Don't Just Keep the Faith, Spread It
by Fr John McCloskey
Every person a Catholic meets is a potential convert to the Church, says the author of a new book on how to share the faith.
Father C. John McCloskey, a priest of the prelature of Opus Dei and a research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute, is known for aiding in the conversions of p residential candidate Sam Brownback, Judge Robert Bork, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, journalist Robert Novak, publisher Alfred Regnery and economist Lawrence Kudlow, to name a few.
Father McCloskey recently pooled his talents and knowledge with Russell Shaw to write "Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith" (Ignatius).
In this interview with ZENIT, Father McCloskey explains how evangelization and friendship go hand-in-hand, and why the Church and faithful Catholics are attractive to would-be converts.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book?
Father McCloskey: Actually, the idea came from my collaborator, the noted journalist and author Russell Shaw, who visited me while I was the director at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., and suggested the idea.
Shaw thought my experiences and those of the people whom I have assisted on their journey into the Church would be helpful to inquiring potential converts and the many priests, religious and lay faithful who are eager to share their faith in a personal manner -- above all, through a strong friendship that leads to sharing one's great joy in being a Catholic.
I had written some how-to articles on this subject, along with a good number of Church history pieces that help to put my ideas and experience in a historical context.
We are in a glorious moment of the New Evangelization, fueled by the Holy Spirit, as evidenced in the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI; the teachings of the Second Vatican Council are being brought to full and proper fruition.
Q: What is the difference between good and bad proselytism?
Father McCloskey: Good proselytism involves respect for the dignity of the human person and their interior freedom.
Bad proselytism involves pressure and some form of coercion completely contrary to the freedom that Christ won for us on the cross. The truth makes us free, but it must be freely accepted to be effective.
Good proselytism comes through a sincere and close friendship in which the potential convert recognizes that his friend has only his temporal and eternal happiness at heart. The person eager to share his faith as an apostle should see himself as an instrument God is using to offer this gift to his friend to be freely accepted or rejected.
This is a process that can last months, years or even decades. I know there are instant conversions. I have read about them but have never seen one. I have, however, seen some persons "convert" too quickly, and in some cases later fall away.
There is always opportunity for a comeback, though -- the seals of baptism and confirmation remain, and so does God's love for them.
A committed Catholic is always on the lookout to share his faith with others any way he can, but the most effective way is the means by which the Church grew in the early centuries -- through the power of "personal influence," to use a phrase coined by Venerable John Henry Newman. That entails a good attractive example of Christian virtue combined with a deep prayer and sacramental life.
This, along with personal one-on-one or family-to-family friendship, fueled by grace, will inevitably create a powerful evangelizing environment that can overcome any "culture of death" -- whether that of the Roman Empire or that of our consumerist and sexualized society in the West.
It doesn't happen overnight. God has all the time in the world.
Q: What can the faithful do to convert those around them?
Father McCloskey: On a human level, I would suggest the same tips that are helpful in making friends.
First of all, be an interesting person, which above all means -- to the extent possible -- soaking yourself in Western culture by reading, listening to and seeing all that is good in it.
Second, become an expert in humanity. Understand and love people the way they are, seeing both what you can learn from them and what gifts you can give them.
As the expression goes, to make friends, be a friend. A serious Catholic should have dozens of friends of varying degrees of closeness.
Also, regard every non-Catholic, without exception, as a potential convert. That is Christ's will. He died for all, not for a few, and wants everyone to be his close and intimate friend as a part of his family, the Church.
On a supernatural level, as already mentioned, the more we are immersed in God through our participation in prayer, spiritual reading, the sacraments, and the teachings of the Church, the more God can work through us to bring people to him in the Church.
Above all, we should always be praying for our friend and helping him advance at God's pace. We should always be asking ourselves, "What does he need next, and how can I provide it?"
Q: What are the key things that attract people to the Catholic Church? Is it the doctrine? or the practice? or the works of charity?
Father McCloskey: All potential converts, like everybody else, are seeking happiness both in this life and the next. Otherwise, why bother?
In the Church they find an institution that claims to be Christ's mystical body, founded by him during his time on earth, and unashamedly teaching the truth based on divine Revelation as it comes to us through Scripture and Tradition.
What a joy it has been through the years to see people discover through study and prayer Christianity, which can and must be lived in order to learn that being good does make us happy.
At the same time, converts remember very well the type of lives they were living prior to discovering the Lord and his Church; they are deeply grateful for the grace of this found treasure and have an eagerness to share it with others. The truth did make them free.
I think, above all, people are attracted to the Church by their growing knowledge and love of the person of Jesus Christ. As they grow more curious in reading the New Testament and Church history, they realize that Christ did not leave his children orphans, but rather instituted a Church -- his family, his body -- where he resides until the second coming.
The Church provides the means: its Scripture, sacraments, its authoritative teaching, the example of the saints, etc., so that a new Catholic can grow in Christ and reach his goal of holiness in heaven.
Of course, they must see others who show by their behavior, their happiness, their practice of Christian piety and virtues, and by their practice of true Christian charity as exemplified in the spiritual and corporal works of mercies, that indeed the Church provides the means to live the Christian life fully it can be done.
They see this not only in canonized saints of the ancient past and more recent past, but even more importantly in their friends -- the people who precisely have been God's instrument in introducing them to Christ's Church.
Q: Are there any facets of Benedict XVI's teaching that strike a cord with would-be converts?
Father McCloskey: What stands out immediately is his short and potent encyclical letter on God as love.
The fact that a much misunderstood and maligned German cardinal became a Pope who does not throw out anathemas but rather writes on "eros" and "agape," and speaks about the essential importance of concrete acts of charity to the poor, infirm and underprivileged -- both corporately and in personal actions of each of its members -- to the Church's mission underlines the Church's message that indeed God is love.
I also think it has been helpful to see the wonderfully seamless transition from two men with such a different personalities as John Paul the Great and Benedict XVI, arguably two of the most powerful intellects of the past century as, respectively, a philosopher and a theologian.
Remember that virtually all the converts of last 25 years never knew any Pope other than John Paul II. While the Church certainly does not depend solely on the holiness of its hierarchy, it certainly doesn't hurt.
Q: How do you see the state of other religions, in the face of increasingly complex bioethical and moral issues?
Father McCloskey: To put it simply, no other Christian church or ecclesial community really even attempts to speak authoritatively on such questions. They simply do not have the tradition -- or could we say the magisterial grace -- to be able to examine these complex issues.
Indeed, those communities closer to the Catholic Church often simply defer to its teachings, trusting in its millennial tradition and moral theology even if they do not recognize its unique claim as the one Church founded by Christ.
Only the Catholic Church institutionally provides prudent and clear teachings that guard the good and dignity of the human person from conception until a natural death.
This role is imperative, in light of the continuing rapid progress both in scientific and medical knowledge that can be utilized for good or for evil as applied to the human person, particularly in medical-moral questions involving procreation and in the origins of life.
Converts see this as sign of the divine authority of the Church using its vast experience and wisdom to facilitate clear moral choices.
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First appeared in the National Catholic Register in May, 2004. Copyright © Fr John McCloskey
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