You might love your Faith, but do you share it? A great evangelist of our age, Fr. C. John McCloskey, weighs in.
As the Catechism reminds us, winning converts to our Faith should be a constant concern for all Catholics: "The true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers … or to the faithful" (#905). God pours out his saving grace in many ways, but He normally requires – and we could even say desires – the willing collaboration of his sons and daughters in this joyful task. Winning converts is your task and there is no more endlessly satisfying and challenging work than that of saving souls.
Admit it. Don’t you from time to time think about sharing with your neighbor, your friend, your family member, or your colleague the joy that it is in your heart in enjoying the fullness of our Faith in the Catholic Church? If the fullness of Christianity exists in the Catholic faith, it’s hardly something about which we should be timid, or, as some do, apologize!
The famous Catholic philosopher (and convert) Dietrich von Hildebrand said that we should look upon all people we encounter either as Catholics in or as potential Catholics. Perhaps already some of you have had the wonderful experience of being the godparent or sponsor of a friend whom, by God’s grace, you have guided into the Church. You know then the joy that fills the heart in being God’s instrument. The only comparable joys are marriage, becoming a parent, and performing the sacraments of the Church in persona Christi as a priest.
This delight in a friend’s baptism or reception into full communion with the Church is always a cause for holy celebration, but it is a particular joy in the present circumstances of our culture and in the present ecclesial moment as we commence the third millennium of the Christian era. We see ourselves surrounded in our "culture of death" by so many persons bereft of any real meaning in their lives. Has there ever been in the Christian era a more joyless, aimless, lonely society than our own – a truly "Fifty Shades of Grey” society; a society that has appeared to have gained the whole world but forgotten the existence of its own soul? On the other hand, has there ever been two successive a Roman Pontiffs at the head of our Church who have so incessantly and hopefully proclaimed the Gospel in all its fullness throughout the world, addressing the fallen yet redeemed world’s hopes and anxieties so completely?
The constant growth through the first three centuries of the infant Church took place through the witness and personal influence of thousands of Christians and their families. With the passage of more centuries, Christian ideals lived out in the world by both persons and families gradually transformed the West into the unified, if not always perfect, culture that dominated Europe during the Middle Ages.
In our own time, following the gradual dissolution of the “medieval consensus” through, in part, such historical events as the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the titanic struggles of ideas and ideologies of the last two centuries (Darwinism, Marxism, Freudianism, and so on), we are called to create a new Christian culture – or at the very least, as Pope Benedict has repeatedly stressed, to create “oases of civilization.”
The horrifying success of tyranny in the last century has been due in part to the fact that a large portion of the Catholic laity has been "missing in action" in the apostolic sense over the last several centuries, under the misimpression that the clergy and religious were to do the "heavy lifting."
In order to answer the question being posed, I’d like to share some insights, largely based upon my own experience, into how we can more effectively spread the gift of faith through example and friendship, or what Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman referred to as the "apostolate of personal influence." It’s now time to throw off our timidity, our fear, and let our light shine out not only from under the basket but upon the shining hill.
Why do you think it is that at the end of this century our Faith – so abused, attacked and vituperated – has drawn to it well known Jewish atheists, Protestant ministers by the dozens, prominent politicians, and the like? Why did Bl. John Paul II, in his last pastoral visit to the U.S. in October 1995, virtually conquer the heart of New York, the capital of secularism? Why is it that in the media today when the word "Church" is used, it is always understood to mean the Catholic Church and not pan-Protestantism? Certainly not because membership in the Church is the road to riches, affluence, fame, good health, and a carefree future! It attracts those seeking eternal verities that promise eternal life, "life everlasting."
If our time is truly to be "the age of the laity," our success will be measured not by the ever-increasing participation of the laity in ecclesiastical “ministries” but rather by the growth and spiritual health of the Church as manifested in an increase both in numbers and in the intensity of laymen’s prayer, sacramental participation and apostolic fervor.
This, in turn, will lead inevitably to a gradual transformation of culture into one that reflects faithfully Christ’s teaching as mediated through the Church. As Pope Bl. John Paul II said in his address to the American Bishops in Los Angeles in 1987, "Primarily through her laity, the Church is in a position to exercise great influence upon American culture. But how is American culture evolving today? Is the evolution being influenced by the Gospel? Does it clearly reflect Christian inspiration? Your music, your poetry and art, your drama, your painting and sculpture, the literature that you are producing – are all those things which reflect the soul of a nation being influenced by the spirit of Christ for the perfection of humanity?" To be able to answer in the affirmative may take decades but the effort will start with our own personal conversion, which, if we are truly faithful, will inevitably lead to the conversion of others.
Bl. John Paul II said in his letter on missionary activity: "The witness of a Christian life is the first and irreplaceable form of mission. Christ, whose mission we continue, is the ‘witness’ par excellence and the model of all Christian witness. The first form of witness is the very life of the missionary, of the Christian family, and of the ecclesial community.”
We may refer to this sharing of our faith as “evangelization,” “giving witness,” or a host of other names. I prefer the word used most often by the Conciliar fathers: “apostolate.” The Second Vatican Council tells us: "The individual apostolate, flowing generously from its source in a truly Christian life, is the origin and condition of the whole lay apostolate, even of the organized type; it admits of no substitutes (my emphasis). Regardless of status, all lay persons (including those who have no opportunity or possibility for collaboration in associations) are called to this type of apostolate and obliged to engage in it."
In a later encyclical on the laity by Blessed John Paul II, the point could not be made clearer: "The entire mission of the Church, then, is concentrated and manifested in evangelization… In fact, the ‘good news’ is directed to stirring a person to a conversion of heart and life and a clinging to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; to disposing a person to receive Baptism and the Eucharist and to strengthen a person in the prospect and realization of new life according to the Spirit." In short, the buck stops with each one of us to evangelize those who surround us. No excuses: "Every disciple is personally called by name; no disciple can withhold making a response: ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel’” (I Cor. 9:16).
Perhaps we should firmly establish our right, as well as our duty to bring our friends to Christ’s Church. First, it is his Church, with the successor of St. Peter as the Vicar of Christ. As Bl. John Paul II points out in the encyclical On Commitment to Ecumenism, "the one Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. The Decree of Ecumenism emphasizes the presence in her of the fullness (plenitudo) of the means of salvation. Full unity will come about when all share in the fullness of the means of salvation entrusted by Christ to his Church… The Catholic Church is conscious that she has preserved the ministry of the Successor of the Apostle Peter, the Bishop of Rome, whom God established as her ‘perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity.’"
If we can put it more succinctly, all who are saved are saved through the Church even if they are not aware of it on earth. Everyone in heaven is a member of the Church. Hillaire Belloc said: "One thing in the world is different from all others. It has a personality and a force. It is recognized and (when recognized) most violently loved or hated. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, it is the night."
Second, there is a mistaken notion that is fairly widespread in our society that the Second Vatican Council was about the role of the lay Catholic in the Church. It was not – it was about the role of the lay Catholic in the world. This role can be summed up in the search for holiness that is our baptismal right and duty and consequently in assuming the right and privilege of extending the kingdom of God here on earth through witnessing to our faith through the Christian example of our family and friendships.
A few words of caution: We are not speaking of proselytism (in the pejorative sense). That is to say our sharing, witnessing, speaking, giving, forming, educating and so on has absolutely nothing to do with coercion or the "freedom of conscience,” particularly as it pertains to our "separated brethren" Christians. Quite the contrary: I am in total agreement with the landmark ecumenical statement from Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1994, written by Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus and co-signed by many other prominent churchmen of both Catholicism and the Evangelical faiths, which says: "It is understandable that Christians who bear witness to the Gospel try to persuade others that their communities and traditions are more fully in accord with the Gospel." We realize that only God’s grace can effect a conversion and that pressure (other than our prayer, sacrifice, good example, and friendship) would be counter productive not only in the long term, but would also fail to respect "the dignity of the human person" so central to the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and of Bl. John Paul II.
"Christian witness must always be made in a spirit of love and humility. It must not deny but must readily accord to everyone the full freedom to discern and decide what is God’s will for his life. Witness that is in service to the truth is in service to such freedom. Any form of coercion –physical, psychological, legal, or economic – corrupts Christian witness and is to be unqualifiedly rejected." We are interested only in our personal total "gift of self," which is never more complete than when we act as God’s collaborators in communicating the gift of divine life: God’s grace. Cardinal Newman, the proto-convert of the last two centuries, made it clear that "to believe is to love," and that grace of the fullness of faith is only given to those who are freely seeking it.