A recent column in the National Catholic Reporter newspaper noted that Americans happily urge others to taste foods they've enjoyed, read books they found enlightening or try diets on which they shed a few pounds.
If evangelizing on non-religious topics comes that easily to people, wondered author Jeannette Cooperman, why don't Catholics share their faith with the same enthusiasm?
The Evangelist posed that question to two noted authorities on evangelization: David Nodar, international director for Christlife Catholic Evangelization Services, and Rev. Kenneth Boyack, CSP, head of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association (PNCEA).
Spread the Word
In the first few centuries of the Church's existence, the pair agreed, evangelization was crucial to its survival. Living in a pagan culture, explained Father Boyack, Christians had to "live [their] faith in a very intentional way."
To admit one was a Christian was to risk persecution, so Church members had to be passionate about their commitment.
Then, in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Holy Roman Empire. Suddenly, being a Christian became not just accepted, but fashionable.
Over time, missionaries brought the faith to other countries. Centuries later, Catholic immigrants to the U.S. would still band together in what was originally a mostly Protestant country, moving into the same neighborhoods and creating a sort of "Catholic culture" that reinforced beliefs among members.
But "word-of-mouth" evangelization among Catholics was a less defined form of that ministry than the specific faith-sharing done by missionary religious orders.
Other Christian denominations eventually became better-known than Catholicism for proselytizing efforts, and it wasn't until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that Pope Paul VI began to call for a "new evangelization" -- and not just by clergy and religious, but by all Catholics.
"Pope Paul said, 'In order to evangelize, you have to be evangelized,'" Mr. Nodar told The Evangelist. "Pope John Paul II is constantly talking about evangelization: that it's an encounter with the 'living Spirit;' that sharing faith has got to become normal, a natural part of life."
That's not easy, according to Father Boyack, for Catholics who grew up reading books like Thomas Harris' classic, "I'm OK, You're OK."
If someone says they like to connect with nature and the spiritual by walking in an arboretum, Father Boyack remarked, most Catholics today would probably say, "Good for you," but would not go a step further and share how their own faith helps them connect with God.
"People are reluctant to push their [beliefs] on other people," said Mr. Nodar. "But, also, we have to be convinced there's something worth sharing."
That's why both experts believe the Church must evangelize its own members before branching out to non-Catholics.
Catholics, they said, do tend to be good at teaching prayers to children, making sure they're educated in the faith and being what Pope Paul VI called "witnesses to life" -- simply living their lives, so that others may see them as good people and be attracted to what beliefs lead to that lifestyle.
Social justice has also been a good way for the Church to evangelize. For instance, Father Boyack pointed out, when tsunamis recently hit many countries bordering the Indian Ocean, Catholics immediately donated millions of dollars in aid.
However, when it comes to sharing their faith and inviting others to participate in it, Catholics don't fare as well. Of the more than 66 million Catholics in the U.S., said Mr. Nodar, less than a third even attend Mass.
"The process of making disciples involves three components: proclamation, conversion, and service and mission," said Mr. Nodar.
Resistance by Catholics to evangelizing "is because the front-end piece of evangelization deals with conversion: making Jesus Lord of our life. It calls for a radical change if we're going to embrace this mission."
The pair want to start simply. Father Boyack's ministry, the PNCEA, has developed a new resource called "Invite." It combines a guide for parishioners with a pamphlet titled "Come and See" that they can give to others, encouraging them to explore Catholicism.
"Come and See" mentions Scripture, prayer, values, liturgy, finding God's plan for life, social action, being part of a community and eternal life with God as attractive aspects of the Catholic faith.
Parishes are directed to put labels on the pamphlets with the name and phone number of their church, and to train parishioners to be contact people who can converse with callers.
The parishioner guide cites Jesus' words, "Go therefore and make disciples" (Matthew 28:19), and encourages Catholics to pray for wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence and awe in attempting to share why they are Catholic with others.
"It's a matter of strategy," Father Boyack remarked. "How can we engage [Catholics], and make them confident and competent to attend to the spiritual journeys of other people?"
More to do
Mr. Nodar thinks evangelization involves more than an invitation to come to church.
"Mass was never intended as the first thing people come into," he argued. "Persons are supposed to experience conversion and catechesis [education in the faith] before they enter the Church -- and, at many parishes, the Mass is not very welcoming."
He suggested that parishes try improving their liturgies and homilies, but also offering things like retreats or courses on basic Church doctrine that can serve as "doorways" back to the Church for Catholics who have left.
The small-faith communities that already exist in many U.S. parishes, he added, can be good venues for people to meet a few Catholics at a time and learn with them, instead of being intimidated by the large groups at Sunday Mass.
"Relationships are a crucial part of evangelization," he asserted. "Most evangelization happens by befriending; many people 'belong before they believe.'"
"Catholic literacy" is also a big issue. Many Catholics don't feel they know enough about their own faith to be able to share why they believe what they do, said Father Boyack.
Mr. Nodar opined that the Church might start by helping people who are volunteering with social action programs -- already a successful part of Church ministry -- to understand why they're helping the poor, what moral values and social teachings lead the Church to be a voice for the voiceless.
"There needs to be an answer to 'the reason why I love you,'" Mr. Nodar stated.
The two experts agreed that in order to boost its reputation for evangelization, the U.S. Church must devote more of its budget to that end.
Once that's done, said Mr. Nodar, "it's going to take individual Catholics' saying, 'I'm going to find out how to do this.'"
"Catholics can take on the responsibility of being a co-missionary with Christ," Father Boyack added. "The goal is that each parish is a co-missionary -- but we're a long way from that."
Reprinted with permission of The Evangelist, newspaper of the Albany, NY, Roman Catholic Diocese
Kate Blain is the Assitant Editor of The Evangelist.