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We Are All Called To Be Evangelizers | Russell Shaw | Introduction to Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith, by Fr. C. John McCloskey, III, and Russell Shaw

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"Good news and bad news", said the agent at the airline check-in counter in Munich.

I cringed.

"The good news", she went on, "is that the flight to Dulles is on time. The bad news is that it's a full flight. I put you in a middle seat."

A short time later, fearing the worst--a 350-pound woman on one side of me, a man with a hacking cough on the other--I boarded the plane. Traveling by way of Munich, I was heading back to the United States after two weeks in Rome spent lecturing at a university and attending a meeting at the Vatican.

The 350-pound woman and the coughing man apparently missed the plane. What I got instead were a quiet young chap in his late twenties on my left and, on my right, a blonde young woman, twenty at most, in tee shirt and jeans. Breathing a sigh of relief, I settled in for the nine-hour flight.

I'd planned on a nap after lunch, but my seatmate to the right had other ideas. Her name was Caitlin. She was friendly and wanted to talk.

She was a junior at a Lutheran college in the Midwest, returning home from a week-long spring break spent in Rome with friends and classmates. She said she was studying Far Eastern culture and foreign languages.

I asked, "What do you want to be?"

The answer was a surprise: "A missionary."

She wasn't kidding. Blonde, chatty Caitlin looked and acted like the all-American girl, but as she talked it became clear that the great passion of her life was the good news of Christ. And some of what she said about that was more than a little disconcerting to me, a lifelong Roman Catholic.

I asked her where she had it in mind to be a missionary. Thinking of her Far Eastern studies, I supposed she would name some country like Korea or Japan. I was wrong. She thought Rome looked like a pretty good place to preach Christ.

During her spring break, it turned out, she'd pretty much skipped the usual tourist sights--the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the rest--and spent her time evangelizing other students in the hostel where she and her friends were staying.

The Italian university students in particular intrigued her. "They were all baptized as Catholics," she explained, "but they said they'd had Catholicism crammed down their throats, and they were sick of it by now. I think Rome would be a great place to make converts to real Christianity. Excuse me for asking, by the way, but ... what religion are you?"

"I'm a practicing Roman Catholic."

"Oh! I didn't mean to offend you." Caitlin was nonplussed--although not very.

"I'm not offended", I assured her. "There's a lot of truth in what you say. But of course it's only part of the truth and not the whole of it."

I went on to discourse knowledgeably about the problems of alienation and loss of faith that could occur when superficial cultural Catholicism--or a merely "cultural" brand of any religion--found itself facing the challenge of secularism and a culture without faith. Mischievously, considering her Lutheran roots, I suggested to Caitlin that if she was looking for a really post-Christian setting in which to be a missionary, modern-day Scandinavia would suit her just fine. (I'm not sure she got the point: innocence is sometimes its own best defense.)

"Anyway," I wound up, "the story has another, more positive side. A lot of Christians today have recognized the problem you recognized and are working to interiorize and deepen their faith. There are a lot of good things going on, actually, in the Catholic Church, in Rome and everywhere else. Alongside much that's still pretty bad."

For some time, the young man on my left had been listening in. Back before lunch he'd introduced himself as josh and said he was an environmental consultant who lived in Vermont and was going home after several weeks of consulting in Poland. Caitlin looked across me to him. "Are you a Christian?" she asked cheerfully.

Josh hesitated. "I guess you could say I'm on the sidelines watching the game", he answered. "It's like I'm making up my mind whether I want to play."

Caitlin and I absorbed that but said nothing. The conversation went on. Now she had a question for me: "What do Catholics really believe about Mary? You hear so many different things. And what about the Rosary? Tell me about that."

Stumbling and fumbling, I tried to give a thumbnail account of Catholic doctrine and devotion regarding the Blessed Virgin. "Tremendously important in God's plan... model and intercessor for us all ... our mother in a real, spiritual sense ... but we don't worship her, if that's what you mean... what she mainly does is lead us to Christ."

The Rosary was easier. I had mine in my pocket, and I pulled it out and showed it to the two young people--wooden beads on a thick cord. "Good for going through security at the airport", I pointed out.

Then I told them what I could about the Rosary: the sets of mysteries ("important events in the lives of Jesus and Mary", I translated); a simple, practical way to combine vocal prayer and meditation; a good way of praying when you were too tired or too busy to do anything else. "I often say the Rosary when I'm driving", I told them.

Josh hadn't said much up to then. Now he volunteered an unexpected statement that surprised Caitlin and me: "I've made pilgrimages with a friend of mine." It turned out that he'd been to Lourdes, Fatima, Santiago de Compostela, Medjugorje. In Poland he had visited Czestochowa.

This sounded like something more than watching from the sidelines. "I guess I'm kind of searching", he admitted sheepishly. Then, "My Catholic grandmother would be pleased."

I felt that I should say something inspiring to get him off the sidelines and into the game. Caitlin, too--she needed a word of advice that would provide some direction for her enthusiasm and idealism. Nothing came to mind. The conversation had played itself out. Soon Caitlin was hopping out of her seat to visit her friends at the back of the plane. Josh read a magazine. I took my nap.

It seemed like only a short time before we were circling Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia outside Washington, D.C. When we had landed and were preparing to debark, I told Caitlin I would pray for her and asked her to pray for me. I wished josh good luck. They vanished up the aisles on either side of the plane as I struggled to get a piece of luggage out of the overhead rack.

Waiting in line at passport control with passengers from your own flight and several others is a terrific opportunity for introspection. In our own particular ways, I thought, each of us is searching. I suspect josh may be closer than he thinks. Caitlin is sure she's found Jesus, but he may have some surprises in store for her. And me? For me, like everybody else, God's will unfolds neither more nor less than one day at a time.

A Specialist at Work

Father C. John McCloskey Ill has done more than most people to help others on their spiritual journeys. Profiling Father McCloskey in his book Priest (Sophia Institute Press, 2003), journalist Michael S. Rose called him "a 'specialist' in the business of transforming souls". Rose wrote:

As a specialist, he eschews the more institutional approach to conversion that has unfortunately become the order of the day. "Many people are turned off by the bureaucratic approach that says, 'Hey, if you want to be a Catholic, you have to come here every Tuesday night for a year', or even worse, 'Sorry, our convert program started in late August. So you'll have to wait for next year.' ... I tailor-make my approach to the individual, considering his circumstances, and try to find out what's best for him."

He's had some notable successes. The list of those he has helped find their way into the Church includes prominent figures like onetime abortionist and proabortion activist Dr. Bernard Nathanson, Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brown- back, Wall Street analyst Lawrence Kudlow, syndicated political columnist Robert Novak, and publisher Alfred S. Regnery. But these are just the iceberg's tip. Beyond the familiar names are hundreds of less well-known men and women who share something in common: "Father John" helped them to become Catholics.

C. John McCloskey III is a native of Washington, D.C., where he attended St. John's College High School. It's unquestionably a miracle of reconciling grace that he and I have been able to collaborate on a book, considering that from time immemorial St. John's, conducted by the Christian Brothers, has been the hated rival of my Jesuit high school, Gonzaga. We called the men of St. John's Johnny-mops; heaven knows what they called us. While there, at the age of sixteen he joined the predominantly lay Catholic group Opus Dei.

After attending Columbia University, Father McCloskey worked on Wall Street. Discerning still another bend on his vocational path, he next headed for Rome, where he studied for the priesthood at the Roman College of the Holy Cross, the formation center for priests of Opus Dei. Ordained in 1982, he returned to the United States to do pastoral work with Opus Dei in New York. In 1985 he started traveling three days a week to Princeton University, where he served as a chaplain--unofficial at first, then official, then unofficial again--to Catholic students. That needs explaining. No one has ever accused Father McCloskey of not speaking his mind, and in due course he became a controversial figure in some Princeton circles for his outspoken views about the politically correct, anti-Christian paganism that he found perverting students on this distinguished campus.

Michael Rose calls it "ironic" that some members of the Princeton community wanted the priest suppressed for what he said: "They accused him of wanting to stamp out those who disagreed with him, yet they tried to silence him by demanding his expulsion." In 1990 the chief Catholic chaplain, reacting to the controversy, dismissed him as an assistant. He continued his ministry to students at the Opus Dei center in Princeton until 1998.

Then he was transferred to Washington to assume the directorship of the Catholic Information Center--the CIC for short. This was a downtown institution dating back to the 1950s whose operation the Archbishop of Washington had turned over several years earlier to Opus Dei.

Located a five-minute walk from the White House, on the K Street power corridor, close to government agencies, high-priced legal and lobbying firms, private clubs, hotels, and glit- tering shops of every kind, the CIC serves a varied clientele made up of professionals, workers, tourists, and passersby as a kind of midtown daytime "parish" at the center of the action in the heart of the nation's capital. For more than five years it was a congenial environment for Father John--a base well suited to his diversified ministry, including the convert making that is the substance of this book.

What does a specialist in evangelization and convert making do? Although the book isn't an autobiography, it contains an implicit answer to that.

The most important thing about conversion is, of course, that it's God's work and God's alone. Others, including the converts themselves, only respond to divine initiatives, only cooperate with grace.

Still, there are steps to be taken, things that work and things that don't, certain patterns that tend to repeat themselves. It is important, too, to have a solid grasp of the present religious and cultural situation, the contemporary context for the operation of grace, as well as some knowledge of the living continuity of past and present--the tradition from which Catholics draw their spiritual sustenance in and through the Church. A "specialist" in the business of transforming souls here explains all this.

A Word about This Book

The book is Father C. John McCloskey's, but I had more than a small hand in it, too, in several ways: by organizing material he provided me (mainly articles of his and answers to questions I put to him to draw him out on matters that needed clarifying), rewriting for clarity and style, here and there adding thoughts of my own that seemed congruent with something he'd said. The results are authentic McCloskey, yet not entirely without Shaw. A collaboration, in other words, in which each collaborator brought something important to the finished product.

One of my most useful contributions may have been the following. As I was preparing to begin the writing of the book, I explained to Father John that we badly needed something lacking up to that point. "Your theory of evangelization and conversion is excellent," I told him, "but theory isn't enough. We need case histories, personal examples, the human dimension."

Thinking that over, he had a marvelous idea. He e-mailed a number of people whom he'd helped bring into the Church and told them, "What I am asking from you is very simple. Write a paragraph or two or three about what most strongly attracted you to the Church and also about what were your greatest difficulties. And if I had any role in your conversion, mention what I said or what arguments I used that you found helpful in understanding the faith better."

The responses were swift in coming and remarkably generous. The experiences and insights provided by these several dozen men and women leaven the book and help make it much more exciting-and more useful-than it otherwise would have been. Going far beyond "a paragraph or two or three", many wrote short, moving autobiographical essays that display extraordinary perception regarding the workings of grace and the dynamics of the spiritual life.

Gobbledygook or Good News?

These are matters where straight talk is badly needed. Not long ago I came across a prominent churchman's account of who Jesus is and the role he plays in our lives: "For young people struggling with uncertainty created by the contemporary cultural attitude, the challenge must be addressed by the knowledge of Christ as the historically lived and contemporary presence of the revelation of God in his Easter mystery of death and Resurrection."

Huh? Simply as rhetoric, that's rather thin gruel by comparison with, say, the great organ chords that open Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Wreck of the Deutschland:
Thou mastering me God!
giver of breath and bread;
World's strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead ...
And not much nourishment either for people starved for something--Someone--to believe in. Such people will find help and inspiration in sentiments expressed by a woman whom Father John baptized and confirmed in May 2002. Near the end of a narrative that runs thirteen single-spaced pages, she writes:
I know this is too much for you, Father, but I am still so overwhelmed by the grace that brought me to you and has led me to such joy in my life, joy that I never knew was possible. I'm still the same person, with all the same failings, all the same difficulties, all the same challenges, all the same tendencies, and yet I'm an entirely different person because I see everything in the light of Christ, understanding that ultimately I can handle anything that comes from him ... I'm looking at everything and asking, what is it God is showing me, what is he asking of me, what does he want me to do so that I can become stronger, even in the most mundane things? I am thrilled to be a child of God and am becoming more of an adult toward the world because I am allowing myself to be that child. So often I stop and marvel at the fact that God loves me. How unbelievable that is!

And at the same time how sure I am that it is true. I revel in the paradoxes.
"I revel in the paradoxes." Or, as C. S. Lewis put it in the title of his conversion story, Surprised by Joy.

When I got home from Dulles Airport after that trip from Rome via Munich, I found waiting for me the first batch of Father John's raw material for this book. Too bad I hadn't read it before I ran into Caitlin and Josh--I might have had a better idea what to say to them. But not to worry--there will be other occasions, other Caitlins and other Joshes, for sure. We are all called to be evangelizers, whenever and however God wants. "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15). But be sure to do it, the epistle adds, "with gentleness and reverence".

And as Pope John Paul II reminds us in Novo Millennio Ineunte (At the Start of the New Millennium):
It is not therefore a matter of inventing a new program. The program already exists: it is the plan found in the gospel and in the living tradition, it is the same as ever. Ultimately, it has its center in Christ himself, who is to be known, loved and imitated, so that in him we may live the life of the Trinity, and with him transform history until its fulfillment in the heavenly Jerusalem.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Excerpts and Articles

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, one 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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