Jan. 1 issue feature.
Cardinal Stanislaw Rylko, president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity, recently discussed Pope Benedict XVI’s “three laws” for evangelization: constant prayer, humility and a willingness to accept the cross. “Renewed evangelization” of an increasingly secular world has been a theme of the Holy Father’s pontificate; he told the faithful on Sept. 18 that the Church needs “humble and generous workers who do not ask any other recompense than participating in the mission of Jesus and the Church.”
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. Four prominent Catholic evangelists have offered suggestions to Catholics on ways they can evangelize those closest to them.
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 (CatholicsComeHome.org), an organization that works with dioceses to lead people into the Church, based in suburban Atlanta.
“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 (such as their recent Advent ads). Peterson writes and produces the advertisements himself.
He said in the past three years Catholics Come Home has been invited into 30 American dioceses, resulting in 300,000 people returning to or coming into the Church. After his advertisements air, according to parish census counts taken by dioceses themselves, Mass attendance has increased 18%. 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.”
It was while flying on an airplane that he met a flight attendant, Cindy, who was “having a tough day.” Peterson offered her some friendly encouragement, and upon deplaning, he 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 to 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 now she 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 so is at Mass, during the elevation of the chalice; he specifically mentions people who are away from the Church.
And finally, he said, it can be helpful to have ready-to-share literature or a CD on the Catholic faith.
Terry Barber of West Covina, Calif., part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, 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 Archbishop Fulton Sheen audiotapes. His apostolate grew, and he founded St. Joseph Communications (SaintJoe.com) and the Catholic Resource Center (CatholicResourceCenter.org). He also serves as chairman of the board of Lighthouse Catholic Media (LighthouseCatholicMedia.org) 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,” he quipped.
Barber uses many of the techniques he used in selling real estate when evangelizing. For example, when initiating a conversation, he asks simple questions to elicit an affirmative response. It could be as basic as: “Can I ask you a question?”
Once, when visiting the Grand Canyon with his family, Barber encountered a group of rough bikers engaging in a vulgar conversation. Looking down at the awe-inspiring view, he asked them, “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?”
And so 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 those of whom he is speaking to.
What not to do while evangelizing? Never judge, he says, even if the person in involved in a lifestyle you know is wrong. Better to suggest, “It’s obvious you’re missing something in your life.”
Second, never get angry. He quotes the adage, “Win an argument, lose a soul.” And third, “don’t be a sourpuss.”
Barber is working on a book on evangelism with Jesse Romero (JesseRomero.com), another prominent evangelist from the Los Angeles area. Romero is a former sheriff’s deputy who, as a young adult, underwent a transition from nominal Catholic to practicing Catholic and has since dedicated himself to full-time preaching and evangelizing. He speaks at conferences, in parishes and on Catholic radio.
He believes effective evangelism begins with a good example. He said, “There is tremendous power and a strong witness when people see someone living a good Catholic life.”
He also recommends Catholics know their faith and have a strong prayer life.
Romero also believes in sharing the faith with enthusiasm: “Passion is a key component of effective communication.”
Romero is currently working on a manual of effective evangelizing techniques based on his experiences and hopes to establish a school of evangelism in conjunction with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Romero is fluent in both English and Spanish and believes his bilingual ability makes him especially effective in heavily Latino Southern California.
Patrick Coffin is on the staff of Catholic Answers (Catholic.com). Based in San Diego, Catholic Answers is one of the nation’s best-known apologetics organizations. Coffin is the host of the organization’s radio show, Catholic Answers Live, speaks nationally at conferences, blogs (PatrickCoffin.net) and is an author of 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 Massgoing Catholic be less tongue-tied when sharing his faith,” he explains.
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.
What’s his first tip for would-be evangelizers? Do nothing. “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,” he said. “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, too, he says. 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,” he added: “Peter says ‘Be ready.’ That’s not a suggestion; that’s a mandate.”
Using a sports metaphor, he 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.”
Coffin refers to his Catholic Answers Live position as his “dream job” and has been gratified to see many conversions result from the program: “People call in with simple questions and often experience life-changing conversations.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.