Can Catholics Be Evangelists? An interview with Russell Shaw, co-author, with Fr. C. John McCloskey, III, of Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith | Carl E. Olson | April 25, 2007
Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and The Crisis of Faith is, as its title indicates, a book about spreading the Gospel. The authors, Fr. C. John McCloskey, III, and Russell Shaw, draw upon numerous firsthand accounts of conversions, combining them with personal testimony, solid theology, and effective methods of communicating the Catholic Faith.
Good News, Bad News has been widely praised by numerous Catholic clergy, authors, evangelists, apologists, and lay people for its accessible, challenging, and inspiring content. Noted political columnist Robert D. Novak, who entered the Catholic Church under the guidance of Fr. McCloskey, states: "From personal experience, I can testify that Father C. John McCloskey is one of America's great Catholic evangelizers. This book is a unique, fascinating guide of how and why to convert, and it should be must reading for all Catholics." Another well-known convert, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, writes: "This book ranks with Karl Stern's Pillar of Fire and Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain as an indispensable spiritual road map for the perplexed, the sorely bent and the broken.I know: Father John McCloskey was my Virgil, guiding me gently and lovingly through the terrifying jungle of secular success to a place of infinite surcease--God's grace."
I recently interviewed Russell Shaw, and spoke with him about the book, evangelization, and the role of the laity in the 21st century.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How did you and Fr. McCloskey go about writing Good News, Bad News and what do you hope readers of the book will take away from it?
Russell Shaw: The book is a true collaboration. I read a number of the articles Father John has written over the years about evangelization and related subjects. Then I asked some questions and he provided answers to fill in the gaps. Acting on a suggestion of mine to get more of the human dimension into the book, he contacted a few dozen of the converts he's worked with and invited them to tell their stories. A number did, sending along written accounts running from a couple of paragraphs to many pages. This is some of the most moving and insightful material in the book.
Then I sat down to organize and rewrite all this into what I hope is a coherent picture of evangelization and convert-making, adding ideas of my own to expand or clarify things that needed it. The result was Good News, Bad News.
We hope readers will take away from it a new--or renewed--desire to get into the game by engaging in evangelization, along with some practical suggestions about how to do it.
IgnatiusInsight.com: It's fair to say, I think, that most people do not usually put the words "Catholics" and "evangelization" together. Why is that so?
Russell Shaw: The conventional answer is that it's a problem of language. Protestants talk about evangelization. Some Protestants are evangelicals. Until recently, these have been Protestant words. They didn't seem to have much to do with Catholics.
That explanation is correct, I think, but the problem also goes deeper than that. It's clericalism at work. By that, I mean the assumption--on the part of lay people, mind you--that if any evangelizing was going to be done by Catholics, it was the job of priests and religious. It wasn't something that the Catholic laity needed to be concerned about.
IgnatiusInsight.com: You're written much about the role of the laity over the years. Where do you think evangelizing ranks, so to speak, in the work that laity are called to do in the greater context of the Church?
Russell Shaw: It ranks right up at the top. It's often been said--for example, by recent popes like Paul VI and John Paul II--that the mission of the Church is synonymous with evangelization. In other words, announcing the Good News, telling the world about Jesus Christ and how he has redeemed us, and encouraging people to have a living relationship with him.
Now, as a result of baptism and confirmation, all members of the Church--including the laity--have roles to play in the Church's mission. All of us--including us laity--are called to participate in the work of evangelization. It isn't optional. It's a central part of the Christian vocation.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Is there a secret to being a good evangelist? If so, can you provide a hint?
Russell Shaw: There are a lot of ways of being a good evangelist. For instance, if you have what it takes to be a media personality like Bishop Sheen or some of today's great evangelizers--go for it. But for most of us, it's going to be a more modest, everyday kind of thing.
The key to it is a sincere interest in other people, wanting what's best for them--happy, fulfilling lives and eternal happiness in heaven. It starts with friendship. I don't mean being a back slapper. I mean reaching out to other people with real sympathy and concern, getting to know them, being a good listener, learning what their dreams and their problems are. There are a lot of people out there just waiting to open up to somebody on a deep level if given the opportunity. That's where evangelization usually begins.
In any case, an evangelist is only a channel, an instrument, for God's grace. Grace is what matters most--but the evangelist must do his or her share.
IgnatiusInsight.com: The book has a chapter titled, "Who Are the Converts?" Do converts to Catholicism have common qualities? Or similar issues or questions that compelled them to seek answers in the Catholic Church?
Russell Shaw: Converts are a very diverse group. They come from all sorts of religious and personal backgrounds. Some have worked their way through several churches before they get to the Catholic Church. Others have little or no prior religious experience. There's no one-size-fits-all profile for them all.
If they have one thing in common, it's a sense of incompleteness, a feeling that something important is missing from their lives, something that would give meaning to everything else and help them understand what life is all about. Plus, I suppose, a certain degree of curiosity--and maybe suspicion, too--about the Catholic Church. After all, people think, here's a religious body that goes back very far and makes extraordinary claims for itself. Of course the claims aren't true ... but suppose they were? That question gets many of them started on the road that leads to the Church.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some of the biggest obstacles faced by those who are potential converts? What can ordinary Catholics do to help remove those obstacles?
Russell Shaw: As noted, many people have questions about Catholicism or have picked up misinformation that needs correcting. It doesn't require a graduate degree in theology to do that. All you need is access to the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Compendium of the catechism, and you'll be able to handle most things that are likely to come up. Also, reprinted as an appendix to Good News, Bad News is Father John's very popular "Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan"--a list of a hundred excellent Catholic books of all kinds that are excellent reading and invaluable sources of information.
Beyond intellectual problems, people often have personal problems that are obstacles to converting. Being in a second marriage, for instance. People in that situation must be referred to a priest to see if there's a solution. Another fairly common problem is resistance from spouses or family members or friends. The only possible advice then is, "Look, you're the one who's proposing to become a Catholic. They aren't. But if they really love you and care about your welfare, they'll come around in time." And apparently that usually is what happens. All in all, it seems, almost any problem or obstacle can be handled if the will to handle it is there.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Over the years, I've been asked by potential converts why it is that Bishop Smith or Father Jones prefers talking about, say, the environment or "social justice" instead of preaching and defending the Gospel. What sort of impact does the witness--or, dare I say, the lack of witness--on the part of many clergy have on potential converts?
Russell Shaw: Of course it does harm, although I think the behavior you mention--the stress on political and social activism not alongside but in place of the spiritual message of the Gospel--is less a problem now than it used to be. It was an overreaction that flared up back in the 1960s and 1970s among some members of the clergy. There are exceptions, but most bishops and priests these days seem to have their priorities in better focus.
But I don't think we should blame everything on the clergy. What is the impact on potential converts of the witness--or lack of witness--of Catholic lay people who either don't live by the faith they profess or are painfully apologetic about it and try to keep it to themselves? Most of us need to take a look at that question before we examine the failings of bishops and priests.
IgnatiusInsight.com: In your estimation, are programs such as "Disciples in Mission" very successful in reaching non-Catholics or in preparing Catholics to be better evangelists?
Russell Shaw: I've heard of the program you mention, but I'm not familiar with it or any other program, so I can't offer an opinion. I'm in favor of any program or approach that really does motivate Catholics to be evangelizers. If a program works, I'm for it. But I think it's fair to ask for evidence that it does work.
As I said earlier, though, you don't need a degree or special training or other preparation to be an evangelizer. What it takes is a friendly attitude, commitment to the faith, and a desire to share it with others. If your own religious knowledge is shaky, get a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and learn as you go. If you need encouragement and some tips, read Good News, Bad News or some other book. If you run into a tough personal problem--a bad marriage, say--encourage the other party to talk things over with a priest. Be patient. Be understanding. Be a good listener. Pray and do penance. Trust God.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Why should people read Good News, Bad News?
Russell Shaw: Father John and I have tried to give Catholic lay people a clear, level-headed, practical, and thoroughly orthodox introduction to the work of evangelization and bringing converts to the Church--which is to say, bringing them to Christ. This isn't a job for just a few people. It's for everyone who's been baptized and confirmed. "Go into all the world and preach the gospel," Jesus says (Mk 16.15). He isn't talking only to the Apostles. He's talking to you and me. That's what Good News, Bad News is all about.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Excerpts and Articles
We Are All Called To Be Evangelizers | Introduction to Good News, Bad News, by Fr. C. John McCloskey, III, and Russell Shaw
Evangelization 101: A Short Guide to Sharing the Gospel | Carl E. Olson
Evangelization & Imperialism | Carl E. Olson
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | Joseph Pearce
The History and Purpose of Apologetics | An Interview with Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J.
Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Apologetics | Fr. John R. Cihak
"Be A Catholic Apologist--Without Apology" | Carl E. Olson
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance | An Interview with J. Budziszewski
Russell Shaw is the author of eighteen books and is the former information director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference and Knights of Columbus. He is also a member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the father of five and the grandfather of nine.
Father C. John McCloskey, III, STD is a priest of the Prelature of Opus Dei and a research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute. He has served as a Catholic chaplain at Princeton University and as director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington. His articles have appeared in such publications as Catholic World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.
Praise for Good News, Bad News:
"From personal experience, I can testify that Father C. John McCloskey is one of America's great Catholic evangelizers. This book is a unique, fascinating guide of how and why to convert, and it should be must reading for all Catholics." - Robert D. Novak, syndicated columnist
"Mr. Shaw and Fr. McCloskey have written a book about repentance, recovery, conversion, and joy. I recommend it because I have experienced it through Jesus, my Savior." - Lawrence Kudlow, Host CNBC's "Kudlow & Company"
"Through their friendship and their family life, Catholics converted the Roman Empire, on person at a time. This book shows you how it was done--and how it's still done today. It's a book that can change the world all over again." - Scott Hahn, author Rome Sweet Home
"This book ranks with Karl Stern's Pillar of Fire and Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain as an indispensable spiritual road map for the perplexed, the sorely bent and the broken. I know: Father John McCloskey was my Virgil, guiding me gently and lovingly through the terrifying jungle of secular success to a place of infinite surcease--God's grace." - Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Pro-life activist and author
"No matter where you are in your spiritual journey, pick this book up and be transformed both inside and out." - Raymond Arroyo, EWTN News Director and New York Times bestselling author
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