Imagine you are standing on a hill overlooking your parish on a Sunday morning. You know the names of many of the people you see coming to Mass. Others you recognize without knowing their names. A few more are strangers to you.
Then you notice a bridge here and another one over there joining different neighborhoods to the church property. You see a handful of people walking across different bridges toward the church. Each person is alone. You don’t recognize any of them. Then you see one stranger accompanied across a bridge by someone you recognize.
The people on the bridges represent a few of the 112 million Americans who have a meaningful connection to the Catholic faith and may be searching for a bridge of trust toward the Church. Only 50 million of them are Catholic, in the sense that they attend Mass once or more a year. This data means that more than twice as many Americans are connected to the Church in some way as those who occasionally attend Mass.
Twice as many at Mass
Imagine what Sunday Mass would look like at your parish with twice as many worshippers. Imagine how the quality of our families, schools, work environments, media, relationships – everything in our culture would improve!
Nine percent of Americans feel they are “partially Catholic” or “half Catholic.” They think of themselves as associated with Catholicism. For example, perhaps their spouse or parents are Catholic or they work in a Catholic parish or school. Two-thirds are “ex-Catholic” who were raised Catholic culturally but no longer attend Mass.
Many ”partially Catholics” were not raised in the Faith. They are the ones who consider Catholicism to be more faith than culture.
Fifty-two percent of Americans have left the Catholic Church at some time, and most of them consider themselves ex-Catholics. Many say they are open to coming back. Eleven percent of them have come back. “The rest are still in motion, and the Holy Spirit is still at work,” said Sherry Weddell, author of Forming Intentional Disciples.
Your circle of influence
Some of these meaningfully-connected, partially or ex-Catholics are within your circle of influence. You work with them, work out with them, serve them in your business, go out to dinner and concerts with them. They live in your neighborhood. Maybe they work in the Food Bank or March for Life with you.
We cannot write off even one of these people who are somehow connected to the Catholic Church but not worshipping with us. Each of them has a story of that connection. How do we influence them, evangelize them?
Their stories reveal bridges
When we listen intently to their stories, we will discover the bridges that connect them to Catholicism. Perhaps the bridge is a relationship — a Catholic spouse, childhood friend, teacher or grandparent. The bridge may be cultural and tied into holidays and celebrations. Or a shared ministry such as pro-life or feeding the poor. That relationship, family celebration or ministry is the bridge that brings them back.
For the cradle Catholics who have left, perhaps it was a bridge they wanted toy burn of unforgiveness for a priest or teacher that treated them unkindly or a sin they feel God cannot forgive. Sherry Weddell contends that when you discover the bridge they took to leave the Church you will know the bridge on which they will return. Their need for reconciliation is the path back.
Crossing the bridge
How can we find a way to accompany them across that bridge of trust? Help them come home? Here are a few suggestions:
Make yourself approachable. Smile and make yourself available as you live the Faith. Walk the walk. Always and everywhere do the right thing.
As I wrote in You are Being Watched, you are unique in who you are in the Lord and whom you can influence.
Wherever you are, don’t worry so much about being politically correct or hurting someone’s feelings by mentioning religion because it makes someone uncomfortable. You can know a person for years and not know about their interest in what’s going on in the Catholic Church unless the two of you are comfortable talking about religion.
Be joyful! Saint Teresa of Calcutta writes that, “Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”
Be Catholic all the time
Don’t hesitate to mention your Catholic activities in casual conversation. It’s who you are and what you do. If everyone is talking about the coming weekend, chime in with your plans to attend Mass with your family, among other things. You don’t know who around you is one of those meaningfully-connected, partially or ex-Catholics who want to know more about Catholicism. They may even ask where you go to Mass.
Know that everyone around you has spiritual needs. Many times I‘ve had a non-Catholic neighbor or acquaintance ask me for prayer for an urgent need. Because they know I am a Catholic convert, they know I can relate to the Protestant experience. Here’s my opportunity to listen to people who need consoling and discover their bridge to Catholicism. The same is true when connecting with a nominal Catholic who shares your culture or a former schoolmate at a Catholic school.
We are called as co-workers to evangelize those in the field of the world around us — our home base, neighborhood, workplace, and parish. When we are partners with God, we can do anything! He provides everything we need.
The love question
Pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as you listen to their stories. Encourage their faith in God. Remind them that God loves them. Ask them when they first knew he loved them. This conversation is as natural as getting to know a couple by asking them how they first met and fell in love. The love question gets right to the core of relationships and connects soul to soul.
Saint John Paul II taught that the most effective way to evangelize is through our personal witness. If you know the love story of your relationship with God and can tell it succinctly and authentically, you have a winning strategy. We all go through the same struggles in different scenarios. What you have experienced, and come through the wiser, can help someone in the midst of that same struggle. A reason for hope is what you offer them. (You can learn how to share your testimony in “How do I share my witness?”)
Always be ready
Where do we start to help bring fringe Catholics home? At the top, by honoring God in all we do. Thank him for the gift of faith and our rich inheritance of the Catholic Church.
Each day pray the words our first pope wrote in 1 Peter 3:15, 16,
Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence.
(© 2017 Nancy HC Ward)
The Pew 2014 US Religious Landscape Survey, http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
Forming Intentional Disciples Today 2016,
FID today 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHbK_brfCV4&feature=youtu.be