Ordinary Ways Of Convert Making, The
The American clergy are vividly aware of the necessity of a more systematic and energetic apostolate to the non-Catholic of our country. What they often seek is a handy outline of the rudimentary precepts that will guide them in their daily ministry among our separated brethren. Convert making, like any other activity, has its basic principles. The following pages are an attempt to sketch briefly some of the indispensable requisites for success in the apostolate to Christ's "other sheep."
Step One: A Proper Point Of View
Our frame of mind regarding any individual or group will affect our relations with them. The man who speaks of papists betrays the presuppositions that act as a barrier to a proper understanding of Catholics. While convert work can be a consoling and fascinating labor, it requires generous reserves of zeal, patience, and unfailing kindness. If a priest's primary assumptions regarding non-Catholics are awry, he will vitiate much of the good he hopes to accomplish even when he does not abandon the work as hopeless.
The phrase separated brethren goes a long way toward indicating the manner in which we should regard the non-Catholics of our parishes. They were fashioned by the same Creator and stem from the same father, Adam. They are involved with us in original sin and in its consequences. They share with us the same destiny, and it was for them as for ourselves that Christ died and established his Church. Furthermore, many of them are validly baptized.
Unfortunately, the tragic differences that cause them now to be outside the Church of Christ are many and far-reaching. But what should dominate our outlook is the fact that so many souls, once of the household of the faith, are now denied the fullness of Christ's grace and truth.
Regarding non-Catholics as our "separated brethren" cannot but stir us to sympathy and to a vigorous apostolate among them. It will prepare us to encourage any slight tendency on their part to look to their Father's house and to be alert for any small opportunity to facilitate their return. And it will purify the spirit in which we exercise our zeal.
Step Two: Enlisting Prayers For Conversions
The longer we engage in convert work the more we realize the need of fervent and continuous prayer for conversions. Not many will forget that faith is a free gift of God, but actual experience among non-Catholics brings this truth home to us with ever-increasing clarity.
The extent of religious ignorance, the plausibility of half-truth, the deep-rooted prejudices of many, the vitality of error, the weight of past habit, the costly sacrifices, and the painful journey required of many before they come to the light these and deeper considerations soon persuade us of the paramount necessity of grace.
The wise convert maker will spare himself many unnecessary disappointments if he enlists a crusade of prayer that will precede, accompany, and fructify his own efforts. Unfortunately, the Catholic laity are not fully aware of this need. They do tend to pray for sinners and for the poor souls [in purgatory], but they seldom pray for the conversion of their non-Catholic neighbors. By frequent instructions and exhortations the people can be easily led to widen their spiritual generosity to include the needs of non-Catholics.
Step Three: Sowing The Seed Of Truth
There are many cases of instantaneous conversion, but ordinarily it is a gradual process: "I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase" (1 Cor. 3:6). Missionaries from the beginning have recognized three separate stages in the spiritual history of their catechumens: the initial attraction to Catholicism, a growing interest in the Church and in her teachings, and the final decision to become a Catholic. At these three stages, missionaries have corresponding duties: sowing the seed, nurturing the tender plant, and reaping the harvest. It is with the first of these that we are immediately concerned.
Much of the effort of a priest in reaching for converts must be devoted to the essential, preliminary task of making himself accessible to the non-Catholics of his locality and winning their esteem and goodwill. No two parishes will offer precisely the same opportunities for this indispensable preparatory work. Nevertheless, no locality will be so barren as not to offer numerous occasions to improve the dispositions of its non-Catholic citizens. Personal experience and observation of the methods of successful convert makers indicate some fruitful approaches that prepare the way for implanting the first inklings of Catholic truth.
1. Casual contacts. Each day a priest meets a number of non-Catholics. He should regard every one of them as a potential friend, an influential ally, and a possible convert. If the priest is approachable, affable, and helpful, he will win their friendship, and they will speak well of him to their associates.
2. Mixed marriages. They are often disastrous, but they can be the occasion of conversion. Many non-Catholics are more or less concerned about their lack of religion, and association with an exemplary Catholic often deepens their interest in the Church. Where the local priest keeps in touch with them and is generous with his time, they may often be persuaded to take a full course of instruction.
3. Use the mail. Priests are notoriously poor at letter writing. Yet there are times when people are especially susceptible to the thoughtfulness of those who drop them only a few lines. A word of congratulation on an anniversary, or a note to one who is honored for some achievement, or the expression of condolence in bereavement has often helped to transform a bigot into a friend. I once knew a man whose son was kidnapped. Afterward he remarked, "I remember every solitary soul who spoke or wrote a kind word to me that dreadful day."
4. Cultivate community groups. Numerous capable convert makers take a page from the book of public relations experts. They work on the principle that one of the shortcuts to friendly contact with any community is through the organizations that are the rendezvous for large sections of the population. These include the Red Cross, luncheon and professional men's clubs, and associations that represent labor, veterans, farmers, cooperatives, and the like. Indiscriminate cooperation with them on the part of a priest is not to be recommended. But association with them is often the door to many private discussions on religion and wins invitations to address larger groups who never enter a Catholic church.
5. Preaching. "Faith comes by hearing" (Rom. 10:17). At funerals, weddings, parish anniversaries, and at Easter and Christmas, there are usually non-Catholics present at Catholic services. If a warm greeting is extended and an invitation to return, and if the sermon is one that gives immediate spiritual help and solid instruction, an immense amount of good can be accomplished. An effort should be made to bring non-Catholics to our missions, novenas, and parish retreats. Many of them will come if we encourage the laity to invite and accompany them.
6. Catholic literature. It is regrettable that only a small segment of Catholic printed matter ever reaches the hands of non-Catholics. Yet the channels of wide circulation are near at hand. The pamphlet rack in church and in public places, the parochial library, placing Catholic books and periodicals in public libraries, remailing Catholic periodicals, sending pamphlets, papers, or magazines to a selected list of good prospects all are techniques that have proved their effectiveness.
No priest will be able to supply all these instruments nor will any one of these suggestions prove successful in every case. But the cumulative effect of applying as many as seems feasible will usually produce beneficial results.
Of course, no priest can be satisfied merely to create good will and to establish friendly contacts. He should aspire to win neophytes for instruction. But catechumens will come more readily and in greater numbers where the Church is respected and where the local pastor has cultivated cordial relations.
Step Four: Enlisting The Laity
However energetic and resourceful a priest may be, there will be many non-Catholics who remain inaccessible to his immediate influence. But his Catholic parishioners are in daily contact with most of these souls. The Catholic laity are present when the non-Catholic asks questions concerning religion, gives voices to his spiritual perplexities, and discusses the problems of the day, most of which have moral or spiritual implications.
Much depends on the manner in which the laity conduct themselves in these discussions. If they are well-informed religiously, tactful, and zealous, they may remove prejudice, create interest in the Catholic outlook, and pave the way for formal instruction by a priest. On such occasions they should invite the non-Catholic to attend Catholic services or an inquiry class. Catholics engaged or married to non-Catholics, and Catholic relatives, friends, and neighbors of well-disposed non-Catholics, have exceptional opportunities to win candidates for instruction.
It is a mistake to rely exclusively on a few faithful "stand-bys" among the laity. The full momentum of the entire parish is required if best results are to be achieved. Even the lukewarm Catholic may be acquainted with non-Catholics who are ripe for conversion. Frequent instructions and announcements on the apostolic duties and opportunities of the laity especially on the three Sundays preceding a new inquiry class will awaken and strengthen their ardor. I know four laymen each of whom has been the means of directing twenty-five people to the Catholic Church.
Step Five: The Inquiry Class
It is becoming customary for the well-organized parish to include an inquiry class among its activities. Some form of group instruction for converts was always practiced in the Church. The modern inquiry class is nothing more than an adaptation of the ancient catechumenate.
To begin with, the class creates the conditions under which moderately curious or interested non-Catholics may be successfully persuaded to study the Catholic religion. Despite widespread prejudice or indifference, increasing numbers of non-Catholics are more or less attracted to the Church, but their concern is not deep enough to induce them to assume the initiative and to apply for a formal course of individual instruction. Where there is no methodical technique designed to aid and encourage them, they remain friendly but seldom advance.
The group instruction plan capitalizes on their good dispositions, removes their hesitations, and facilitates their instruction. It welcomes all comers, no matter what their motive or however slight their interest. It demands no intention of joining the Church. People are assured that they may come to one or to all the lessons as they choose. Since the class meets twice a week at a definite time and place, they are certain that our invitation is sincere and cordial and that every effort has been made to suit their convenience. Because it is continuous, they know they can begin the course at any time. These and other considerations combine to reduce to a minimum the difficulty of persuading them to consider the full case for Catholicism.
The second great merit of the class is that it saves the clergy time. It permits an ambitious parochial campaign for converts on a scale more commensurate with our obligations and opportunities. While the clergy recognize the necessity of a plan that will embrace large numbers of inquirers, they are deterred by the many other duties they must fulfill. Yet most priests can arrange to devote two evenings a week to this activity.
I have found the following devices most efficacious: Sunday Mass announcements, announcements in cooperating parishes, the parish bulletin, ads in the diocesan paper and in the daily press along with occasional news items in both, handbills, a poster in the vestibule of the church, and one placed on the lawn. Some of these attracted non-Catholics directly, and others reached Catholics who in turn invited non-Catholics to attend. The zealous Catholic laity are unquestionably the most fruitful source of catechumens.
Conducting the class. The first meeting may not attract an overflow crowd, but persistent application will increase attendance gradually. I once began with a group of ten inquirers that grew to one hundred. The initial gathering is of exceptional importance, since many will come with misgivings. But if the instructor is cordial and affable, he will soon establish a relationship of confidence and friendliness.
The director should explain that his purpose is to present, objectively, the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church, that there will be no charge for the course, and that no intention of joining the Church is required. He ought to stress the need of God's grace, to encourage prayer, and invite all to participate in the few prayers that open and conclude each class. He promises to explain one fundamental topic each evening and invites questions on that subject.
Some individual instruction will be required in every case. Each person will have is special problems that he may be reluctant to reveal or discuss in public. Some will miss lectures unavoidably, and these must be made up, while others will need special attention on matters that are no problem to the remainder of the class. It is advisable for the priest to make it a practice to be in attendance a half-hour before and after each lecture. He can thus keep in close personal touch with his neophytes and may then arrange for longer, personal interviews when necessary.
It is my experience that considerably over half of those who complete the instructions enter the Church immediately, even though many may not have foreseen this when they started. Others may delay for a while because of indecision or the opposition of their associates. Some may lack the gift of faith, but if the priest offers continued assistance, they may still be won. I know five priests who have each received on thousand converts into the Church, and every one of them is an ardent advocate of the inquiry class.
Step Six: Instructing Converts
Two lessons a week for a period of three months is the ordinary practice. Any more would cause undue delay, and, excepting extraordinary cases; any less would be insufficient to assimilate the basic teachings of the Church. An excellent text is A Catechism for Inquirers by Joseph I. Malloy, C.S.P. Additional reading in books and pamphlets should be provided according to the needs, leisure, and capacity of the catechumen. A pattern to help the instructor to assemble and present his material ought to include the following elements:
1. Doctrine. Love and service of God depend upon accurate knowledge of God. If a man's convictions about God are wrong, as in the case of pagans and heretics, he cannot really love and serve God as he intended. Hence there should be a solid core of doctrine at the heart of every instruction. The widespread ignorance of the fundamental teachings of Christ makes this ever more imperative today. The tragic penalties among converts for insufficient doctrinal instruction are superficiality, sentimentality, a religion of mere external practice, and sometimes defection from the Church.
2. Clarity. The Catechism [for Inquirers] deals in baffling mysteries with brevity and often in a highly technical language. In reality, it is a digest of what the catechumen is expected to know at the completion of the course. Few books clamor so loudly for an accurate, lucid interpreter who has learned how to make profound truths intelligible. Some aids to clarity that deserve special mention are explaining unfamiliar terms, concentrating on the essentials in each lesson rather than preoccupation with those problems which may well be left to the erudite, and the liberal use of stories, illustrations, and comparisons.
3. Relevancy Most inquirers share the secularist heresy that regards Catholic dogma as an academic matter that has little or no bearing on the insistent problems of the day. In our time it is not sufficient to say: "This is what Catholics believe." We must go on from there to explain: "And this is what the doctrine means to you, your family, your nation, and the world." To neglect this aspect of each lesson is to leave unanswered the widest and most persistent of modern difficulties regarding the faith.
We might ask ourselves on of two questions: (1) What enduring question of mankind does this catechism chapter answer? (2) What help does it hold out to needy, troubled men? Thus, the chapter on the Trinity is the Catholic answer to the question, "What is God like?" The chapter on confession is the Catholic answer to the question, "Is there any sure release from the burden of sin?"
4. Spirituality. An inquirer must acquire facility in the "how" of Catholicism as well as in the "what" and "why" of it. While conversion is primarily a change of religious conviction, it is not complete until the moral and religious aspects of his personality undergo a similar transformation. It is a mistake to wait until actual reception before urging him to begin to lead the Catholic life. Most non-Catholics are unaccustomed to any regular religious practice and must be gradually habituated to the moral habits and devotional practices of Catholics. This must be done tactfully, and no one should be pressed to undertake religious exercises that he cannot perform with sincerity. But most inquirers can be persuaded to pray, genuflect, and attend Mass and Benediction. A tour through the church, an explanation of the Mass, and an acquaintance with the prayer book and missal are essential. Suggested reading should include books or pamphlets on the spiritual life, the saints, and reading of the four Gospels.
Step Seven: The Follow-Up
It is obvious that the convert will be in need of aftercare following his reception into the Church. It is impossible to convey in twenty lessons the abounding riches of Catholic truth and grace. The convert's grasp of Catholic dogma and morality must increase so that he will possess a truly Catholic outlook. His devotional and spiritual life should expand. His docility to his pastor, bishop, and to the pope should deepen. Yet the habits of a lifetime will often militate against this, his relatives and associates may throw obstacles in his path, and the secular atmosphere in which he lives will not be conducive to growth in the faith.
Priests, nuns, and the laity must all understand the needs of our newly converted brethren and be alert to come to their aid when opportunity or necessity arises. There will be a more or less awkward period of adjustment wherein the convert gradually grows accustomed to his new surroundings, becomes less and less uncomfortable and self-conscious, and comes to conduct himself as a Catholic "to the manner born." Then should follow a period of rich spiritual development wherein all the powers of his personality will expand, strengthen, and grow. If this does not continue, he may become a kind of associate member of the Church, censorious and only half-converted. Certainly, if he is to persevere until death, he must eventually learn self-reliance. He cannot be forever coddled. But his early days in the fold are critical, and he has a right to our understanding and support.
Much can be accomplished if the laity are coached as to their duties and opportunities in this matter. Many former Protestants have been accustomed to a strong social bond among the members of a religious congregation. Other converts lack facility in making acquaintances. But if lay Catholics are quick to offer their friendship and to assist the convert with tact and generosity, many difficulties will be surmounted.
It would be fantastic, humanly speaking, to say that America can be easily or swiftly converted. But a wide mission experience convinces me that every parish has a surprisingly large number of non-Catholics who are extremely close to Catholicism. If the clergy were to apply themselves, prayerfully and perseveringly, to the ordinary ways of convert making, we would soon multiply the number of converts now received. Once convert work becomes one of the ordinary, customary activities of each or our priests, the conversion of our country will be well under way.
This article is excerpted from the book Winning Converts edited by Fr. John A. O'Brien. It is available form Catholic Answers.
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