the northern Philadelphia neighborhood we moved to, but something about our approach was just off. We prayed together every day, hosted all sorts of charity events from parish picnics to building a community garden, and told our neighbors about Christ every chance we had. What were we doing wrong?

I remember praying in the parish chapel one day, reciting Jeremiah’s prayer, “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped” (Jeremiah 20:7). After all I learned about the missionary saints in college, I forgot the most fundamental truth about sharing the Gospel: in order to love people, I must know them first. If I am not one of them, I have to assimilate into their culture until they accept me as one of them, and that takes years.

The culture of the people was not our own, and no matter how hard we tried, there was no way we could be one with the neighbors we tried ministering to in the short time we were there. We didn’t know what it meant to live in that part of town. The very look and feel of our lifestyle was too different.

It’s tough to say it, but things went wrong when we tried to do too much good. The great Catholic poet T.S. Eliot said, “Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.” Not to take his words too literally, but the good we tried to do at least brought more than its share of mishaps. A few electronics from my car were stolen while living there, the community garden we built on an empty lot was abandoned, and we wound up just being gently nudged out the door by the pastor of the parish we tried to help.

So, from experience, I could say with the Catholic playwright Oscar Wilde, “No good deed goes unpunished.” 

We had our own mission, our own plans. I wanted to help start a rebirth of Catholicism in our generation and believed I would one day look back at our efforts and see them as seeds of that renewal. As those ambitions crumbled, I found myself ironically reciting in my head a Scripture verse I claimed to know well,  “A man’s mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

 The problem with good intentions is not that they’re good; it’s that they’re so often not God’s. The good we have in mind may even be the same God has in mind, but only God knows the way to go about accomplishing it. The human heart is too often in conflict with itself to do good on its own.

In our case, what was really on our hearts was a desire to live a different kind of lifestyle, an authentic Catholic way of life – but we also had the conviction to make a difference and help our community. Like the Israelites of the Old Testament though, God still had to transform us from within before he could send us out to transform the world. I wanted to live an authentic Catholic life, but honestly I didn’t see the way to do that is to just submit myself to God’s will, and let him weave the tapestry of my life story.

David Kilby is a freelance writer for The Monitor. He attends St. Isaac Jogues Parish, Marlton, and writes for www.ramblingspirit.com.