Trained to evangelize, with social media at their fingertips, modern Catholics might be surprised to discover that the most effective missionaries are still those who humbly carry Christ in their hearts to others. When Catholics actually carry Christ, they are filled with the love and joy of the Lord which is infectious. These ordinary folk spread the Good News everywhere they go to those who still live in darkness, existing outside the heart of the Church. The Heavenly Father asks such disciples, who are attuned to His voice, to write and speak about their spiritual experiences and to share the truths found in the Church. In this way, modern Catholics are like jet landing strips, or perhaps modems, connecting the presence of the Unseen God in a tangible way to those on earth who are seeking heaven.
“joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.” St. Teresa of Calcutta.
Courses, books, and conferences teach Catholics about evangelization. Well-organized educational programs promise to engage staff, leaders & parishioners to create a vibrant parish and to train them to witness effectively. Catholic Stand is part of St. John Paul II’s New Evangelization which encourages the use of modern social media to reach the curious and those outside the walls of the Catholic Church. Even though these techniques are helpful, the truth is essays, tweets, and programs do not convert hearts if they are not imbued with the Holy Spirit.
No matter how articulate we are, our best erudite arguments will not reveal the true Presence of God to an unbeliever unless we have listened to God and only say or write what He tells us to. Since Christianity is an experiential faith, a relationship with the Living God, we must help a seeker connect with the Father. No one joins the Church simply because they accept Catholic doctrine or have been convinced by logic. The grace of God leads a soul to discover Christ, repent, open his heart to the love the Father and then guides him into the Church. There is no room for pride; evangelists are simply the earthly tools used by the Heavenly Father; Jesus is the one with the power, not humans:
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me . Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-21
Go and Make Disciples
One of the basic mandates from Christ Himself is the evangelization of the unbeliever. The Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats this missionary mandate in more detail:
849 “Having been divinely sent to the nations that she might be ‘the universal sacrament of salvation,’ the Church, in obedience to the command of her founder and because it is demanded by her own essential universality, strives to preach the Gospel to all men”.
A missionary is only effective when they are united to the Body of Christ:
The one sent by the Lord does not speak and act on his own authority, but by virtue of Christ’s authority; not as a member of the community, but speaking to it in the name of Christ. No one can bestow grace on himself; it must be given and offered. . . The ministry in which Christ’s emissaries do and give by God’s grace what they cannot do and give by their own powers. CCC
There are no effective free agents in this evangelization business because only Christ can empower a Catholic to evangelize.
Evangelization in the Last Few Decades
Up until the late 60s, evangelists were mainly preachers of the Word. In the Protestant camp, Billy Graham shone the brightest, while for Catholics, the first name that pops into my head as an example is Archbishop Fulton Sheen and his radio program, The Catholic Hour. These men focused on the evangelism of the Word, preaching a sermon with the purpose of convincing people to repent, change and commit their lives to God.
The primary way the Holy Spirit touched people in large crowds in the 70s, 80s and 90s was through power evangelism. Rather than preaching long sermons, the evangelists who drew the largest crowds were prophets and healers. The Spirit fell in a tangible way. This was not restricted to the Protestants. The Catholics experienced their own Charismatic Renewal with crowds of 30,000 gathering in Rome in the mid-70s. I remember one Catholic Charismatic Conference in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where 10,000 people sang gently, harmoniously in tongues like angels, and I am sure with angels. Organizers allowed the Holy Spirit to move gently among the crowd, healing physically and emotionally. The testimonies afterward were awe inspiring.
Evangelization Today is Old Time Catholic Evangelism
Now the Spirit of God is moving among the grassroots. It is an entirely different kind of evangelism, or perhaps it is old time Catholic evangelism. It is the time for the little people to shine. God is choosing humble, ordinary people who have suffered and lived obscure lives faithful to Him, and allowed Him to purify and mold them into His presence. Such men and women attract others who are hungry for God because people sense the love and power of God in them. There is no room for pride or ego because it is all about God saving them in their littleness.
For example, five years ago I was stranded for 10 hours in an airport with an East-German archaeologist. He spoke of his work and I shared funny stories about living with nine kids. I did not preach. Suddenly he asked, “What is it about you? You are the most powerful person I have ever met.”
He shocked me. Sure, I felt that God and His joy was bubbling up within me, but I had not prayed for or healed this man. I simply made him laugh. However, we were both aware of a power flowing around us even though he was an East German atheist! It was tangible. This is Presence Evangelism. God does all the work.
Joy Is a Net Which Catches Souls
Even when my day to day inner life is dry, the Holy Spirit rises up with joy when I run into a seeker. If a visitor is in my kitchen sipping tea or if someone snags me after Mass, God never fails to manifest His Presence for the other’s sake. Joy literally bubbles up from deep within my spirit even if I feel down when I am alone. Mother Teresa was right when she called joy the net which catches souls.
When I speak with someone who is curious about the faith, I realize my revelations about the spiritual life in the Mystical Body of Christ are like speaking about a foreign country. They have no experience of spiritual reality, so exposing the unchurched to spirituality helps God make new electrical connections in their brains. This renewal of the mind does not happen quickly. Since atheists have existed only on the surface, seeing only physical reality, the life in Christ that I share with them is completely alien. They have no reference point for my experiences with God.
Psychologically speaking, anyone who hears something new, does not process that information the first time. New information must be presented at least three times before it even begins to register in a human brain. This means an atheist needs to hear about the concept of a deeper life in Christ more than once. Never overwhelm people with too much detail at first and avoid using unfamiliar church jargon when you explain your inner, spiritual life.
Tips for Effective Evangelization
- Learn about your faith by studying the Catechism and reading Holy Scripture as well as the homilies/encyclicals of the popes.
- Pray and discover how to be sensitive and obedient to the gentle lead of the Holy Spirit.
- Don’t take yourself too seriously but keep a sense of humour.
- Trust God to use you and redeem your mistakes.
- Really listen to people; let them talk and answer the core of their questions. It is not all about you but the seeker.
- Try not to slip into insider church talk; use normal vocabulary to explain spiritual realities.
To ensure we do not get in the way of the Holy Spirit when we try to evangelize, it is essential that we simply pray, listen and obey our Lord Jesus Christ in a spirit of humility and let Him take control of every encounter we have with those who have yet to meet their Lord.