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The Missing Ingredient in Today’s Catholic Evangelization


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?

Voluntary mortification.

(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.

29 thoughts on “The Missing Ingredient in Today’s Catholic Evangelization”

  1. Absolutely correct!

    However, there are other factors too. For some time, the hierarchy–and quite often the lower archy too–have left the IMPRESSION that it doesn’t matter all that much whether or not you are Catholic.

    If there is just SO MUCH GOOD apart from the Sacraments, and even apart from Christ, then it is made to seem that there is little point in converting, and little problem with leaving. And the Church has been praising…just praising and praising and praising…Protestants, other religions, and even those with no religion at all. And this praise is virtually never accompanied with any expression of concern at all.

    Also, there doesn’t appear to be any real concern that eternal souls could be lost (unless you are Hitler…maybe…). Christ and the Apostles expressed that fear regularly, but we obviously feel empowered (somehow) to reject their example.

    • I agree with the article, especially when it come to fasting. Also, we are still called to do some penance on every Friday, not only during Lent. I also agree with your post. This false ecumenism after Vatican II, basically says, we are all getting to Heaven since Jesus Christ is so merciful. Therefore, why should anyone come to the Catholic Church. As Hillary Clinton says, what difference does it make now? Telling people they are ok away from the Church and her sacraments is not practicing any mercy. It is a false compassion which is not helping souls.

  2. Very, very good. As I age, I’ve come to realise that words are mere place holders. They need to be true and charitable, but they don’t actually convince. So much energy is spent trying to hone arguments and win points, only to discover that the Other cannot hear you. To accept the truth means he will have to renounce himself, and his comforts and pet notions. To accept the truth requires a converted heart, which requires grace.

    So many times, I’ve seen people revel in an apparent moment of conversion, in which a particular argument seems to have finally convinced someone that he was previously misguided. I say apparent, because the one presenting the truth, the one receiving the truth, and all the witnesses believe that it was the way the concept was [finally!] presented, such that it became obvious that x was wrong and y was correct. In all actuality, the moment is due to the hidden sacrifices of so many–a lonely grandmother’s devoted prayers, a 3rd grade teacher’s sacrifices, a monk’s penance, a priest’s oblation.

    Such moments of grace can fool onlookers, who congratulate the evangelist. God willing, he has the humility and honesty to know that, while he was faithful to his particular task, it was not so much his words as all that preceded them in the sacramental realm.

    There is but one Word, and all that attaches to His sacrifice bring His truth according to the divine plan.

  3. I think those of us who do believe in evangelisation have to just get on with it and stop moaning about the state of the Church (not saying you are). Our Lord Jesus only had a small group disciples and an inner core of 12 and they converted thousands which set a chain reaction to convert millions and now billions. I know a parish where a few Traditionalist Catholic parishioners go every Saturday on the streets and proclaim the undiluted Catholic gospel and give out rosaries and they often see Catholics come back to the Mass sometimes for the first time in decades. All this ‘New Evangelisation’ jargon has done nothing I believe to equip people for mission, lets get back to ‘Old Evangelisation’ which embodies the perennial methodology and teaching of the Church – ‘extra Ecclesiam nulla salus’. #Tradition

    • The problem is that if we can’t offer the non-Catholics a very tempting morsel they are not going to come to the Church. And let’s face it, our Church today has lost its spine and its fighting spirit for the salvation of souls, and has become wussy and ashamed of its own identity. Who is going to want a slice of *that* cake?? This is why our evangelization efforts go over like lead balloons!

      • I know what you are saying, and that is why I travel when I can most Sundays to a TLM, where there is sung Mass – its beautiful. I try to avoid inviting any person I evangelise to the Novus Ordo Mass, but instead to the TLM so they have that ‘morsel’ you speak. Afterwards I bring them into warm fellowship after the TLM with on fire Catholics at our social club, it’s a sure winner. Christ be praised!

        • That’s the only way. Hilary White said in some recent article, “Novusordoism isn’t Catholicism”. I realised a short time ago that my nieces and nephews may have gone to their local parish while they were growing up, but the shocking truth hit me like a thunderbolt: They have never seen or experienced Catholicism.

          • Amen … Us Traditionalists do need to socialise more though after the TLM as some of us travel miles to go to this Mass and it is important for us to build each other up and encourage each other. I am always disappointed when there is no social time after the TLM… We need a warm community to lovingly and gently evangelise people like your nieces and nephews afterwards who have been engrained in the sloppy Novus Ordo framework which has given them a false view of Catholicism.

  4. Cold showers… I heard one priest mention this in a homily.

    And donate to sites like this.

    It’s a common problem now: thousands and thousands of hits on a popular blog and the sites cannot support themselves adequately or expand their mission. A few people end up making it possible for thousands to freeload.

    Folks, it takes $5 and a PayPal account. $5 is less than a combo meal at a fast food joint. If enough people did that for a few sites in addition to the prayer and penance…

  5. “Traditionally, it has been the practice of the Church to fast every Friday – from one meal, two meals, or more.”

    What? I thought it was the practice of the Church to abstain from meat every Friday? I’ve been doing that for years now, but fasting on a Friday? Are you sure?

    I totally agree with you, though, on the point that more mortifications are necessary. Thanks for the reminder. I’m currently listening to The Story of a Soul by St Therese. It is amazing (and full of ideas for mortifications).

    • The laws of the Church have traditionally required abstaining from meat on Fridays throughout the year (although it is only during Lent nowadays). But the common practice of the Church through the centuries is to make Friday a general day of penance, and so if you engage in fasting, the best day to do it is Friday, but there is no Church law requiring one to fast (other than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) or to do it on Fridays.

  6. How true, how true! I am a recent convert with a very ticked off Protestant (2nd) husband. For over a year I’ve pounded him with “facts” of why the CC is correct and his faith is false. That approach failed miserably. Finally I got it through my head that through prayer, fasting and offering up my sufferings there has been some positive results. God has put 5 Catholics in his life through his work….and the last one (just recently) is a very conservative, knowledgable young man who my husband is listening to. Praise God!

  7. “Let me repeat that so there will be no misunderstanding: someone who is interested in helping a friend find his way into the Catholic Church must be prepared to pray and do mortification – and ultimately must leave everything in the hands of God.”
    “Effective evangelisation must flow from prayer and mortification and participation in the sacraments – from one’s own ongoing ascetical struggle to put on Jesus Christ.” (Fr John McCloskey and Russell Shaw: ‘Good News, Bad News: Evangelising, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith’)

  8. Excellent!! I am 64 years old and have never really fasted until the past few years. I truly believed I was unable to do it. I wasn’t obese or anything; I just really thought I couldn’t give up a meal. I prayed a lot to be able to do it and after many unsuccessful tries, I just gradually started skipping lunch or breakfast and sometimes even dinner. Now I know I can do it and it actually isn’t all that much of a trial. Your article made me think about that fact. So I think I need to do more; what I don’t know yet, but probably the “wash your face and comb your hair” thing. I complain too much about the day to day aggravations of homeschooling my two grandchildren who have never been well-disciplined, my son who is non-practicing, my DIL who has never had any religion in her entire life, not even been baptized, and my four other sons who are non-practicing (one proclaiming atheism, one struggleing with SSA, one supporting gay marriage, and one thinking religion is just the opium of the desperate and unhappy). They seem like such hopeless cases to me. However, I prayed and prayed to God, especially to Our Lady with the Rosary for a chance to homeschool the children and you could have knocked me over with a feather when my son suggested homeschooling!! She heard me! I must remember though that it may not have been MY Rosaries that gave me the chance to instill the faith into my grandchildren; someone much more charitable than I may have offered their sufferings from a fatal illness or something else. Thank you for reminding me of this aspect of penances. What a great article!!

  9. Excellent Eric. Mortification is what is missing especially when it comes to stopping sinful behavior. Alcoholics Anonymous insists on this if one wants to get better. The Army insists on it. Any worthwhile goal requires mortification. This being the case why don’t more confessors assign mortification penances instead of 3 Our Fathers and 3 Hail Marys? Awhile back I went to our local FSSP parish and received the following penance: no meat Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; bread and water, only, on Friday; and to keep doing this for the rest of my life. I was overjoyed to receive this penance mainly because it was given me by the confessor who cared enough about me to do this. Things have greatly improved for me since this happened. Thank God for good confessors. Seek one out; it will change your life.

  10. Then there is the 5:30 am- out -of-bed mortification ….alarm 1 at 5:25, to be out of bed to switch off the very noisy alarm number 2, set for 5:30….and behold….time to read, ponder, and pray ( and occasionally fall asleep in the chair)

  11. This is the truth. We cannot wait for a bishop or priest to instruct and exhort us – almost all fail to do their duty as pastors and upholders of the Faith and morality.

  12. Here’s another interesting quote:
    853 On her pilgrimage, the Church has also experienced the “discrepancy existing between the message she proclaims and the human weakness of those to whom the Gospel has been entrusted.” Only by taking the “way of penance and renewal,” the “narrow way of the
    cross,” can the People of God extend Christ’s reign. For “just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and oppression, so the Church is called to follow the same path if she is to
    communicate the fruits of salvation to men.”

    It comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church
    Note: Penance and renewal. That phrase, by the way, comes from Lumen Gentium.
    Strange how you can, by chance, just happen to be reading these things at relevant times.

  13. How can we possibly get results from our evangelization efforts if our own Church is so ashamed of itself and its Christian identity that it works overtime to mimic the Secular world??

    It’s really hard to put into words so I hope someone here might understand what I am saying. Our Bishops harangue at us to evangelize! evangelize! but we all know that the only thing that will draw a person to the Church is if they can find that which is the opposite, the antithesis, of all that has left them feeling so horribly empty and unfulfilled in their secular life of unbelief. They won’t turn to the Church if it looks and acts like just another slice of secular society, overtly ashamed of its own history and identity, behaving insecure and needy. Most of us know from experience that insecure and needy people make for very frustrating and failed relationships.

    I converted in 1998 and found a Church full of wimpery and Liberalism. I’ll tell you, it is only the Eucharist that keeps me here, not the wimpy mumbling Church!

    • michelletherese, I’m sorry that you “converted in 1998 and found a Church full of wimpery and Liberalism.”

      As you probably know, while the pope and bishops were enforcing wimpery and Liberalism on the whole Church following the Vatican II Council, ONE bishop should firmly with the apostles, saints and martyrs, and with the unchanging and unchangeable Catholic Faith:

      Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

      • If one reads what Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre said and wrote, one gets the idea that he was absolutely clear and exact in his assessment of the state of the post Vatican II Church and the world. He identifies effects and rightly discerns their causes. It’s a pretty devastating blow to all the novelties of the past 50 years. No wonder he rejected them so strongly and did not accept any compromise. May he rest in peace, and may the SSPX flourish. I believe that one day he will be canonised.

  14. Dear Mr. Sammons,

    What you said about voluntary mortification is true.

    But there are traditional Catholics who will point out there is a much bigger problem.

    They would say that WHAT IS MISSING from today’s Catholic evangelization is THE CATHOLIC FAITH itself.

    They would say that what the Roman Church has been preaching and teaching for the last 50 years (ever since the Vatican II Council) has been “different gospel” (2 Cor. 11:4).

    Who says this? The priests of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) have said this for years. See:

    Now, I understand that many Catholics who consider themselves to be solidly faithful, solidly conservative or traditional, do not agree that the doctrine taught by the popes and bishops of the last 50 years has ACTUALLY become corrupted. They would find such a thing to be impossible, based on the Doctrine of the Indefectibility of the Catholic Church.

    But is it really realistic to suppose that the whole problem in the Church is that the Church’s pastors have, for some unexplained reason, forgotten to admonish the faithful to engage in voluntary mortification?

    Since 1970, the SSPX priests and bishops have produced a large literature of books, articles, essays and sermons that explain on a doctrinal level what was going on at the Vatican II Council and what has been going on since. They have explained (and I would say proved) how the doctrinal statements in the Vatican II document dealing with Ecumenism and Religious Liberty are incompatible with the Catholic Faith and as a result have corrupted the teaching and preaching of the popes and bishops.

    Now, of course the bishops and priests of the SSPX are not infallible. But they are the only ones I have found to have a coherent and systematic explanation of what has gone wrong and why.

    A decent introduction of the views of the SSPX can be found in Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre’s An Open Letter to Confused Catholics.

    Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.

    May the grace of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.


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