Catholic Evangelization: No Time to Give Up

While it is true that nobody is in this life utterly beyond the reach of the Hound of Heaven, the Epistle to the Hebrews warns about the danger to those who have been fully incorporated into Christ and then reject him.  “It is impossible,” the inspired writer tells us, mincing no words in the fashion often falsely called pastoral, “to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt” (6: 4-6)While we must balance that “impossible” against the claims of Jesus that in the matter of salvation, “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26), nevertheless there is a real spiritual truth here.  It is dangerous to at all times to reject the grace of Christ:  it is much more dangerous to reject that grace after one has been given it in full.  The terms of Hebrews—enlightened, tasters of the heavenly gift, and partakers of the Holy Spirit—have been read historically as referring to the fullness of incorporation in Baptism, Eucharist, and Confirmation.

Sure enough, it is those who have left the Catholic Church intentionally, whether in an act of formal apostasy or, without actually physically leaving, in an act of internal apostasy by which they set themselves up as the arbiters of what in the Creed of the Church is true or tolerable, who truly seem to be impossible to reach.  The latter, having refused to admit they have left anything, are like the amiable but damned bishop in The Great Divorce for whom “to travel hopefully is better than to arrive” and whose infernal theological society spends time debating how Jesus “would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived.  As he might have done, with a little more tact and patience.”

The damned bishop was not alone.  In the midst of the controversies this past year over the investigation into the women religious associated with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, I thought not just of the rather public repudiations of Christian doctrine, but of a conversation with an Evangelical Protestant neighbor a couple years ago.  An occupational therapist, she did quite a bit of work with a local religious order who had, as a community, wed the age and were now not only widows, but aching and sore ones.  Their bitterness about their plight and the fault of the Church’s hierarchy in causing it (to their minds) spilled over in many harsh words, no doubt made harsher by the fact that my friend was stretching tendons and ligaments that no longer stretched easily.   Trying to sympathize, she told a number of the sisters that she understood that church leaders could be faithless, but ultimately the sisters could look to Jesus, right?  She was rendered speechless when, after a silence, one of the sisters told her that while she might think of Jesus as God, to them he was just another man.

With the numerous losses in the cause of marriage and other moral issues, as well as the continuing cultural recrudescence surrounding us, I often get a feeling from other Catholics as well as other Christians that we are defeated.  Western culture, once broadly Christian, is now merely broad, as in the broad way that leads to hell. It is heathenism that seems to be the substance of our culture but, as Sigrid Undset observed, it is not and cannot be the old “pre-Christian heathenism as though the experience of Christianity had not intervened between it and us.”  Modern heathenism, she argues, “is a new thing—a declaration of war against a God who has spoken, where the old heathenism was a love song to a God who hid himself, or an attempt to live with the divine whose power men felt around them.”  To update Undset, today’s heathenism is all pantsuit nuns announcing christological heresy, with all the condescension and rudeness of Lewis’s bishop, but snarls rather than amiability.

Even looking beyond the angry nuns can be depressing when the vision seems to rest on the rise of angry “nones,” that growing group of generally young people who respond to questions about religious affiliation by marking “none.”  Many of them are reflexively left-wing and instinctively hostile to any perceived religious element of culture that is public or seems likely to affect public policy.  Many of them are the children of broken families in which the absence of fathers has implied to them the absence of a Father.  Their acquaintance with Christianity has been simply to hear that their own situations have been a handicap to their development and the result of sin.  Whether they agree with this assessment or not, they resent Christianity for pointing it out.

The same might be said about younger Catholics who seem to have written off much of Catholic teaching even if they do attend Mass now and then.  They are likely to support the redefinition of marriage and the legal right to kill one’s offspring as long as it is in the womb.  It is easy to simply apply Hebrews 6 to an entire culture and mentally write them off, write off the possibility of influencing our culture and perhaps even large-scale public evangelization itself.  Unlike Blessed John Paul II’s talk of a New Springtime of the Church, Cardinal Ratzinger echoed at least the less optimistic predictions of the near future over fifteen years ago in Salt of the Earth. He offered that the end of traditional Catholic cultures may have come and that we may be facing “a new epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world.”

I suspect that the Pope and my more pessimistic friends may be right about this stage of the Church’s history.  And yet, whatever the dynamics of Western culture are when glimpsed as a whole, I’ve often wondered whether we do not seriously err when we attribute to individuals or groups, even nuns and nones, Undset’s notion of modern heathenism as a declaration of war against God.  Many people are hostile to Jesus Christ and his Church; but many are only superficially hostile, having too little acquaintance with the essential teachings or even the story of Christianity to really have an opinion.

Several years ago I was at a Christmas party and overheard the hostess, a Catholic woman in her late-sixties, explaining the Christmas story to a young boy of about 7 or 8.  He had been looking at the very elaborate creche scene displayed in one corner of the room on a low table and was fascinated by what he saw. What did this exotic group of animals and humans signify?  Who was the baby?

The hostess was both surprised and bemused that the boy had never heard about the birth of Jesus or how Christmas is a compound word made up of “Christ,” a title given to the baby, and “Mass,” the Church service that Catholics participate in.   The boy’s parents, very kind and utterly secular, had never actually explained the religious origins of this winter feast, even before coming to a party hosted by practicing Catholics.  But I didn’t get the sense that they had a whole lot of knowledge of these matters either.  Another couple at the party had a new baby and were discussing the imminent baptism.  The Nativity-Scene-Questioner’s mother asked in all innocence when Christians did that baptism thing.

Like the six Herdman children in Barbara Robinson’s 1973 classic, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, this young boy was fascinated by hearing the story of the Nativity for the first time. It was perhaps weirder than the silly stories of Santa Claus that the boy had probably already begun to disbelieve, especially since his hostess told the story not in the “once upon a time” fashion, but as a bit of real history.  Who knows what that boy or his parents made of it?  They were, however, open to hearing about Bethlehem and Baptism, though, perhaps because they were simply ignorant of these things.

What is true of the truly secular is even more so of the vaguely Catholic.  For the last eight years or so, my wife and I have taught, every other month, the course for parents having their first child baptized.  This is a course that is demanded by canon law.  Many, if not most, of the parents coming are doing so sheerly out of a desire to check the box.  Many of them have not been in a Church that often apart from their own Church wedding.  Yet after each hour-long class covering the basics of the theology and symbolism of baptism we have found that the commonest response is simply gratitude for teaching something substantive about Catholic faith.  Too often, even if these young adults had a Catholic school or religious education program as children, it was insubstantial.  To see that the faith has content, substance, something to bite into, is a step in the right direction.

Evangelization is not easy.  In Porta Fidei, the apostolic letter announcing it, Pope Benedict emphasizes that the Year of Faith in which we are currently engaged, is a time to catch flame ourselves by rediscovering the truth and the beauty of the Gospel.  We have to read the biblical stories and study the doctrines again with the same level of interest and wide-eyed wonder that the secular and the Christmas-Easter-Only Catholics demonstrate.  When we do, we may see that the possibilities for witness are much greater.  So are the opportunities for success.

Editor’s note: The image above, entitled “The Sermon of St. Stephen,” was painted by Fra Angelico in 1447-49.

David Paul Deavel


David Paul Deavel is associate editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture. He earned a Ph.D. in theology from Fordham University and has taught at the University of St. Thomas (MN) and the St. Paul Seminary. His writing has appeared in a number of books as well as a wide variety of popular and scholarly journals.

  • Bono95

    Today’s Western heathenism is indeed radically different than the Western heathenism of old. The old European pagans (in fact, virtually all peoples and tribes anywhere in the world) all had a religious system of some kind, which was in certain cases easier to evangelize than modern atheism/agnosticism. Perhaps this is why the Church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific even as it shrinks in Europe and America?

  • Pingback: Catholic Evangelization: No Time to Give Up | Crisis Magazine | theraineyview()

  • supineny

    re: “an act of internal apostasy by which they set themselves up as the
    arbiters of what in the Creed of the Church is true or tolerable” And yet one can hardly fault people for using their best judgement and their fullest range of resources to assess the institutions, practices and beliefs that form their lives.

    • asa2222

      No, you can’t fault them for doing that in a general sense. But if their assessment comes to the conclusion that they don’t accept the authority of the Magisterium, then they ought to stop calling themselves Catholics.

      • So true!! The church is not meant to be a democracy!!! They can’t have it both ways!! It is not just the church’s magisterium they’re rejecting it is Jesus Christ himself.

        • supineny

          And yet the Church has evolved over the years, often reflecting changes in thef the culture in which its congregants live in.

          Today’s apostasy is tomorrow’s reform.

  • hombre111

    “even if these young adults had a religious education program as children, it was unsubstantial.” Yep. And let me count the ways. First, parents. Any old excuse was excuse enough not to attend religious education classes. I had parents tell me that things like soccer or some other program were always more important. And so, parents usually made some kind of effort for Confession and First Communion, but afterwards, things were sporadic at best. Or the parents would drop the kids off at classes before Sunday Mass and then not go to Mass themselves. We experimented with other days, other hours. But religious ed was not that important to the parents and so not that important to the kids.
    And then, the teachers. Volunteers. Busy volunteers with only marginal knowledge of the faith themselves and poor teaching skills. We had excellent books–if the person knew how to make things interesting by understanding their faith and by really teaching. We tried to get the teachers to upgrade their understanding of their faith and learn to really teach. Brought in educators, sponsored retreats. Only a few takers, year after year.
    And then, the kids. Incredibly short attention spans modeled after TV commercials. Because of their sporadic attendance, difficult for them to know where we were in that particular class. The teenagers? A paid teen mnister strained mightily. By then all this religion stuff was old stuff. Did not want to learn the substantial stuff. Sporadic attendance, again. Good attendance for Confirmation, with our volunteer staff (see above). Desperate search to find programs that would keep their attention and create interest in faith. And after Confirmation? Hasta la vista. Pretty good luck on Reach retreats, other teen style religious retreats less well attended.
    Well, I am retired now, freed from my weekly dose in humiliation. But something tells me that the “new evangelization” is going through the same meat grinder. Good luck, youngsters. The Church is in your capable hands. You can evaluate, as I did, after a few years. But then it will all be your fault, and there will be the new, new evangelization.

    • Vida

      You must have more hope. Pray for the youth and the Church. As a young convert from atheism (now only 26 years old) and my boyfriend, a convert from evangelical protestantism… We see these same struggles day to day. It was hard enough as ones driven and seeking to be catechized well… But we must have hope.

      • hombre111

        Thanks. But I think it has been entirely too easy to diss the previous generation. A lot of things don’t change. The new evangelizers are going to meet the same old inertia. If they can find a way around it, they get my enthusiastic hooray.

      • Vida, Keep on believing and hopefully your children will receive good instruction as well as good example from you & your husband. I wish you well!

  • Manny

    As long as Catholic politicians are the driving force behind abortion and the culture of death and the Bishops refuse to excommunicat them the Church looks like a joke.

    • Alecto

      Worse, they look like what they are: cowards and hypocrites.

  • Pingback: First Links — 1.25.13 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog()

  • The book “CATHOLIC EVANGELIZATION: practical ways of spreading the gospel and building up the Body of Christ” is a definite read!!!! found at

  • Pingback: Man's Role in Writing Sacred Scripture | Big Pulpit()

  • Matt Landry

    “Their acquaintance with Christianity has been simply to hear that their own situations have been a handicap to their development and the result of sin. Whether they agree with this assessment or not, they resent Christianity for pointing it out.”

    It still beats the message coming from the world, which amounts to “no matter how thoroughly you know that this is wrong, it must be right, because your mom says so, the judge says so, the school says so, the psychiatrist says so, and your dad will go to prison if he ever contacts you to say otherwise”.

    A Church willing to possibly offend its congregations on occasion by tempering “honor thy mother” with some public mention of the indissolubility of marriage might help out, though.

    So yes, in my misplaced anger, I left the Church, blaming it for the invariably watered-down (and occasionally outright heretical) things that its designated representatives had to offer. It took me a long time, a major life crisis, and then a lot of reading to learn the truth, and even then, a real act of faith to come back.

    According to Hebrews, I suppose that my subsequent repentance and return and absolution must all be false, and I must be irrevocably damned. But according to Christ, the forgiveness I was offered was genuine and binding. I suppose I’ll find out which way it goes when I die.

    In the meantime, whether I’m irrevocably damned or not, I hope that our priests down at the parish level can finally grow some spine and start actually proclaiming the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth, and do so in numbers sufficient to halt the collapse of Catholicism.

    • Dear Matt, I just noticed your comment at the end. I tried to address the fact that we can’t take the text of Hebrews on its own without the full Scriptural witness and doctrinal teaching. Here’s what I wrote:
      ‘While we must balance that “impossible” against the claims of Jesus that in the matter of salvation, “With God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26), nevertheless there is a real spiritual truth here. It is dangerous to at all times to reject the grace of Christ: it is much more dangerous to reject that grace after one has been given it in full.’

      Thanks be to God that, though you were in great danger, nothing is impossible with God. I can only echo what you say about the parish level, but let me say, as one who has been teaching college and major seminarians for the last few years, I have great hope and optimism about the newer priests and those coming after them.
      God bless,
      Dave Deavel