Coronavirus and Conversion: How to Evangelize in a Time of Crisis
With so much of everyday life turned upside down, Christians have an opportunity to engage with those who are searching for answers to their questions about life and death.
In the last few weeks, Americans have witnessed the systematic removal of all they had relied on for security, entertainment and even sustenance so they can be protected from the invisible threat of the coronavirus.
For some, the situation has been distressing and even devastating, but for Catholics who see through the eyes of faith, it can be an opportunity to engage those who may be asking questions about higher things.
“People are now waking up to the fact that they don’t have control over huge aspects of life that they thought they controlled,” said Patrick Madrid, author, apologist and Catholic radio host. “They’re asking, ‘Then who is in control?’ and so they’re thinking about God.”
Peter Herbeck of Renewal Ministries agreed. “The reason it’s kind of a pregnant moment for evangelization is the fact that humanity is confronting its mortality, death, its fear, its loss of control, the emptiness of idols and the distractions that keep us from even having to ask serious questions about life.”
Herbeck said as more and more people have walked away from a biblical world view, they have not wanted to answer those questions. “The world never wants to think about death, but now everybody is forced to look at it a little bit and the Church is the only place you can find an answer to it.”
Although imparting that answer is the Church’s mission, doing so in such a time as this does not always come naturally, especially to many Catholics.
Madrid would encourage the reticent to be bolder and remind them that the biblical exhortation from 1 Peter 3:15 to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” applies to everyone. “Even if your knees are knocking and your tongue is tied, you don’t have to give a treatise on theology or Scripture. You can say, ‘I’m scared too, but I feel a great deal of comfort in prayer and I feel God is going to guide us through this time.’ Even that is sufficient.”
Planting the Seed
He added, “Faith sharing doesn’t mean grasping someone by the lapels and saying, ‘Let me explain to you why I believe in Jesus.’ It’s the parable of the sower and the seed. It can be tiny things and God knows where they’re going to land. We’re not responsible for making them grow. You can post little things on Facebook — prayers, images, pictures, quotes. People are looking for reasons to have hope. They want hope, they want encouragement and they will resonate to that. I believe they’ll be drawn like moths to a flame.”
And, at a time when social-distancing guidelines have led to the cancellation of conferences, retreats and other large gatherings, Madrid said Catholics can improvise by inviting people to explore resources like EWTN, Catholic radio programs and talks on YouTube.
Herbeck said most of the time evangelization is an opportunity that emerges out of a relationship.
“This is definitely not a time to try to win arguments, but in the context of relationships with hurting people, sick people, relatives and friends . . . to listen to them and help articulate their fears.”
Once that happens, Catholics can share from their own experience what helps them have peace in moments like this and why at the end of the day, Christianity is the answer to this deep problem that is shaking the earth.
“This is a time of testimony and witness which comes from compassion and understanding,” Herbeck said. “Apart from Christ, it makes total sense to be freaked out by this.”
Providing Words of Hope
Dr. Carol Razza, professor of pastoral counseling and formation adviser at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, said Catholics have a responsibility now to be people who recognize that God has his hand on this situation and to pray with authority for those who aren’t there yet, speaking words of hope to them.
“It’s not that we don’t see what’s going on,” she said. “This is a horrible thing, but we can give hope knowing that God is always with us, that he’s in this storm with us. In what seems like the worst of times, I really see God’s glory just rising up to a very mighty level.”
Razza, who also is the regional representative for Europe and Asia for Magnificat, an apostolate to Catholic women, said if Catholics can reach people and love them where they are and listen to their fears, they can recognize how best to minister to them. “One of the things I teach at the seminary is listening with two different sets of ears: the spiritual and the natural. The more we listen to a person’s story — and in this case why there is so much fear — and listen to the Lord, he’ll tell us where that fear is coming from and we will be able to speak to that.”
Madrid said it is also important to ask questions when engaging people — for instance, “Now that we’ve been forced to stay at home the last two or three weeks, do you see things differently than before?” In such cases, he said, “God is not even mentioned, but it can lead very quickly to that. … I like it because it’s low-impact, nonconfrontational and it works in getting people to open up.”
Praying for Others
Greg Schlueter of Mass Impact, a family-focused evangelization ministry, said given that human circumstances are always an open door, evangelization can be something as simple as picking up the phone to check on someone who is out of a job and finding out what his or her needs are. When schools in his area closed recently because of the coronavirus, Schlueter’s family reached out to the children of a neighbor’s family by inviting them to play on a trampoline in their yard. “They’re on our property. We pray for them. We know them by name. Everybody with the heart of the Father can be attuned to the particular need of a person and reach out to them.”
Indeed, Herbeck said one of the most powerful things Catholics can do at this time is to pray.
“Evangelization is really the work of the Holy Spirit so as you’re praying for the people you care about, the Lord might put it on your heart to give that person a call,” he said. “And see where the Lord leads the conversation.”
Clearly, Herbeck continued, God is drawing people closer to himself at this time, giving them the opportunity to stop and face some things. “I think we should use some of this time to really intercede and pray in the moment. Pray first to break the power of the virus in his name and for everything he intends for this time of purification of the Church and the salvation of souls. Unite your prayers with Our Lady’s … and then pray for individual people. This is more powerful than we think.”
Register correspondent Judy Roberts writes from Graytown, Ohio.