The East Coast of the United States is bracing for a possibly “historic snowstorm.” Earlier this month, we observed the 20th anniversary of another historic snowfall — the Blizzard of 1996. The fact that two decades has passed since that unique and memorable event makes me feel incredibly old, but it also brings me back. I remember distinctly where I was and what I was doing as the snow piled high and deep. 18 years old at the time, I watched the plows through airplane windows. I wound up stuck in the Pittsburgh airport as everything was shut down by the weather. My luggage got lost, it was below freezing, and I was in shorts and a t-shirt. As flights were cancelled and I unsuccessfully struggled to plot a route to make it back to Upstate New York, I didn’t yet realize that the travel troubles were just part of the adventure. Where I was coming from — and what I had just finished doing — turned out to be major milestones in my life.
The mid 1990s were, for me, heady days. I had become deeply involved during those years with the (now-disgraced) Legionaries of Christ and their lay apostolate, Regnum Christi. Through a Legionary priest I knew who was stationed there, I wound up spending part of my summer as a camp counselor at The Highlands School just outside of Dallas, Texas. At the conclusion of the camp, I had made some new friends, and was enjoying my first visit to the Lone Star State entirely too much to go back to my humdrum life in a small, rural town. At the invitation of the priests who ran the school, I decided to stay on to finish my senior year there, the distaste of 11 years of public school and an unsatisfying attempt at homeschool thereafter still fresh in my mind. Five months later, when classes let out for Christmas break in 1995, I made a short visit home to see my family, then flew to the Bahamas at the beginning of the new year for my first attempt at being a Catholic missionary in a foreign land.
I went with a group called Youth for the Third Millenium (YTM), a pseudonymous apostolate of Regnum Christi that had been started the previous summer as a project (ostensibly) designed to accomplish parish revitalization and evangelization. In reality, it was yet another recruitment tool for an organization that more closely resembled a pyramid marketing scheme than a religious congregation, but at the time, I didn’t know that. And since many of my best friends to this day were also actively involved before the truth about the Legion’s founder was revealed, I can say with confidence that my experiences weren’t all bad. The Legionaries had a knack for attracting good, faithful Catholics. Most came to the work with very sincere intentions, and as such, they were capable of accomplishing fruitful things.
Taken on its own, the YTM model was a good one. Until I joined up, I had never heard of a Catholic organization that organized door-to-door missions for evangelization, with the goal of bringing people into the Church. Each mission was coordinated with a local parish in a target area. The missions were most attractive when they were held in exotic locations, and the mission in the Bahamas was the first attempt by YTM to put together a major initiative for both young men and women. Armed with well-designed, pocket-sized manuals of Catholic apologetics, we intrepid missionaries headed out two-by-two, knocking on doors in a designated geographical area and talking to those willing to listen about Christ and His Church. In later missions, we brought professional apologists with us to help bolster areas where our own knowledge was insufficient. In every case, standing on a person’s doorstep and initiating a conversation about Catholicism put every ounce of the missionary’s knowledge, faith, and resourcefulness to the test.
It was one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’d ever done.
By January of 1997, I had completed six such missions. In addition to the Bahamas, I went door to door in Dallas, Texas; New York, New York; Michoacan, Mexico; Berens River (First Nation), Manitoba, Canada; and Miami, Florida. On the last two missions, I was mission coordinator and mission director, respectively. The Miami mission, which I organized and oversaw in 1997, would be my last. It would also mark the parting of ways between myself and the apostolate I had dedicated so much time to. (I would soon become one of the most outspoken critics of the the Legionaries and Regnum Christi, but that’s a story for a different essay.)
I learned a great deal from my time spent as a missionary, and the experiences I had not only deepened my knowledge of the Catholic faith in ways that will stay with me forever, they taught me first hand just how important the Great Commission truly is:
And Jesus coming, spoke to them, saying: All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world. (Matthew 28:16-20)
This is the Church’s mission; as such, it is our mission. ALL of us. And while we’re not all called to be missionaries in foreign lands, we are all called to do our part according to our state in life to give witness to the truths of our One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Faith.
We are supposed to bring the light of Christ into the world, to preach the saving mission of His Church from the housetops. Any attempt to hide the Church’s essential role in salvation history, any action which seeks to diminish her exclusive claims, work against Christ’s own mission and purpose, and the one He handed on to her.
Religious indifference — the idea that usually takes shape under the deception that people all religious faiths are on a shared journey to salvation — has become alarmingly commonplace among the Catholic clergy. So much so that it comes as a shock when we hear a priest, bishop, or pope say something which indicates to the hearer that conversion to Catholicism is of the utmost importance. It is much more likely that we’ll hear apologies for the historical fact that Catholic missionaries brought the saving faith of their Church to the indigenous peoples of various lands, often at the cost of their own lives.
I’ve written before on why we can’t be indifferent to indifferentism. Eric Sammons has discussed one of the most important missing components of effective evangelization. We talk constantly in these pages about the importance of good liturgy, of reverence, of authentic devotion, and spiritual warfare.
At the heart of it all, though, is one simple question: do you believe that membership in the Catholic Church is necessary for salvation?
If you can’t answer that question with a resounding, “Yes!”, you can’t be an effective missionary. If you don’t have a conviction that Christ established ONE Church for the purpose of transmitting the sacraments and thereby offering access to the graces necessary for heaven, you will never have the courage to share that treasure with others. If you believe that people are probably “just fine where they are” and never even give them a reason to consider Catholicism, you may be unwittingly neglecting your role as the person God sent to invite them to a life of eternal happiness.
20 years ago, in the slums of a little Caribbean island known more for its stunning resorts along pristine white sand beaches than its native poverty, crime, or hunger for God, I learned that to be an effective missionary meant I had to believe in my purpose, right down in the very core of my being. I had to know that I might be the only person who ever reached out to the soul on the other side of that door to tell them the Good News. I had to take that duty incredibly seriously.
To this day, I still do. And I’ll have to answer for the times when failed to live up to that conviction.
Perhaps more than ever, we need Catholics with apostolic zeal, which comes first and foremost from a sharing in God’s love of souls and His desire that they spend an eternity with Him in heaven. I have hope that men and women of this caliber still exist, because Christ promised that the Church will endure, and she surely can’t survive without them.
The truth is, we mustn’t sit back and hope that leaders will come forward, and it only does so much good to complain that the people who should be leading have abandoned their posts. We can’t wait for the priests. We can’t wait for the bishops. We can’t even wait for the pope.
It’s up to us. Every day, wherever we go, to be ambassadors for Our Lord and His Holy Church.