Recently after Mass, I started chatting with two elderly women who were comparing notes on how many children they have collectively who have left the Church. Ninety-two-year-old Mary lamented that she has five daughters without faith. It got me thinking about what can be done to help bring those we love back into the fold, especially with the holidays upon us.
Evangelization is hard, especially in a culture that places a premium on niceness and not ruffling feathers. Going out of our comfort zone to win converts can be overwhelming. While grace and the providence of God are mysterious, here are six things that can be done to help nudge people in the right direction.
This one seems like a no-brainer. Masses offered, rosaries, novenas, adoration, and the intercession of the saints are essentials. However, the Holy Spirit can also prompt us to pray for the specific needs of an individual. In my own family, when it was clear that my own efforts to guide my sister to the faith weren’t working, I prayed that someone else would come into her life to “seal the deal.” Shortly thereafter, on a business trip, my sister restlessly went to three restaurants to find dinner. At the third place—though she hates smoke and rarely sits at bars—she sat down at the bar next to an older woman who was smoking.
She and the smoker, Dorothy—a devout Catholic—started chatting and before the meal was over, were fast friends. Dorothy and her husband were instrumental in bring my sister back to the Church and eventually to Rome for a private audience with Pope John Paul II. My sister is now a homeschooling mother of seven.
In the words of Pope Francis, “Spirit-filled evangelizers are evangelizers who pray and work” (Evangelii Guadium, 262), and, “The great men and women of God were great intercessors” (EG, 283).
2. Unite Your Pain
The 92-year-old I met after Mass last week, who lamented her faithless five daughters, also bemoaned her two artificial hips that are wearing out. “Do you offer up the pain for your daughters?” I asked. “Oh, no,” she said, “I usually just complain about them.” What Mary and most of us forget too readily is the pure spiritual gold we have in our pains.
We have all heard the line “offer it up,” perhaps so many times that is seems trite, but why do we dismiss it? Perhaps one reason is that it is difficult to actually see what happens with those aches and pains we give back to God. There is no visible evidence or material connection between what we offer and what happens with our offering. The saints, however, repeatedly emphasize the hard spiritual currency that suffering is for winning souls when united to Christ.
Who among us doesn’t have some pains or daily inconveniences to offer Our Lord for others? This is also the heart of fasting. Taking a regular day of the week to fast for a loved one can prove effective.
3. Love People Where They Are
We can all sense it when someone is trying to get us to do something that seems more about them than about us. Sharing our faith is no different if we put our agenda ahead of showing real love. It is important for others to know that we love them for them, not just because we hope they will share the same love for Christ. While that is a wonderful blessing to share among friends and family, it is not the only basis we have for loving others. “Many try to escape from others and take refuge in the comfort of their privacy or in a small circle of close friends, renouncing the realism of the social aspect of the Gospel…” states the Holy Father, “Meanwhile, the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction” (EG, 88).
So if we withhold our love and affection “until they become Catholic,” then our efforts will be frustrated. This is not to say that we have to embrace every aspect of their lives, especially those elements that are sinful, but we need to really come to know who they are, their gifts, interests, and goals. In knowing these, it is easier to make suggestions or draw out conversations related to our faith in a way that could be helpful, not cold or pushy.
4. Educate Yourself
While we can be comfortable in our own faith, the world around us is longing for answers to all the thorny issues of the faith. Can we explain to an outsider why the Church teaches what she teaches on such controversial issues like Mary? Birth control? The Eucharist? “All the baptized, whatever their position in the Church or their level of instruction in the faith,” wrote Pope Francis in his recent Apostolic Exhortation on “The Joy of the Gospel”, “are agents of evangelization, and it would be insufficient to envisage a plan of evangelization to be carried out by professionals while the rest of the faithful would simply be passive recipients.” So, an advanced degree in theology isn’t necessary. but what is necessary is to be able to respond beyond a shrug and a blank stare. Sometimes this can even be as simple as knowing who has the answers, such as, Prof. Janet Smith is the go-to expert on contraception, and Catholic Answers has great Catholic answers. The Church, having had two thousand years to hone her arguments, has much to say that hits upon the deepest longings of the human heart. Most people just haven’t heard them before.
5. Ask Questions
Famed journalist Robert Novak, when speaking of his own conversion, said that he decided to become a Catholic after a young co-ed asked him what he thought would happen to him when he died. “We all die, you know,” she insisted. He said he never had really thought about it until she asked him directly.
While you may not have to be as intense as Novak’s co-ed, asking questions has a way of making people think about things not previously on their radar or to reconsider their own basic assumptions. Even if someone gives a pat answer to deep question, it may plant a seed. After the conversation, they may go back to it, like Novak, and rethink it. “It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet,” says Pope Francis, “whether they be our neighbours or complete strangers. This is the informal preaching which takes place in the middle of a conversation…” (EG, 127).
If you are like me, the pithy response I wish I had given always eludes me until well after it is useful. Asking questions avoids that issue because sometimes the best response is no response, leaving your interlocutor to stew on their own thoughts instead of latching on to yours.
6. Witness Joyfully
Sometimes this is the hardest of all. It is difficult to remember that our actions speak so much louder than our words. And even more so if our actions are angry, gruff, proud, boastful, mean, or sad. Yes, the world is a heavy place, but we can’t be all cross and no resurrection. St. Teresa of Avila used to say, “May God protect me from dour saints.” Which is one reason that famed apologist Frank Sheed edited a book titled, Saints Are Not Sad: Short Biographies of Joyful Saints. After all, there is nothing more attractive than the face of joyful holiness for, as Pope Francis wrote at the start of Evangelii Gaudium: “The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (EG, 1).