Yesterday was the feast day of the endearing Saint Monica. Many Catholics know the story: The devout woman prayed for almost ten years for the conversion of her son, and he eventually left a world of sin and darkness and became the great St. Augustine, Doctor of Grace.
Today would have been his feast day, except it’s superseded by the Sunday celebration. Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see the two saints, mother and son, back-to-back on the liturgical calendar.
It’s a reflection of the power of love, intercession, and perseverance. It’s also a strong sign of hope to the many people who have loved ones that have fallen away from the Catholic Church or from Christian discipleship in general.
The feast days, therefore, raise some pressing questions: What is a believer to do when a loved one leaves the Church or the Christian faith? How is she supposed to approach the one who has left?
While some might think to use shame and guilt, and others might think that alienating or ceaselessly nagging a person might be effective, both of these and other such methods have almost always proven unhelpful in bringing people back to the fold.
And, at times, they violate Christian virtue itself, and can even skirt or manifestly cross the line of harassment against a person’s religious liberty.
Beyond such high-handedness, however, there is another approach available that has proven to be more virtuous and respectful, as well as more effective in listening to and welcoming people back to the Church.
An example might be helpful in presenting this other approach.
There was a joke during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II that if the pope were to meet a cannibal and the person were to extol the greatness of cannibalism, the pontiff would have attentively listened to him and then responded, “Yes, a regular dose of protein is helpful to the human body. But let’s look at how we get our protein, etc.”
While the story is laughable, it illustrates an important approach lived by the late pontiff, and one that could be helpful in engaging those who have fallen away from the faith.
Pope St. John Paul II respected the dignity and conscience of all. As such, in his dealings and conversations with people he sought to follow what could now be outlined as a three-part process: he listened to people desiring to understand them and their hearts, he discerned to find similarities and shared convictions he held with the other person, and then he used what was shared between himself and the other person as a bridge for dialogue.
If the discussion led to debate and disagreement, it was always marked by unity and respect.
This approach provides a more Christian response to the questions about how to engage a loved one who has left the Catholic Church or the Christian faith. In some respects, it shouldn’t be such an innovative approach, since it was lived and modeled by Jesus Christ.
When this approach has been used, it has always led believers into a more expansive series of relationships with others including those who disagree with them and a deeper knowledge of the faith for themselves.
Beyond judgments and offensive approaches, therefore, believers are able to use this approach and engage others who are struggling with faith or aspects of faith, or the Catholic Church or one of its teachings, or with their own issues or things going on in their lives.
This approach reminds the believer that inviting someone back to the Catholic Church or to the Christian faith should not be a contest, a game, a battle of wills, or an indulgence in dark guilt, but a truly human outreach that desires the good of the person and seeks to give witness to how the Catholic Church and a life of faith can contribute to a person’s peace, sense of purpose, and meaning of life.
In the end, this approach exemplifies the maxim of the Christian spiritual tradition: “Heart speaks to heart.” And when believers listen to the heart of another, and encompass it with sincere prayer, then surprising things can happen.
When a church member is willing to focus on the other person as a person made in God’s image with their own journey and struggles, and is willing to show the necessary patience and gentleness, then God’s grace can work.
Wayward sons can become great saints, disinterested souls can become zealous for the things of God, and those formerly on the periphery can become strong members of the believing community.