How ought we to approach our family members and friends who have fallen away from the faith in the hopes of bringing them back? New survey data reports that, for the first time in our history, there are as many Americans with no religious affiliation as there are Catholics and Evangelicals. More significantly, of these “Nones” there are more than a few baptized “Dones”—Catholics who have left the Church to face this world, and the next one, on their own.
With so many lapsed Catholics suspended in so precarious a spiritual state, we need a viable battle plan to win them back to the true faith. From Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker’s encounter and subsequent battle with Darth Vader in The Return of the Jedi, we can learn six valuable lessons that provide us with both a method of proceeding and a modicum of hope in what is, in a very real way, a battle over the eternal life—or loss—of a soul.
(Disclaimer for the purists: Star Wars has been chosen for its notoriety and cinematographic merits. This has nothing to do with zen Jedi theology.)
First, as Luke confronts Darth Vader for the first time, he declares, “I have accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father.” When Vader replies that his birth name no longer carries any meaning for him, Luke affirms all the more: “It is the name of your true self. You’ve only forgotten.” Like Vader, each and every fallen-away Catholic has turned away from his or her true self: a chosen and beloved child of God by virtue of baptism. The seal of baptism can never be destroyed or wiped away; it can only be forgotten through choosing a life of sin and by closing oneself off from God’s grace.
Because of this seal, when we confront the lapsed Catholics in our lives, we can say with Skywalker, “I know there is good in you.” And since that good comes from God, we have hope that these lost souls can be saved. The challenge for us, through prayer and dialogue, is to assist them in recalling, and ultimately accepting, the good that God infused into them at baptism.
Second, in response to Luke’s invitation to abandon his evil ways and join him, Vader, in the tone of a broken man, says, “You don’t know the power of the Dark Side. I must obey my master.” We must not forget that sin really can shackle those who yield to it, and when it is freely embraced, the person becomes enslaved to Satan, the master of evil and the father of lies. This reality makes our efforts that much more difficult, for “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). This means that beyond dialogue, we need to fast and pray for the souls of the lapsed.
Third, to Luke’s offer of freedom, Vader adds, “It is too late for me, son.” Like Vader, lapsed Catholics, after years of sin and isolation from God, can wrongly assume that there is no hope left for them. So, instead, they wallow in their freely chosen prisons, making them permanent homes. As much as believers know that God loves all of us, even the lost sinners, we need to remember that, due to stubborn pride, love is one of the hardest realities for adults to accept and feel. Hence rational arguments alone will never be sufficient: we need to find concrete ways to help them experience and receive real love.
Fourth, when Vader brings Luke to his master, the Emperor shows Luke the death trap that he has just sprung on Luke’s friends. He then tempts Luke—irate and powerless as he watches the heinous plot unfold—to yield to hatred and join the Dark Side. We, too, can become angry and feel powerless as we watch our loved ones on the verge of eternal death. But we can never yield to hate or despair. Rather, we must cling to Christ’s cross with the certain hope that sin is vanquished only by love.
Fifth, in the final confrontation, Luke insists he does not want to fight his father, but he does so in self-defense. We may not want to fight our loved ones who are drifting, or have drifted, away from the faith, but the gravity of their actions compels us to respond. Regardless of the scenario—a son seeking to cohabitate with his girlfriend, a brother who refuses to attend Mass, a friend addicted to certain vices—the deposit of faith must be defended from profanation, as Benedict XVI recently reminded us, even if the offenders are still likely to persist in their errors after correction.
Finally, Darth Vader does convert at the last moment, but he does not do so until he arrives at the point of total defeat: physically broken and knocked to the floor, Vader finally makes the decision to reject the Dark Side and return to the good. Likewise, too often lapsed Catholics do not convert until they have experienced complete dejection; we have the Prodigal Son as the great biblical example of this. But if it were not for the persistent and determined love of Luke, the Prodigal’s father, and countless other faithful Catholics, these lost souls might never have found their redemption. As hard as it is, we must remain patient and respectful of the awesome power of human freedom, God’s mysterious gift that allows us to accept or reject him.
Vader’s dalliance with evil lasted for decades and cost an untold number of lives. Lapsed Catholics damage themselves and their friends by their sins and scandals. Nevertheless, like the good thief on the cross, evil repented of in this life can be forgiven by the God whose mercy exceeds our limited comprehension. In God’s plan of salvation, he desires our help in bringing lapsed Catholics to his font of mercy. So let’s gird ourselves with our Catholic lightsabers and get to work.
(Photo credit: Lucasfilm)