The work of effective evangelization can succeed only by means of true human relationships marked by a personal touch.
Successful evangelization depends, more than anything else, on our willingness to develop and foster personal relationships that are truly focused on the spiritual well being of the other, with no ulterior motives attached. It involves being attentive and responsive to the other’s needs, as well as handling the process of conversion itself patiently, knowing that all things come to pass in God’s time. And, while it is helpful to develop a knowledge of Sacred Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, papal documents, and the like for the purpose of being prepared to respond to questions that others might have about the Faith, it is often the case that simple acts – such as spending time in prayer with someone, or engaging in works of charity together with another – that end up having the greatest impact.
How do we "make" converts? First of all, we don’t – God does. Having made that abundantly clear, what is our first step in approaching someone to consider becoming a Catholic? Naturally the desire will flow out of our prayer life. To paraphrase the epitaph written on the tomb of the famous London architect Christopher Wren, “If you seek converts, circumspice (look around you).”
We come into contact with dozens if not hundreds of people in the course of our daily lives each month. They range from dearest family members and intimate friends to the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker. When we look at them, we should ask ourselves, "Could this person be open to our Faith?" If the answer is yes, move on to the next step.
It is said that the most effective way to raise money for a good cause is to simply ask for it. The same may be applied to our situation. The question, "Have you ever thought of becoming a Catholic?" – if addressed to many people over the course of our life – will certainly produce not only converts but also interesting and thought-provoking conversations and new personal relationships. You may have to practice this line in front of a mirror a few times just as you did before asking out your first date. You generally will be surprised at how flattered, if somewhat surprised, people are at the question.
Naturally, it has to be emphasized that we are not approaching perfect strangers. Indeed, if we are not in the process of developing a deep and lasting friendship with the potential new member of the Church, then our question lacks authenticity and will be rightfully judged as impertinent and insincere. The great majority will say that you are the first person who has ever asked them that question, and more than a few will say they have been waiting for someone to ask them that question all their lives!
A few will react negatively, but after all, not all "have eyes to see or ears to hear." We "shake the dust off our feet" and go on. We are not looking for success; rather, it is the "love of Christ that compels us." We may also be surprised to see after the passage of time – even many years – people coming back to us looking for answers, all because we had the courage to offer them our Faith at an earlier time.
We are challenging people to consider making the most significant decision they will ever make in their lives – a decision that is infinitely more important than the choice of school, profession, or spouse; a decision that will affect every fiber of their being for the rest of their lives, and have serious consequences in the hereafter. It is essential that you get to know them well – particularly their religious background, if any – so you know where they are coming from. Of use in this regard would be a thorough reading of Separated Brethren (Our Sunday Visitor), a survey of Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and other denominations in the U.S. by William J. Whalen.
By engaging in conversation on this point, you will be inviting your friend (and committing yourself) to go deep below the surface of everyday trivialities into the heart of the matter: Why are we here? What is truth? Is there a right and wrong? Is there a God? Is there an afterlife? Is Jesus Christ God? Did he found a Church during his lifetime? If so, which one? Do we need to belong to it to be saved? Of course, you need to be not only willing to discuss and answer these queries, but also to be prepared to take on this task.
"Be ready always with an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in you" (I Peter, 3:15). To be an evangelist in today’s world means to be an apologist. This is the work of a lifetime, but that does not excuse us from evangelizing while we learn on the job. Remember: no matter how little we know, our friends often know less. And what is more important, we know where to go for the answers.
A lot of our catechetical work with our potential convert friends will be, happily, simply to refer them to the best sources. Obviously we should have a good grasp of the New Testament and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, our fundamental texts. However we should also slowly but surely read and study the great English and American apologists: Newman, Lewis, Chesterton, Benson, and Knox, as well as more modern masters, Sheed and Kreeft. Many of their works are in print. It is also useful to be familiar with the magisterial teachings of the Pope for the most current teachings on matters of faith and morals.
Reviewing our own preparation leads directly to the question of recommending reading for friends who express an interest in our faith. An increasing number of people simply don’t understand the basic vocabulary of what it means to believe. Belief and Faith – an excellent and brief volume by the famous German philosopher, Josef Pieper – draws heavily on Cardinal Newman’s much more complex Grammar of Assent. Many people today need a book to awaken their interest in Christianity or a volume that helps to make Christianity "reasonable" and understandable. Several books come immediately to mind: both Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man of G. K. Chesterton will stimulate the reader. Frank Sheed’s A Map of Life (Ignatius), and C. S. Lewis’ famous Mere Christianity also come to mind.
Most fundamental, of course, is the New Testament. An excellent version with commentary is The Navarre Bible (Scepter Publishers). And we might recommend a good Life of Christ (try Goodier, Sheen, Riccioti, Guardini). Your friends simply must come to know the life of Jesus Christ if they are going to be able to join His Church.
Second is a good Catholic catechism so that they may come to know the Church and her teachings. There are many excellent ones in print, by Frs. Trese, Hardon, Lawler, Noll, and others. Just choose one that you are comfortable with and one that reflects the sound teaching of the Church updated for the Second Vatican Council and the authoritative recent Catechism.
I would recommend that you whet their appetite for conversion by giving them a book or two on stories of conversions: Spiritual Journeys (Pauline Publications) or Surprised by Truth (Basilica Press) come immediately to mind. Our friends will be intrigued to read about the contemporary conversion stories of so many people drawn to the Faith from such varied backgrounds, and they are sure to find at least part of their story in one of these histories.
Don’t forget, either, the classic spiritual autobiographies of St. Augustine, John Henry Cardinal Newman, Thomas Merton and Malcolm Muggeridge, as well as the more recent story of Dr. Bernard Nathanson. They have changed millions of hearts and minds.
You should also familiarize your friends with the richness of the history of the Church. I would recommend Msgr. Philip Hughes’s Popular History of the Church for a short synopsis of Church history, and the first three volumes of the magisterial History of Christendom by Warren Carroll (Christendom College Press). Carroll’s books read like novels, are painstakingly researched, and reveal the Church in all its heights and depths, in its saints and sinners.
An important part of our work of introducing our friends to the Faith will be exposing them to the beauty of the Catholic liturgy and to the art, literature, and music of Catholic inspiration. Accompanying them to the Holy Mass and other liturgical events, such as the celebration of solemn Benediction, a baptism, a wedding, the Easter Vigil, an episcopal consecration, or the ordination of new priests, or a Rosary-filled pilgrimage to a Shrine of the Virgin, will bring them to a deep appreciation of the incarnate aspect of our Faith and its sacramental nature. To listen to Gregorian Chant, today so strangely popular, or the great classical compositions centered on the Mass, the Psalms, or various events in the life of Christ and our Lady will also draw them closer to the heart of the Church. Listen with them to the great works of Mozart, Beethoven, Bruckner, and to the more contemporary Górecki and Messiaen for starters. Surely such beauty in music could only be inspired by the Truth.
For literary types, introduce them to the great Catholic authors, starting with Dante and continuing on down the centuries to Manzoni and Sienkiewicz in the last century, and to the Undsets, Waughs, O’Connors, Bernanos’, Mauriacs, and Endos of our own day. They will thus understand that the truth really does set us free, and who is more free than the artist who, bearing the standard of a faith-filled metaphysic, develops the expressive capacity to capture the divine in the human?
That said, let’s step back and take a realistic look at the situation: not all of your friends are going to be receptive to such a heavy "intellectual" approach. You may have to be much more selective in what you recommend to some of your friends: pamphlets rather than books, Catholic hymns rather than symphonies, a more contemporary (although sound) version of the New Testament rather than the Douay-Rheims, the stained glass in your parish church rather than the rose windows of Chartres. Listen to their questions, be attentive to their needs, and try to satisfy them. Spending time in prayer with them or visiting poor or elderly people may be much more influential in the process of their movement towards the Church than any possible reading you might give them.
Finally, let’s not forget the parish and the priest. After all, our friend will most probably spend the rest of life normally worshipping in a parish setting. If our friend has not been baptized, the Church normally asks that the budding catechumen be enrolled in the R.C.I.A. program (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) in his local parish, which will take him through a month by month program of initiation in the Church that typically culminates in Baptism during the Easter Vigil. (Hopefully, with you there as his godparent!) If he has been baptized, he will make his first confession and then receive the Sacrament of Confirmation and first Holy Communion within a Mass on Easter or at another time. It is useful and proper to establish a team approach in dealing with your friends; find a prayerful and zealous (they really are synonymous) priest with whom you can work and triangulate – in other words, by working together, you and the priest can offer your insights and wisdom, your prayer and sacrifice to your friend. The priest may be able, perhaps, to enter better into some personal areas through his sacramental role as a confessor. He will also be able to advise you as to the best way and moment for your friend to be incorporated in the Church, taking careful notice of personal circumstances.
What happens if over a reasonable amount of time your friend doesn’t react; he just doesn’t “get it”? Perhaps he claims he doesn’t see it, or that his difficulties with Christ and the teachings of the Church still result in doubt. Or perhaps his family, parents, or spouse present what appear to be insuperable obstacles. Do you throw him overboard in order to sail off for other prizes? You wouldn’t think of it! The answer is prayer, persistence, and patience. The violence of your prayer (remember Who is in charge of this operation) will eventually bear him away. Your persistence and constancy in your true friendship will eventually win him over by showing that your love is unconditional. Remember: you may be the one person in his life who is interested only in his salvation, with no ulterior motives of any sort. By patience, we show our realization that conversion takes place at God’s pace, not a minute sooner or later. The conversion may not happen until he is on his death bed, and you may witness it from heaven.
Good. Thanks be to God, he finally made it; he is in! Now what? Naturally, it is on to the next person, or perhaps you are already dealing with several people at the same time.
But in the midst of this apostolic work, don’t forget your new-born Catholic friend. He is just a very young child, taking his first tottering steps into a bright new world that will have its storms and shadows. He will be surrounded by some who regard Catholicism and his conversion to it in the way described by Chesterton: "a nuisance and a new and a dangerous thing." He needs your nurturing, your encouragement, your friendship, your support. St. Josemaría Escrivá says, "Sanctification is the work of a lifetime," and as your friend’s godfather, sponsor, or guide, you have to be with him every step of the way. Perhaps you will introduce him to other institutions and spiritualities of the Church that can further his spiritual progress – Opus Dei, Communion & Liberation, a Benedictine monastery, to name a few – where he can make a retreat and may even find a spiritual director. He will be eternally grateful to you; and you, in turn, will echo the words of the famous French convert and poet, Paul Claudel, who said, "Tell him his only duty is to be joyful."
First appeared in Catholic World Report in the August/September 1997 issue.