In Ad Rem 89, I promised some thoughts on winning converts. Specifically, I said I would answer this question: “How do you tell someone he needs to convert without sounding rude or judgmental, or just turning him off?” Now I propose to deliver on that promise.
The “art” of evangelism — Father Feeney called it an art, and rightly so — is something that demands time and practice to cultivate, and my comments here must necessarily be general. Hopefully, though, they will inform and motivate you to be more apostolic. You can build on this foundation with specific resources I will recommend toward the end.
These considerations will appear under two headings: “theory” and “practice.”
Our theory is rooted in Saint Augustine’s doctrine on the matter. The Doctor of Grace had a penetrating knowledge of the “psychology” of grace and how it interacts with external human agencies to move the soul. He wrote a whole book, Rebuke and Grace, defending the idea that, while grace is sovereign and only those predestined by grace will be saved, still, there is a place for superiors and friends to rebuke a wrongdoer in order to bring him to salutary penance. This he proved with numerous examples from Holy Scripture.
The Bishop of Hippo was not one informed only by “book learnin'” on the matter. He had intense personal experience of the process of conversion, and in his deeply introspective writings, he gives us a vivid moving picture of his internal state through different stages of his conversion. This can be read in his Confessions. But as an example of how he thought of approaching others, I cite an epistle of his:
“Let those be hard upon you who do not know what labour it is to reach the truth and turn away from error. Let those be hard upon you, who know not how rare a thing it is, and how much it costs, to overcome the false images of the senses and to dwell in peace of soul. Let those be hard upon you, who know not with what difficulty man’s mental eye is healed so as to be able to gaze upon the Sun of justice; who know not through what sighs and groans one attains to some little knowledge of God. Let those, finally, be hard upon you, who have never known seduction like that whereby you are deceived. … As for me, who have been tossed about by the vain imaginations of which my mind was in search, and who have shared your misery and so long deplored it, I could not by any means be harsh to you.”
This excerpt is from a letter, called Contra Episolam Manichae Quam Vocant Fundamenti. It was written to Manicheans, whose perverse doctrine Saint Augustine had once shared. Notice right away that Saint Augustine speaks of “seduction like that whereby you are deceived.” He calls a spade a spade and pulls no punches when it is a matter of giving testimony to the truth. But, without compromising Faith or Hope, his Charity makes him all gentleness, meekness, and mercy to the erring.
In commenting on these words, Abbot Guéranger says, “To the end of his life Augustine never ceased to fight for the truth against all the heresies then invented by the father of lies; in his ever repeated victories, we know not which to admire most: his knowledge of the holy Scriptures, his powerful logic, or his eloquence. We see too that divine charity which, while inflexibly upholding every iota of God’s rights, is full of ineffable compassion for the unhappy beings who do not understand those rights.”
In other words, Saint Augustine’s zeal was entirely authentic inasmuch as it flowed from Christian Charity. We should recall that the love of God and love of neighbor are the same identical virtue. The two-fold evangelical precept of Charity commands one virtue with two motions, one movement Godward, the other directed toward the neighbor. There is no contradiction here. Jesus did all he did for us men and for our salvation, but He did it out of love and reverence for his Father. The twin motions to defend God’s rights and to be merciful to man that he might be saved may at times seem to be in tension because of our limited appreciation of reality, but they will never be contrary to each other. This is why the saints could, like Our Lord, be “harsh” at times in things they said, but all meekness when it came to alleviating human misery.
In order to maintain the delicate balance necessary to coordinate these twin motions of Charity, we need the full panoply of all the moral virtues. This is to speak of sanctity, and of the importance of being a reservoir before we can be an aqueduct. What is true of knowledge is true also of virtue. Nemo dat quod non habet. (No man can give what he does not have.) At times, fortitude must come to the fore, so as to counteract the weakness of human respect. At times, meekness or humility are necessarily the virtues to have the prominence, since these — which Christ Himself commands us to learn from Him — give the ring of authenticity to our words, and make the Church more inviting to those in error.
What all this points to is that being an apostle for the Faith is part of a larger program of Catholic living, which includes prayer, work, and study. You might not like to read this, but to be a truly effective apostle, you have to be (i.e., become) a saint. I want to emphasize this word becoming, as you don’t need to be fully canonizable in order to make the effort at winning souls for Christ — not at all. God crowns our efforts and that’s what he wants — loving hearts making serious efforts. He knows our weakness; He is our strength. The beginner who strives to live a spiritual life, who has good will and humility (a virtue that cannot be stressed enough here) can be a fine apostle. Don’t get discouraged; it is the work of a lifetime, but a work which must be begun in earnest.
Another necessary element to our theory is deep trust in God’s providence and love for sinners. Abraham’s words to Isaac when the boy asked where the sacrifice is — “God will provide” — have become the shibboleth of the trusting soul. Abraham was asked to sacrifice not only his son, but the son of promise, and he believed firmly that God’s promises would still come true, even though there was no human way of seeing how they could. This makes Abraham a model of the virtue of Faith for Saint Paul, and a model of good works for Saint James. His trust in God was unwavering. So, too, when we deal with non-Catholics, we must have deep trust in God’s providence. He will not abandon us in our good work, and he will not abandon our potential convert — unless, that is, our perverse wills resist his grace. Since you cannot stop the other party from resisting grace, don’t worry about it. Concern yourself with your cooperation with grace by telling the truth and helping your charge to embrace it.
We must also believe in God’s love for sinners, not the wishy-washy “unconditional love” the liberals burble on about, that un-divine kind of love which makes no demands. No, the love God has for sinners — which is formally different than the love he has for those in grace — is a love that changes us and makes us better, a love that purifies, purges, sanctifies, and thereby makes us lovable. That is the love in which we must believe. Saint Augustine knew what the love of God did for him, and he wished others to have it.
Beginning a religious conversation. An easy way to begin a religious conversation is to give a Miraculous Medal and/or a Catholic tract of some sort to the individual you are trying to convert. Besides being a good ice-breaker, the sacramental is an instrument of grace — recall the story of Alphonse Ratisbonne, which you can read about in “The Story of the Miraculous Medal.” The tract is a point of reference for Catholic truth. Saint Maximilian Maria Kolbe, moved by the story of Ratisbonne’s conversion, used to give out Miraculous Medals in copious quantities. He called them his “bullets,” and said that those who accept one of these medals, accept Our Lady’s Queenship over themselves, at least to that extent. (Some people refuse them.)
During the conversation. Make simple professions of faith rather than eloquent expositions. For example, at a work-place coffee break, at a family event, or in some other conversational setting, when something is stated that is contrary to Catholic teaching, say something like this: “That’s not true: the Catholic Church teaches X, and since the Church’s teachings are infallible, that’s what I believe.” Yes, that’s a bombshell, but it can be suaved up and varied to suit the occasion. The key is that you are professing the faith, which is a grace for you and a grace for your hearers. Do not fret if you cannot build a cogent case to defend the particular truth in question. Be humble; keep it simple; say a quick prayer. The Holy Ghost will work through you, who are now representing Christ’s truth to someone who needs it.
Always argue from your firm ground: The Catholic Church was founded by Christ; He endowed it with all the marks of the true religion; and those with eyes to see will see it. Since this is the case, whatever the Church teaches is true. Have the courage of your convictions, the courage that flows from truly believing what the Scriptures teach, that the Church is the “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). When you have this kind of courage, united to charity, human arrogance (if you have that problem) eventually disappears. If you keep talking this way, some people will regard you as either a bore, a prude, or a reprobate, and that will be your penance; but others may begin to ask your opinion about religious matters. It may seem like idle curiosity, but assume it to be grace at work, and run with it. Father Feeney used to say that when people begin to ask you questions, that is a sign that you’ve got them.
The necessity of prayer. Pray for the person you are trying to convert. Have Masses said. If you don’t think that God is interested in hearing you ask for help in bringing someone to Him, you are a practical atheist.
The gentleness of Christ. Don’t offend people needlessly (this, after I called you an atheist!). Always be a lady or a gentleman. There is a certain school of thought, albeit a small one, which has it that obnoxiousness is the way to win converts: be brash and irritating; get their attention by insults, and eventually you’ll have them. If you don’t, tell them they’re going to hell. While most people instinctively bridle at this approach, many will, in their impatience and pride, act as if that were the theory behind their practice. It may seem unnecessary to say, but nobody likes a jerk, so don’t be one.
To build on these general considerations here are some additional resources:
College Apologetics — a good textbook on the subject.
The Soul of the Apostolate — Dom Chautard’s classic on the spiritual life and the apostolate. Recommended reading for the would-be apostle who wants to save his own soul as well as those of others.
Apologetics articles on the Catholicism.org web site.
Saint Augustine and Friendship — A paper I wrote on the Doctor of Grace and his doctrine of spiritual friendship.
Back Issues of From The Housetops — look at the contents of each one. Most of them have apologetics articles that can supply for the “tract” I mentioned above. These can be read by the Catholic and handed to the non-Catholic.