Lessons from Catholic Evangelists

Five prominent Catholic apologists share their methods of spreading the Good News and defending the Faith.

In a meeting last year with Church leaders involved in the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Today’s world needs people who proclaim and testify that it is Christ who teaches the art of living, the way of true happiness, because he himself is the path of life.”

“Dear friends, being evangelizers is not a privilege but a commitment that comes from faith,” the Holy Father continued. “To the question the Lord addresses to Christians: ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’, answer with the same courage and the same trust as the Prophet: ‘Here am I! Send me’ (Isaiah 6:8).”

While some are called to be missionaries in foreign lands, for most of us, evangelization of inactive or non-Catholics begins in our own homes and communities. CWR recently spoke with five prominent Catholic evangelists, who offered suggestions to Catholics on ways they can evangelize those they encounter day-to-day.

Austen Ivereigh lives outside of London, England, and is coordinator of the apologetics/evangelism apostolate Catholic Voices. Catholic Voices began in 2010, coinciding with Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the UK. It now operates in six countries, including the United States. Its initial purpose was to assemble a speakers’ bureau of articulate young Catholics who could effectively present Catholic teaching in the media on contentious issues. Due to its success, the initiative has continued, training additional speakers, giving workshops, and publishing two books.

“In Catholic Voices, we have developed a method of ‘reframing’ contentious issues so that people don’t shut down,” Ivereigh said.

One must first understand the “frame” that secular society has on Catholic teaching, “which usually involves the Church seeking to ‘impose’ its view,” he said. One should recognize if there is any positive value behind the criticism of the Church that may have been exaggerated at the expense of other equally important values.

“Then you start to work out your answer from there, beginning by identifying us with the value behind the criticism—not the criticism itself, obviously,” Ivereigh explained. “That way you avoid the critic clinging tenaciously to the value he cherishes, which he perceives you to be attacking, and the conversation can open up.”

When Catholics demonstrate that they value freedom, Ivereigh said, and are not merely appealing to authority to assert truth, “it surprises people and enables conversations to take place.”

In his book How to Defend the Faith without Raising your Voice, Ivereigh offers advice on reframing debates over such issues as homosexuality, contraception, AIDS, women and the Church, the meaning and purpose of marriage, defending the unborn, clerical sex abuse, and assisted suicide. “[The book] allows ordinary Catholics to develop the same confidence in responding to criticism of the Church around the water cooler, in the office, or at the dinner table,” said Ivereigh. “I know how it feels when you’re suddenly appointed the spokesman for the Catholic Church around the dinner table.”

The American edition of How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice is published by Our Sunday Visitor. Ivereigh sought the assistance of OSV editor John Norton to create a context and use examples to which Americans can relate. “I don’t think you’ll realize that a Brit wrote it,” he said.

In conjunction with the release of the book, Ivereigh visited the United States in April, to help train and launch Catholic Voices USA.

Ivereigh was born and reared Catholic, but left the Church in his teens. He returned to the Faith as a postgraduate at Oxford University. He explained, “[Culturally-sanctioned agnostic liberalism] failed to satisfy intellectually. It seemed to assume that everything could be tested and questioned, yet refused to question a series of moral tenets it took for granted. I also became disillusioned with my own capacity to bring about the things I wanted—love and fulfillment.”

Ivereigh worked as a Catholic journalist, and became particularly interested in the public perception of the Church on the world stage. He began doing media interviews, commenting on stories involving the Church. He became public affairs director for the cardinal archbishop of Westminster, and got involved with apologetics. He believed the Church often was poorly presented in the 24-hour news cycle, and wanted to help improve its image.

Ivereigh says he lives in a culture in England that accepts religious practice as a private affair, but when religion enters the public square and makes declarations of truth it is perceived as “dangerous and fundamentalist and should be resisted.”

“Skepticism is considered a rational response to reality, while faith is an irrational one,” Ivereigh said. “So a person of faith has to explain and justify himself, whereas agnostics and atheists do not.”

The political corollary of this attitude, he believes, is that “religious views” can be considered irrational prejudice, and, if necessary, outlawed. “The idea that Catholic opposition to, say, same-sex marriage might have a foundation in reason and natural law is hard to imagine for this culture,” Ivereigh said.

Not everyone in England shares this view, he stressed, particularly people who are poor, immigrants, or live outside metropolitan areas. While the overall culture does not support church-going, it doesn’t mean that the citizenry was more Christian in previous decades, he says.

“I think the Catholic Church in the UK is more dynamic now than it used to be,” Ivereigh explained. “People are in church out of choice. So I’d say the Church is much smaller but more vigorous than it used to be.”

Dave Armstrong is a Catholic author and apologist who has been active in proclaiming and defending Christianity for 31 years (and Catholicism for 21 years). He began as a Protestant campus missionary, and was received into the Catholic Church in 1991. He is author of 30 books, and operates the website Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. He is a frequent guest on Catholic radio programs, including Catholic Answers Live, and his work has appeared in many Catholic publications.

Significant influences on Armstrong’s life include C.S. Lewis, to whose works he was introduced in the 1970s, and Protestant apologists Francis Schaeffer and Josh McDowell. He developed an interest in defending Christianity from an intellectual standpoint, and became involved in “street evangelism” and evangelizing on college campuses. Much of his work today is in helping Catholics recognize the biblical, rational, and historical basis of the Faith and “be more confident in living, proclaiming, and defending it.”

Evangelizing family members, Armstorng advised, should be done with caution and moderation. “It shouldn’t be an issue that is pushed at all,” he said. “But if someone asks a question, then we should be ready to give an answer and defense, in gentleness (1 Peter 3:15).”

“We should always seek to listen a lot more than preach, at first,” Armstrong continued. “If someone is open to the message, there will be plenty of time to talk in the future. If they’re not, we can’t push it. The Holy Spirit and God’s grace change hearts. We’re simply vessels for that purpose. We must be charitable at all times and avoid being overbearing and obnoxious like the plague.”

Evangelizing those who are not family members is easier, Armstrong noted, but the general principles are the same—share your faith as the opportunity arises, but don’t be “pushy,” “know-it-all,” or “holier than thou.” 

“The Bible stresses that we ought to seek whatever common ground we can with those to whom we are talking,” he explained. “St. Paul wrote, ‘I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some’ (1 Corinthians 9:22). When he preached in Athens to the intellectuals and philosophers of the time, he sought commonalities, saying, ‘I perceive that in every way you are very religious’ (Acts 17:22), and cited two pagan Greek poet-philosophers (Acts 17:28). The Church teaches that all truth is God’s truth, even when mixed with error in a worldview.”

The Council Fathers of Vatican II, Armstrong noted, stressed the importance of reaching out to non-Catholics in language they understand, to make Catholic teaching easier to accept and embrace. “This is our task as Catholics,” he said. “In my own work, I always try to stress the Bible and biblical indications of Catholic beliefs, precisely because that is the source of authority that all Christians accept. It’s a shared premise. It’s reaching out to Protestants where they are at, by showing that the Bible itself verifies that the fullness of Christian truth resides in the Catholic Church. This is common sense and also solid ‘dialogue/persuasiveness’ methodology.”

Ultimately the success of evangelization lies in the work of the Holy Spirit, Armstrong said. If someone’s heart has been receptive to the Spirit’s grace, the work of evangelization will flourish, if not, it won’t.

Armstrong is concerned for our culture as a whole. “I think we’re slowly dying and will go the way that all civilizations have gone, sooner rather than later, if we don’t experience a serious revival of Christianity soon, which can and will transform our society,” he said.

Such revivals are not unprecedented, Armstrong noted, pointing to the 18th-century Wesleyan revivals in England, and the Second Great Awakening in the mid-19th century. There have been Catholic revivals as well, such as those that came with the conversions of Blessed John Henry Newman and other Anglicans in the 19th century. Even in our own time, he said, there has been a flourishing of apologetics and Catholic television and radio, bringing about many conversions.

“[A revival] won’t happen unless we radically live out our faith, as disciples of Jesus, obedient to the Church, and with much prayer, and probably suffering,” Armstrong said. “We stand accountable for a lot in this nation, including legal abortion and various other sins that are, more and more, receiving the sanction of law.”

“This is our time to ‘stand up and be counted,’ so to speak,” he continued. “A dozen disciples turned the Roman Empire upside down. There are a lot more of us now. A dying world out there desperately needs to hear the Catholic message of the life-transforming Gospel and fullness of the faith. The harvest is ready, but the laborers are few, as our Lord Jesus said.”

Tom Peterson was a successful advertising executive living in Arizona. He went on retreat 15 years ago, and had a powerful “reversion” experience while praying before the Blessed Sacrament. He decided to leave the business world and found Catholics Come Home, an organization that works with dioceses to lead fallen-away Catholics back into the Church. Today, it is headquartered in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

“I believe I’ve been called to use my advertising talents to bring people to Christ,” Peterson said.

The organization is invited into a diocese by its bishop, and then airs television ads with a “gentle, yet powerful invitation” to explore the Church.  Peterson writes and produces the advertisements himself. 

He said in the past three years Catholics Come Home has been invited into 30 American dioceses. After his advertisements air, some dioceses have seen Mass attendance increase by 18 percent. One priest said that the Saturday after the Catholics Come Home ads aired in his diocese, 16 people came to confession after a long absence who specifically told him they were prompted by the ads.

Besides evangelizing in mass markets, Peterson is committed to evangelization in his own personal life, one convert at a time. “Every day I pray I help lead someone closer to Christ, whether it is someone I meet at the store, a community event, or on an airplane,” he said.

It was on an airplane that he met a flight attendant, Cindy, who he says was “having a tough day.” Peterson offered her some friendly encouragement, and upon deplaning, gave her a Catholics Come Home “evangelization card.” He wrote on the back: “Cindy, the hope that you seek can only be found in Jesus and His Church. God loves you. Tom.”

A few weeks later the woman wrote him, telling him she’d returned to Church. She had recently gone through a divorce and was looking for a new man in her life, she explained, but realized the man she really needed was Christ. 

Peterson’s first rule of evangelization is: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Potential converts must first experience an evangelist’s love and caring, he explained, before they will listen to Catholic teaching or accept an invitation to Church.

Also, he recommends praying every day for the opportunity to share one’s faith. One of his favorite times to do this is at Mass, during the elevation of the chalice, when he specifically mentions people away from the Church. And finally, he said, it can be helpful to be ready to share some literature or a CD on the Catholic faith.

Terry Barber, of West Covina, California, had a successful career in real estate in the early 1980s. Having acquired enough property to comfortably retire by age 25, he decided he’d focus on a new career: working with other Catholic apologists to win souls for Christ.

Barber began by copying and distributing audiotapes of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s talks. His apostolate grew, and he founded St. Joseph Communications and the Catholic Resource Center.  He also serves as chairman of the board of Lighthouse Media and is regularly featured on Catholic radio and television.

“I started by selling real estate on earth, and now I’m selling real estate in heaven,” Barber quipped.

Barber finds success in evangelizing using many of the techniques he used in selling real estate. For example, when sharing the Faith, he uses the listener’s name repeatedly to get his attention. Human minds often wander in conversations, and saying your listener’s name can help redirect him to your message, Barber explained. 

Also, when initiating a conversation, ask simple questions to elicit an affirmative response. It’s another effective way to get a conversation going. It can be as basic as: “Can I ask you a question?”

Once, when visiting the Grand Canyon with his family, Barber encountered a group of bikers engaging in a vulgar conversation. Looking down at the awe-inspiring view, he asked, “Gentlemen, can I ask you a question?” When they said yes, he continued, “What company do you think dug this canyon?” When they laughed and said God made it, Barber continued, “Do you think it’s a good idea to thank God for it?”

A friendly, respectful conversation about religion began with a seemingly unlikely group of listeners.

Like other evangelists, Barber relies heavily on prayer, and especially likes to ask the help of his guardian angels and the guardian angels of those to whom he speaks. If he’s successful in sparking someone’s interest, Barber suggests they get together for a follow-up discussion to explore the matter further.

Some things never to do while evangelizing, Barber cautions, are first, never judge, even if the person is involved in a lifestyle you know is wrong. It is better to suggest, “It’s obvious you’re missing something in your life.”

Second, never get angry. Barber quotes the adage, “Win an argument, lose a soul.” Third, “don’t be a sourpuss.” Smile frequently, as it is a small form of enthusiasm.

Patrick Coffin is on the staff of Catholic Answers. Based in San Diego, Catholic Answers is one of the nation’s best-known apologetics organizations. Coffin is host of the organization’s radio show, Catholic Answers Live, speaks nationally at conferences, blogs, and produces books and CDs. His latest CD set is “Getting Started in Apologetics: The Least You Need to Know to Explain the Catholic Faith.”

“I have a real passion for helping the Sunday Mass-going Catholic be less tongue-tied when sharing his faith,” Coffin said.

Coffin became involved in Catholic apologetics two decades ago when “I fell in love with Christ and wanted to help him be better known and loved.” He became host of Catholic Answers Live in 2009.

His first tip to would-be evangelizers: do nothing. He explained, “1 Peter 3:15 says, ‘Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.’ Peter says, ‘be ready,’ don’t try to jump-start a conversation. Wait for an open door.”

People will know you’re a practicing Catholic, and at the right moment, might ask you about it. Avoid an “overly clever” answer, and offer your personal witness with kindness, sincerity, and cheerfulness. If you’re asked a question you don’t know the answer to, he continued, don’t be afraid to say, “I’ll get back to you on that.”

Catholics who are shy about sharing their faith should pray for a “holy boldness,” Coffin added: “Peter says ‘be ready’—that’s not a suggestion, that’s a mandate.”

Coffin refers to his Catholic Answers Live position as his “dream job,” and has been gratified to see many conversions resulting from the program. People have a hunger for the Faith, he remarked, even those who have misconceptions about the Church and are angry at what they believe it to be. “People call in with simple questions, and often experience life-changing conversations,” he said.

Using a sports metaphor, Coffin likes to compare apologetics to playing defense, or defending the Church against critics, and evangelism to offense, bringing the Faith to the people: “We need both,” he stressed.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Jim Graves 233 Articles
Jim Graves is a Catholic writer living in Newport Beach, California.