Just as Protestants are told to rescue Catholics so they can be saved, Catholics are told to evangelize Protestants to bring them into the fold. Catholics are also told to do their best to bring lapsed Catholics home.
Lapsed Catholics aren’t too difficult to approach if a practicing Catholic wants to do that. Lapsed Catholics know what you’re talking about so you hope that if you can plant a seed, Jesus Christ will one day flood them with grace and bring them back to the Sacrament of Penance before they die. ASAP is preferable but a death-bed reconciliation with Jesus also works.
Evangelizing folks who aren’t Catholic, however, is another matter, especially if they happen to be Protestant. But Protestants, depending on their denomination, have some common ground with Catholics. It’s not as difficult as it would be starting from scratch with a Buddhist over a cup of tea.
A Protestant believes what a Catholic believes about the Trinity, three Persons in One God; Jesus as Savior and Lord as a result of His crucifixion and resurrection; and the Holy Spirit indwelling in the soul of the believer as well as in the Church. Protestants and Catholics believe many other things in common as well but the two groups also have a passel of disagreements. Most Protestants, except perhaps for some Anglicans, do not share what Catholics believe about the Blessed Virgin Mary and that can be a problem in trying to evangelize them.
I have always enjoyed listening to Protestant preachers on television if only to learn what they tell their congregants. It gives me some idea what I might want to talk about--and not talk about--should I ever fall into conversation with a Protestant about Catholicism. Certainly enough Protestants have evangelized me and I appreciate their sincerity. I have long thought Catholics could use more than a little of their energy and devotion to bringing others to Christ. But then I’m a believer in spite of myself and we have that in common.
I have found over the years that Protestant preachers run the gamut from the outspokenly anti-Catholic to those who seldom make any reference to Catholicism. At either end of that spectrum, however, the Blessed Virgin Mary is not a factor for Protestants except occasionally among a few anti-Catholic preachers who like to take a swing now and then.
There is one preacher out there, long of tooth and beloved by his followers, who always talks about “Marian idolatry.” I understand that he is only doing his job based on his belief. The problem is that he and his associate pastors are basically wrong about many of their contentions involving Catholicism. I could give them some good stuff Catholics moan about among themselves but they probably wouldn’t listen. This particular preacher, however, after six decades in the pulpit, still thinks Catholics worship Mary as well as statues. Completely wrong.
As a result of listening to Protestant preachers I've also learned that talking about Mary is not a good marketing tool unless a Protestant brings the matter up. Personally, I wouldn’t mention Mary at all until a Protestant has become serious about Catholicism but is still bothered by Catholics' veneration of the Blessed Mother and invariably the saints behind those statues. Then I’d begin talking about the difference between veneration and adoration if that needed to be explained.
From listening to Protestant preachers, I learned as well that if I talk about Jesus and the Holy Spirit the conversation might last for awhile. If I do it right, the Protestant may begin to think differently about Catholicism. I might even mention God the Father now and then although I don’t hear God the Father mentioned often during Protestant services on TV. But then I seldom here about God the Father in Roman Catholic homilies either. And except on Pentecost I don’t hear the Holy Spirit mentioned as often as I think the Third Person of the Trinity deserves. In many Protestant services I’ve heard the Holy Spirit is mentioned often, sometimes more than Jesus.
Not all Protestants may understand that Catholics agree that when Christ ascended into heaven He sent the Holy Spirit to protect the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. The Church was bruised before, during and after the Protestant Reformation due to faults in the Catholic Church and due to various personal interests of Martin Luther not conducive to his life as an Augustinian monk.
I’m not concerned about who bears the greater fault, if any, with the splitting up of the Church during the Reformation. Nothing doctrinally essential was stripped away from the Catholic Church at that time and over the centuries a great deal of tuck pointing has helped to repair some of the other problems Luther rightly complained about. So now one of the challenges is to explain to Protestants why it’s important to come back to the Catholic Church, to put it bluntly and simply. For me, the most important reason is to receive Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist rather than a symbol of Him represented by a cracker and grape juice.
I don’t think it will become any easier to evangelize Protestants until the Catholic Church begins publicly to talk about the Holy Spirit and God the Father more than it does about the Blessed Virgin Mary. I am not saying Catholics should decrease their veneration of the Virgin Mary. I am saying that perhaps their veneration should become more private while their adoration of the Holy Spirit and God the Father becomes more public. Let Protestants hear Catholics speak about the Holy Spirit and God the Father as much as they now hear them talk about Lourdes and Fatima.
I’m not saying that for the sake of converting Protestants we should ever deny that Mary is the only perfect, sinless human being who ever lived and who ever will live; that she is the Mother of the Son of God, and that she is the most important intercessor for us with her Son. At the same time, I think it’s important for us to tell Protestants that Catholics are as free as they are to pray directly to Jesus Christ, the one and only mediator with God the Father.
In order to help Protestants understand Catholicism better, I believe that Catholics must talk more about the Trinity--the Father, Son and Holy Spirit--or Catholics will not reach Protestants in what is said to be as many as 30,000 Protestant denominations. There will be plenty of time later to tell Protestants interested in Catholicism about Mary and her role in salvation history. But first we must prove to them that Catholicism is based on the same faith they have in Jesus Christ, His Death and Resurrection, and in the Trinity. And that will not be easy to do but certainly worth trying.
I hope I have said nothing blasphemous or heretical here. I simply want to see more Protestants receive the Eucharist and the other sacraments and to do that they must become Catholic. For reasons too numerous to go into here, Catholics do not have a communion table open to all. One has to accept Catholicism in its entirety and be in the state of Sanctifying Grace to receive the Holy Eucharist.
I started thinking about this when I became aware that Pope Francis plans to go to Sweden in 2017 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with the Lutheran Church of Sweden.
Privately, I can’t celebrate the splitting up of the Church 500 years ago. It’s the biggest trauma Christianity has suffered since the crucifixion of Jesus. The Mystical Body was torn asunder and still lies about in many parts. Many good surgeons are needed to put the Body together again.
At the same time, I realize the Catholic Church did much that was wrong that led to the Reformation and that Luther accurately pointed out many of those errors before he left the Augustinian order and gathered his followers. And I wish all those who will celebrate the anniversary of that earth-shaking and heaven-shaking event all the best.
Meanwhile I’ll do what I can, given the opportunity, to tell anyone who will listen about the difference between the reality of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist and the symbol of Him represented by a cracker and grape juice. As a Catholic I would never leave church without the Eucharist.
Donal Mahoney, once an editor with U.S. Catholic Magazine and Loyola University Press, has many times in his life been approached by Protestants seeking to help him save his soul. He wishes he had had the gumption to approach half as many Protestants in an effort to explain why he is still and always will be a Roman Catholic.