Monday, September 10, 2012

Thinking about evangelization generally, conversion in particular

Regular readers already know that Younger Daughter and her husband Olaf are residing under our roof.

Olaf follows neither of the two major faith traditions of our household. Oh, he will accompany us and his very pregnant wife to 7:00am Sunday Mass, but he is very definitely not Catholic. His roots are Lutheran -- one of his grandfathers was a Lutheran missionary in South America -- but Olaf himself is, at most, an agnostic -- a skeptic -- at times inclined to outright atheism. His parents got swept up in an evangelical movement -- they are proud believers in Biblical Inerrancy (you'll not watch any dinosaur shows in their house) -- and Olaf, mathematically inclined as he is, rebelled in an equal and opposite fashion. How Newtonian.

Now I am not inclined to criticize sincere people who believe as they do in order to live a better life and secure their place in the World to Come. (I don't want persons holding these beliefs organizing the science curriculum in the schools any more than I'd want to put the Amish in charge of NASA, but that's another story....) On the other hand, Olaf was also raised as a Cub fan -- and having that sort of infidel under my roof stretches my tolerance to the breaking point.

But, seriously, I know my wife and daughter have hopes of someday bringing Olaf into the church. I think Catholicism provides the flexibility and intellectual rigor that could attract Olaf, eventually. At this point, though, when he sees us watch shows on dinosaurs, I think it indicates to him that our religious principles are shallow, or merely cultural. It has not yet dawned on him that sincere religious belief and science can be compatible -- and even complimentary.

The one thing I know for certain is that Olaf would resist any direct approach to conversion. Pleading won't do. Pamphlets certainly won't.

That got me thinking about evangelization.

When we think about it at all, we think that Christianity spread by mission. During His lifetime, Jesus sent his earliest followers out to proclaim the Good News to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" without a "sack for the journey, or a second tunic, or sandals, or walking stick." Jesus instructed them to move on from places where they were not well received, shaking the dust of the place from their feet. (Mt. 10:5-15.)

After the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, after receiving the Holy Spirit on tongues of fire, the Apostles spread out across the world with the Gospel message. The most famous missionary of all joined them along the way: St. Paul, once a persecutor of Christians, brought Christianity with him all around the Roman world. His letters to communities of believers in various cities and towns are still read in churches today.

And these missionaries seeded the Christian faith, planting it here and there.

By the time Constantine became Emperor, not quite 300 years after the Crucifixion, Christianity was sufficiently widespread, and Christians sufficiently numerous, that it made good political sense for Constantine to embrace Christianity as the official religion of the Empire.

Missionaries did not accomplish this.

In the second and third centuries, Christians were not out proselytizing and sending missionaries door to door. Many hid in the Catacombs when persecutions came. Those identified as Christians might be martyred for their faith. Nero used Christians as human torches in the first great prosecution of Christians after the Great Fire in Rome in 64 A.D. In that and many subsequent persecutions, Christians were torn apart in arenas by wild beasts or executed by gladiators.

And yet Christianity grew during these trying times. The ranks of Christians swelled. From a tiny sect, Christianity grew to the point where it became politically astute to make Christianity the official faith of Rome. Granted, the persecutions were not constant in the years between Nero and Constantine; there were many years, even decades, of peace in this area or that one. But there were no great missionary movements in these years -- nothing to compare with the journeys of St. Paul or the later epic voyages of the Jesuit missionaries -- nothing, even, to compare with the mission work of Olaf's own grandfather.

So how did it happen?

I think it must have happened person-to-person, family member to family member, slave to master (as in the case of Sts. Serapia and Sabina), or neighbor to neighbor. It must have been the examples set by Christians, their serenity, their certitude, that attracted others to them. It is how the Christians lived -- and not just how they died so willingly, even cheerily, though they did not court death or volunteer to be slaughtered -- that attracted new believers. Persons observing them must have passed through a 'they-must-be-crazy' phase to a 'maybe-they-are-on-to-something' phase before converting themselves.

Our daily lives are our best witness of our real faith, or lack thereof. That is how we really evangelize. That is evangelization. Moving back from the general to the specific again, it will not be dragging Olaf to church that eventually brings him around (if he is to be brought around); rather, it will be what he sees there -- and in our home -- that may, someday, excite his interest.

Of course, St. Monica also prayed a lot for the conversion of her son, St. Augustine. But that's another story too....


AndyK said...

The first time I volunteered to help with RCIA I quickly learned that teaching people about the Catholic faith does not imbue them with the Spirit. Instead it is the converts themselves who bring the energy of the Spirit into the Church.

Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

good luck!

smiles, bee

Kacey said...

Sort of brings the song,"They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love" to mind. We started out as Lutherans, but switched to The Christian and Missionary Alliance when our children were teenagers and desired a more individual relationship with Christ. Now, our youngest daughter and her husband have retired from nursing and the Ohio Hwy. Patrol and are dorm parents at The Black Forest Academy (missionaries' children) in Germany and loving it. The whole experience kept our kids on the right path and now we are busily praying for our grandsons who are embracing the agnostic bit. Perhaps your Olaf will feel the desire for some religious help when his child comes along and he can't hack it alone.