Taking the Evangelization Initiative

We all have experienced the sad reality of friends or loved ones who have fallen away from the Catholic faith. It seems that everyone I talk with has one or several family members who have drifted into apathy or converted to some other religion. There are obviously many reasons for this, and all-too-often it is the result of a misunderstanding or misplaced frustration toward the Church or a pastor. This problem is compounded by constant, vicious attacks on the Church by the mainstream media and educational establishments.

A good friend of mine, who had been a very faithful Catholic, recently said that his young family didn’t go to Mass anymore because the cry room at church was uncomfortable and unwelcoming. "Really? The cry room?" I thought. Now that’s a pretty lame excuse for not going to Mass!

In my friend’s case, I suspect there’s something more, something much deeper, that has kept him from taking his family to Mass on Sundays. If I knew the answer, I could delicately try to bring him along. But if I argue with him and tell him he’s making a huge mistake, it will likely do greater harm by driving him farther away from the Church. What are we supposed to do when confronted with such situations? What is the best way to engage our friends and loved ones, and help them to live lives of heroic virtue?

The Church has given us a blueprint for proclaiming Christ to the modern world just as the Apostles proclaimed Christ to the ancient world—but using new methods to convey timeless truths. This "blueprint" is the new evangelization, and although the 2012 World Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization convoked by Pope Benedict XVI is less than a year away, we don’t need to wait for the eventual release of the post-synodal documents to know what evangelization is and what we’re supposed to do about it.

The Catechism defines evangelization as "the proclamation of Christ and His Gospel by word and the testimony of life, in fulfillment of Christ’s command," and it is the duty of every Christian by virtue of our baptism. Since we already have received our mandate from Christ Himself, we can begin fulfilling our call to evangelize today, and it requires little more than simply living in the world as faithful Catholics. Here’s how.

Be prepared.

The Boy Scout motto applies to evangelization: In order to share our faith effectively, we must first know and embrace our faith. Evangelization is not primarily an intellectual enterprise, but it is beneficial to have the tools necessary to offer thoughtful answers should questions of doctrine, tradition, or practice arise in our conversations with others.

Live as if your faith depends on it. 

Even more importantly, if we want to lead others to Christ, we must know Him intimately ourselves. This requires regular attention to prayer, the sacraments, charitable works, and service to others. Everything about how we live should reflect the essence of our faith and our love of God and neighbor. If we lead lives of integrity and joy, then the faith and values that motivate us will become attractive to others. Pope Paul VI said: "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses."

Meet people where they are.

Evangelization is not like street-corner preaching, where we begin by eloquently articulating spiritual and moral truths in hopes that something sticks.

Not everyone we meet will have a Christian worldview, so we have to tailor our language and approach to our specific audience. Quoting the Catechism will not impress someone who doesn’t accept Church authority; citing Scripture will likely be ineffective to one who rejects the inspiration of the Bible. And if the individual denies God, he or she must first be persuaded of God’s existence.

Evangelization, in effect, requires that we accompany the individual on the journey of faith. If we want to direct him or her to the truth, we must point to it from where he or she is standing. This doesn’t mean watering down the faith in any way, but it can mean approaching faith from the standpoint of reason and human experience so as to explain it even in secular terms.

Remember: It’s God, not you.

Ultimately, evangelization is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are merely His poor instruments. We can only try to help others draw closer to faith and allow God to use us for His holy purposes. If we see positive results, then the glory belongs to God. If we do not recognize spiritual progress in those we attempt to evangelize, then we can only hope and pray that we have helped plant seeds that will be harvested later, perhaps by others.

In the meantime, we simply must live exemplary lives of commitment to our faith, remain faithful in prayer, and watch for every opportunity to share our faith with others in a natural way. God willing, we will make a difference.

Mike Sullivan
From the Nov/Dec 2011 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

Sullivan is the president of Catholics United for the Faith and publisher of Lay Witness magazine and Emmaus Road Publishing. He resides in Toronto, Ohio, with his wife, Gwen, and their nine children.