Twenty-some years ago, I had a typical freshman year in college: studying, getting acclimated to dorm life, and training to go door-to-door to get people to “make a personal decision for Christ.” Wait, what? Didn’t you do that last one your freshman year? I guess that was unique to my experience as an Evangelical Protestant involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, a Protestant “para-church” organization that focused on evangelization. Fortunately for me (and for the poor people I harassed), I soon became Catholic and my evangelization techniques changed considerably. But at that time, few Catholics talked about – and even fewer engaged in – evangelization. Today the word “evangelization” is much more common in Catholic circles. We see lots of videos and conferences and books on Catholic evangelization and hear many calls for Catholics to evangelize. But what we don’t see is…results.
No one likes to hear this, and frankly I don’t like to write about it. But the harsh truth is that fewer and fewer Catholics are practicing their faith, and fewer and fewer people are becoming Catholic. So although we speak about evangelization, we are not really seeing much good fruit from the focus on it. Why is that? Many factors, of course, are at play: poor catechesis, lackluster and irreverent liturgies, capitulation to the culture, religious indifferentism. However, one significant reason for our failure is that we have omitted an essential ingredient of Catholic evangelization itself.
Before I reveal the missing ingredient, I want to review the generally-accepted elements of proper Catholic evangelization. Obviously, the act of evangelizing itself – telling others the Good News – is essential. Another component is prayer – having an interior life as well as praying for those who are lost. Finally, living a Catholic life and witnessing to the power of the Gospel in our actions is required. These three elements of evangelization are necessary, and most good Catholic evangelists will usually emphasize them. But almost all Catholics (including me) forget the final ingredient of evangelization – the “secret sauce” necessary to make our evangelization powerful and effective. What is it?
(That whooshing you hear is the sound of thousands of readers closing their tabs or clicking away to another site. But I’ll continue for the three of you who are left.)
Today’s Catholic Church places little or no emphasis on mortification (also called penance). We seem to believe that we can follow our crucified Lord and bring others to him, without having any pain, or suffering, or even discomfort in our lives. How American. Yet if we look at the saints who were successful at evangelization we quickly see that their lives consisted of pain and hardship. St. Paul, the greatest evangelist the Church has produced, described his mission as filled with suffering:
Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)
But we think we can bring souls to Christ just like this great Apostle or a St. Francis Xavier simply by posting Catholic memes on Facebook and Twitter…
The realization that the Church today is missing an essential ingredient in her evangelization efforts came to me when I read this simple sentence from Pope Pius XII:
“This is a deep mystery, and an inexhaustible subject of meditation, that the salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention.” (Mystici Corpus Christi 44, emphasis added).
What struck me so much was that we would never see included today the simple phrase “and voluntary penances” in Catholic writing on evangelization – neither in official Church documents nor in the writings of most Catholic thought leaders. I know – I’ve read most of them. We have completely forgotten the importance of the practice of voluntary mortifications.
Yet our Lord himself told us that prayer alone is often not enough. When the apostles failed to cast out a demonic spirit, they asked our Lord why. He replied: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9: 29). If “fasting” (mortification) was required to drive out that demonic spirit, does it not seem clear that mortification is necessary to drive out the spiritual darkness which envelops modern man?
Why must we suffer in order to help bring about the salvation of others? This is a mystery, and reflects the intrinsic bond between Christ and his Church. Just as Christ suffered in order to make salvation available to the world, so too must the Church suffer in order to bring salvation to each person. St. Paul wrote of the deep unity between the sufferings of Christ and the sufferings of the Church, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1:24). No servant is greater than his master: St. Paul knew that offering his sufferings for the salvation of others was an integral part of his apostolate for souls.
Voluntary mortification, therefore, is necessary for successful evangelization, and there are many examples of voluntary mortifications that we can practice today for the salvation of souls. Traditionally, it has been the practice of the Church to fast every Friday – from one meal, two meals, or more. Throughout the week we can also give up those things we love so much: coffee, sugary treats, Facebook, TV. Or we could perform small physical penances, such as keeping a pebble in a shoe or turning up the A/C thermostat in the summer. We all know our own limits and abilities, and the mortifications we choose should be compatible with our state in life (a nursing mother, for example, should not practice extreme fasting). Regardless of one’s state in life, however, every person can choose appropriate mortifications.
One final note about taking on penances and mortifications for the good of others – remember the words of Jesus:
“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18).
Or, as St. Josemaría Escrivá noted, “Choose mortifications that don’t mortify others” (The Way, 179). No matter the suffering we accept, we must continue to be joyful witnesses of the Gospel, leading others to Christ through our prayers, our lives, our words and our penances. With all four ingredients many souls can be won for Jesus Christ.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.