Winning New Converts
by Fr John McCloskey
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). How should we go about it? People are brought to the Church one by one. 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. The famous Catholic philosopher (and convert) Dietrich von Hildebrand said that we should look upon all people we encounter as Catholics in re (in fact) or in spe (potentially). I agree.
Admit it. Don't you from time to time think about sharing with your neighbor, your friend, your family member, your colleague the joy that it is in your heart in enjoying the fullness of our Faith in the Catholic Church? No apologies here (except in the "Pro Vita Sua " sense), thank you. 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 in "persona Christi" the sacraments of the Church 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 await 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 society that is truly "Clueless," 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 a Roman Pontiff at the head of our Church who has 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 up to the Edict of Milan in the early fourth century 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 persons and families gradually transformed the West into a form of a Christian culture which we know as the Middle Ages. In our own time, following the gradual dissolution of that particular culture 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 do the same. The partial success of these various heresies and ideologies on the world stage has been due in part to the fact that a large portion of the Catholic laity have been "missing in action" in the apostolic sense through the last several centuries, ignorantly content to let the clergy and religious do the "heavy lifting."
This article aims to give 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 Cardinal Newman referred to as the "apostolate of personal influence." As we rapidly draw to our crossing the "threshold of hope" into the third millennium, it is the historical moment 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, etc.? Why did the Holy Father 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 care-free future! It attracts those seeking eternal verities that promise eternal life, "life everlasting."
If now is "the age of the laity," as is incessantly proclaimed, its 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 the Pope said in his address to the American Bishops in Los Angeles in l987, "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 will result in the conversion of others.
The prophetic message of the Council and the present pontificate have led to this thinking about the laity... The Holy Father believes that, as we enter the third millennium, we are crossing the "threshold of hope" into "a new springtime for the Church." If this is to happen, it will depend ultimately on the apostolate of millions of persons and families. He 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, etc. I prefer the word used most often by the Conciliar fathers in this regard, 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 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 the Holy Father 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. Belloc had it right, I think: "One thing in the world is different from all other. 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, perish the thought, lack of respect for the "freedom of the children of God," particularly in that which refers to our "separated brethren" Christians. Quite the contrary. I am in total agreement with the landmark ecumenical statement from Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission
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 not only in the long-term certainly be counter productive but would also not respect "the dignity of the human person" so central to the teachings of the 2nd Vatican Council and of 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...." No, 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.
But now on to more practical matters. 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. We look at them and ask ourselves "could this person be open to our Faith?" If the answer is yes, 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?" 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. 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 because we had the courage to offer them at an earlier time our Faith.
We are challenging people to consider making the most significant decision they will ever make in their lives, infinitely more important than the choice of school, profession, or spouse; one 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, as is said in the vernacular, you "know where they are coming from." Of use in this regard would be a thorough reading of Separated Brethren: A Review of Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox & Other Religions in the United States
(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? 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 prepared.
"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 knows 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: Second Edition
, 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 and the 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. An excellent brief volume is Belief and Faith by the famous German philosopher Josef Pieper. He 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. I am thinking also of a basic primer, A Map of Life: A Simple Study of the Catholic Faith
(Ignatius) by Frank Sheed, and the famous Mere Christianity
of C.S. Lewis. Most fundamental, of course, is the New Testament. An excellent version with ascetical commentary is The Navarre Bible - New Testament Expanded Edition
(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 the list goes on. 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: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic (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 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 and the more recent one 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. They clearly will see the continuity of the Faith through the apostolic succession and read the dramatic story of evangelization through the centuries with its ups and downs. I would recommend Msgr. Philip Hughes's A Popular History of the Catholic Church
for a short synopsis of Church History, and the first three volumes of the magisterial Founding Of Christendom: History Of Christendom Vol 1
by Warren Carroll (Christendom College Press). The latter volumes 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 Gorecki and Messiaen for starters. Surely such beauty in music could only be inspired by the Truth.
Introduce them to the great Catholic authors, starting with Dante and continuing on down the centuries to Manzoni and Sienkiewicz in the last century to the Undsets, Waughs, O'Connors, Bernanos', Mauriacs, and Endos of our own day. They will thus understand that the truth really does make us free and no one so free as the artist who has the standard of a faith-filled metaphysic that gives him full rein of expression in capturing the divine in the human.
Let's be realistic. Not all of your friends, by any means, are going to be receptive to this heavy "intellectual" approach. You may have to be much more selective in what you recommend to 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 Chartres. Listen to their needs, their questions and try to satisfy them. A time of prayer spent with them or a visit to 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.
Oh yes, let's not forget the parish and the priest. After all, our friend wil 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 culminates normally 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, zealous (they really are synonomous) priest with whom you can work and triangulate, which is to say both of you working together can offer your insights and wisdom, your prayer and sacrifice to your friend, The priest may be able, perhaps, to enter better into some areas that you cannot on account of his sacramental power. 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?" He claims he doesn't see it. His difficulties with Christ and the teachings of the Church still result in doubt. His family, parents, 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. 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 is on his death bed, and you may witness it from heaven.
Good, thanks be to God, he finally made it; he is in! What now? Naturally it is on to the next person, or perhaps you are already dealing with several people at the same time. However, 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 Chesterton's words as "a nuisance and a new and a dangerous thing." He needs nurturing, your encouragement, your friendship, your support. Blessed Josemaria Escriva 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. He will be eternally grateful to you and you in your turn will echo the words of a famous French convert and poet, Paul Claudel, who said, "Tell him his only duty is to be joyful."
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