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How Should Catholics Be Retrieved?

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J

Our present conference is on how, how should Catholics be retrieved who have lost either their faith or they have at least lapsed from the practice of their Catholic religion.

Our first conference, you remember, was on why, why has there has been such widespread abandonment of the Catholic faith in one formally Christian country after another, including our own United States. We concluded that the faith was not so much lost as given up. And in many cases, not even given up, but never really grasped or understood in the first place.

Our present conference, then, is on how, how we can retrieve these lapsed Catholics. Our general answer is that “fallen aways” as we may call them are to be retrieved according to the premises as caused their lapsing of their faith in the first place. In other words, if we are to retrieve those who have lapsed from the faith, it must be by reversing the causes which caused their lapse from the faith.

I would like to propose the following specific ways in particular. To be exact, five:

  1. In order to rehabilitate the lost Catholic faith in millions, there must be the heroic practice of our own Catholic faith as the primary condition;

  2. The restoration of sound Catholic education;

  3. Zealous Catholic re-evangelization;

  4. The Catholic penetration of the media; and finally

  5. The organized efforts of the Catholic laity.

We go back, then, over the five ways that I would recommend that the Catholic faith can be restored where it has lapsed or been completely lost.

First, the heroic practice of our own Catholic faith. Let me begin by observing, it cannot be done without extraordinary grace from God. And this, part one among the five ways that I recommend that lapsed Catholics can be retrieved, is fundamental to everything else that I can tell you.

We may say there are three basic sources of grace that we know. There is prayer, the sacraments and the cooperation with grace by the practice of what we call good works. These three – prayer, the sacraments and good works – can be condensed and combined by saying that Catholic obtains grace from God for himself and then for others by living a truly Catholic life. But in today’s society, this means living a heroic Catholic life. And I want to repeat, I speak with complete conviction. There is no other way, no other way of restoring lapsed Catholicism than by the practice of heroic Catholicism by those who still believe.

What does this mean? It means practicing extraordinary virtue. This means living our Catholic faith today in spite of its not being lived by so many others. I’m here trying to describe, even define what I mean by heroic Catholic living. It means, then, living our Catholic faith in spite of the indifference of so many others. It means living our Catholic faith in spite of the opposition from others. Let me repeat, underline, italicize. To live the heroic Catholic faith today means practicing one’s faith in spite of the opposition from others. If you are not ready to practice your Catholic faith in spite of opposition from others, you cannot, in today’s America survive as a Catholic.

During the break, someone gave me this clipping. I read, “Twenty-four African nations have agreed on a plan to eliminate Christianity from the African continent.” The German evangelical publication, Idi a Spectrum(??) reported that a new organization, Islam in Africa (IAO) – watch those initials – supported by the governments of twenty-four African countries, has begun a propaganda campaign supporting persecution of Christians.

The countries that supported the IAO have within their borders between seventy and one hundred million Christians. Nigeria, which is almost fifty percent Catholic, but has a Muslim government, has given $20 billion to propagate Islam and remove Christianity. Do you hear this? In the Sudan alone, the Catholic Church, since 1950, has had two million martyrs for the faith, who were starved to death because they refused to deny that the Son of Mary, Ibm Mariam, is the Son of God, Ibm Abba. Let me just illustrate one statement about living a heroic Catholic life today.

If you want to retrieve anyone, including your loved ones back to the Catholic Church, to live the heroic Catholic life, that is the primary condition for retrieving lapsed Catholics, we must be willing to practice our faith in spite our not being accepted by others. It means living our Catholic faith in spite of the loss of friends, the loss of money, the loss of our present way of living. Am I clear? The loss of what we conveniently and casually call our lifestyle. There is much more here than meets the eye.

We’re still on part one in answering in five parts the question of how. There is basic principle here at stake. God uses human beings as the ordinary channel of His grace to other human beings. If we are to win the grace of conversion for lapsed Catholics into today’s paganized America, we must be ready to live lives of heroic virtue. This is nothing less than living the life of martyrs. I mean every syllable of that statement. I know, how well I know. The grace needed is, to coin a word, gigantic. We need to move, literally, mountains. And moving the Rockies, for example, is child’s play compared to moving some people’s wills. If we are to work the miracle or miracles, the compound miracle of reconverting a once-Christian America, if, as we said, God’s ordinary providential way of giving grace to other people is through people.

But the greater the need for grace, the more demanding God is to provide the grace. In other words, if we are to be channels of grace to others, and there is no other way – God uses people to give grace to other people. None of us would be in this room here unless someone who had the faith was a channel of grace for our faith. Agreed? Only humble people merit the grace of humility for others. Only patient people merit the grace of patience for other people. Only chaste people merit the grace of chastity for other people. That is the law of the supernatural life. But there is no meriting of grace unless we ourselves live a life that deserves to receive the grace and become that channel for others without which all the talk about retrieving lapsed Catholics, pardon the Anglo-Saxon, is so much hot air.

Second recommended means: The restoration of sound Catholic education. We believe with the mind. Lapsed Catholics, as we now call them, are persons who no longer think as Catholics. Their minds have been inverted on themselves. We now have a monthly, multi-million subscription magazine called Self. And if I were to describe the New Age movement in one sentence – having taught the Oriental religions for almost thirty years – the New Age movement is the adoration of self. And the minds, therefore, of those who have been Catholics but no longer believe, their minds have been diverted from Christ’s revealed truth to the superhuman psychological pressure on the minds of Americans. Who are, I’m afraid, I mean it, most Americans are no longer thinking for themselves.

When I watch people, and most sadly, when I watch priests, seated for hours like a child drinking in what is being shown and spoken over television, I always, I always say a prayer. Never in the most demonic persecution under Communism, in my judgment, has a nation become more brainwashed than the United States. I hope you agree. The best remedy, the most fundamental remedy for overcoming error is the proclamation of the truth. And the word is proclamation. This means, especially, especially in the family, the rights of parents must be protected and, when necessary, restored from powerful forces in the United States – and I wish they were all secular forces – that have robbed parents of their God-given right to teach the faith to their own children. The responsibility of parents must be made clear. Why? Because the restoration of sound Catholic teaching by the family, in the family and through the family The first and most powerful way – after what we’ve just said about winning grace, remember? The first and most effective way of restoring the faith to lapsed Catholics is by living a heroic life. And I wouldn’t have the gall to use that language to you unless in my own, faltering way, I was trying to live that life myself.

I trust you will appreciate why I’m telling you – after Mass this afternoon, I will eat my breakfast. And what I’m sharing with you this afternoon was written on my knees. It is not cheap piety. We must be willing, dear God, we must be willing to pay the price of winning souls back to Jesus Christ.

Third recommended means of how, of how to restore the faith to those who have lost it, or, as we’re saying, retrieve, especially our own dearly beloved lapsed Catholics. By zealous Catholic re-evangelization. The task before us is gigantic. Or from another viewpoint, as we said before, it means moving mountains. What did our Lord promise, what did He promise? Remember? “In my name you will be able to even move mountains,” on one condition, that you believe.

The key, then, for this what I call zealous Catholic re-evangelization, means that we ourselves have a deep, strong, unquestioning, intelligence, zealous Catholic faith. I’ve taught too many priests, have examined too many Catholic priests before their profession not to know that intelligence is no guarantee for believing. Nor, for that matter, is education a guarantee, pardon me, for intelligence.

How do you answer these two questions: Would you say that every intelligent person is educated? Let me repeat the question: Is every intelligent person educated? Please don’t hesitate. No! My mother never went past sixth grade in grammar school in Europe, an very intelligent woman. Next question: If not all intelligent persons are educated, are all educated people intelligent? (crowd says “no,” with laughter) Real loud together. (“No.”) Thanks. Oh, the mythology, the mythology of education. And I speak as one who, let me tell you, has been very, whatever the word means, very educated.

The key, then, on the level of zealous Catholic re-evangelization, is that our own faith is clear, deep and strong. It doesn’t mean that we can explain, for example, the definition of the hypostatic union at the Council of Chalcedon. If you can, God bless you. But if we have a deep, intelligent grasp on what we believe, that we believe what? That we believe that Jesus is God. No other verb may be used. Jesus Christ is God! One of my favorite aspirations is “Jesus, my God, I love you.” We’d better know what we’re saying. That we believe, and know again, what we believe about this God who became man and instituted the Church. And just for the record: the noun that goes along with the verb institute – what else, except institution. There is authority. Somebody is in charge. As I hope you remember – who remembers the Greek word for a group of people without somebody in authority. Chaos. That is organized.

We are living in the most organized society of human history. As individual Catholics, we can do something, but we can never cope with the massive de-christianization of our nation unless we organize our forces. It must then be a cooperate and a corporate faith as organized Catholics who band together, and I use the verb deliberately, who band together, as in the best Ignatian tradition. He was a soldier before he was converted. The enemy is organized and even, listen to this, the revealed word in the Gospels, for the organization of the evil spirits, plural. Who remembers when the devil, being driven out of a possessed man, was asked to give his name? What name did he give? (“Legion.”) What’s Legion? It’s the Latin word for the Roman army. Are we clear? Oh, what pious fools we can be, pardon the vocabulary. As though the organized forces of the evil spirit can be met by individual, scattered and often disunited forces for Christ.

Christ wants organized effort. Why hasn’t, I don’t think I’m hazarding a guess, why has not the very well-intentioned, deeply-felt pro-life movement not succeeded more than it has. This is 1991, right? The year of the decision of the Supreme Court was 1973. Do you know why? Because the forces of Christ have not been united. Do you believe me? Each one doing, as they say, his or her own thing. You’ll never overcome the devil except by organized, dedicated unity bound together by a common faith and love for Jesus Christ.

Notice I use the word “zealous.” Zealous Catholic re-evangelization. We as Catholics must have at least as much zeal as those who are responsible for the breakdown of the Catholic Church in our nation. In other words, if we’re going to our part to restore, reconvert, we’re using the word retrieve lapsed Catholics, we must be zealous, which means what? That we are burning with zeal because we’re so concerned that the organized forces of evil are depriving so many of their Christ-given faith.

There are twenty-four hours in a day. Where do I begin, where do I begin to motivate you to be zealous in restoring, as we’re saying, retrieving the Catholic faith of millions of our country who no longer believe.

Fourth recommendation: Catholic penetration of the media. We said before there have been three major communications revolutions in the history of the human race. We are now living in the third and greatest revolution. (tape switched sides. Some words missing)

… the Second Vatican Council. The document, as I’m sure you know, of the Second Vatican Council, on the media of social communications. According to the Second Vatican Council, God in His providence, hear it, God in His providence planned – that’s the Council teaching – planned the invention of the modern media of communication. He planned it so that our age would become the most apostolically fruitful in two thousand years of history. Why? Because we have at our disposal now, as St. Paul never had, as St. Boniface for Germany, St. Patrick for Ireland, Ss. Cyril and Methodius for the Slav nations – no apostle of the faith ever had the powerful media of social communications that we now have. And the Council tells us that’s the main reason that God provided for the invention. Do you hear me?

And even the Latin title, even the Latin title of that document, I’ve said it before; I won’t ask you to remember. Who can finish this sentence: The capacity of the human mind to forget is … (“Infinite.”) Once more: The capacity of the human mind to forget is … (“Infinite.”) Infinite! That Latin title for the Vatican document of Vatican II on social communications is Inter Mirifica. Do you know what that means? “Among the miracles.” Do you hear me? Among the miracles of God’s providence in our age is the modern media of communications.

Well. If God – this is our faith – if God provided that our age should have these miracles, and they are miracles, of communication – in an instant, something said or done on the other side of the world, provided the media are available, millions are immediately aware of what is going on. Consequently, and this is number four on the how, how, what – pardon me again for using such strong language – the pious pap we can indulge in. The cheap conversation. And be blind to the grave obligation we have to get control of the media. You’d never guess, you’d never guess, you’d never guess in reading the Chicago Tribune for a week that Chicago is one of the largest Catholic archdioceses in the world.

These media must be used, I don’t hesitate in saying, it is a divine command to preserve the true faith, to protect the true faith, to propagate the true faith and to promote the true faith as revealed by Jesus Christ and entrusted to His Church under the Vicar of Christ. What word will I use? When I studied my theology before my ordination, we were told, “Now, brethren, when you become priests, most of you will not become pastors in churches. You’ll, therefore, be free agents. When you speak to audiences, tell them what they need to be told and don’t worry about the consequences – whether financial or otherwise.” The blindness, the sheer blindness of Catholic parents not being aware of the power of the media over their children – dear God! I’ve seen too many children, some not even able to walk, glued before a television screen.

Either we Catholics use and exploit these media in the interests of the apostolate, or the situation of the Church and, for our present subject, lapsed Catholics, and the loss of Catholic commitment will only increase. It will not abate, not in a media-dominated country like the United States.

My last recommendation on the how: Organized Catholic laity. Whenever I speak, it doesn’t matter about the size of the audience – thank you, may God bless you for being here – but it doesn’t really matter. I could be speaking to one person or a thousand. What really matters is whether you will be responsive to the grace of God that I hope this sinner, that I am trying to share with you. Something must be done; there is no option. The Catholic laity must be organized. Never in the history of the Church’s legislation have the laity been more extensively and more deeply given directives – not only to what they may, but what they must do.

First, by the Second Vatican Council. In two thousand years of conciliar history – Vatican II, as I’m sure you know, is the twenty-first general council of the Roman Catholic Church. Volumes have been published by these councils from the first one in A.D. 325 at Nicea to the last one of the Vatican, closing in 1965. Never in these two thousand years has any council, indeed, have all the previous councils put together, said so much on the responsibility, on the duty, the obligation of the laity. Do you hear me?

And parallel to that, over the centuries the Church has had her laws from the very beginning. Indeed, from the Gospels on. And by now the laws of the Church fill a library. Then again, never in the legislative history of the Catholic Church has a code of canon law been published which is more detailed, more explicit and, I can say, more hard-hitting on the duty of the laity in the Catholic Church than in the latest code published by the present Sovereign Pontiff on the first Sunday of Advent, 1983. The future of the Catholic Church is in your hands. It is then, especially, the laity who must be informed and motivated to engage in this mass enterprise for Catholic re-evangelization.

And by the way, by the way, even in the pro-life movement, the pro-life movement will only be as successful as it is Catholic. Do you hear me? Let me repeat my statement. The pro-life movement will only be as effective and successful as it is Catholic, period. Or better, exclamation mark. Why? Because we Catholics, with the faith that we profess, are not only against abortion – which I would say any sane person should be against abortion – that’s the natural law. You shall not kill. But we Catholics believe, we believe in what? We believe in human life all right, but we believe, hear it, in eternal human life. Am I making sense? We believe in eternal human life. And we believe an unborn child is to reach maturity, to be able to be born, then to given birth, come to know, love and serve God. Abortion is such a crime because it deprives God of the glory, the glory that He wants from His human beings. Those who kill the unborn child deprive God of His glory and glorifying God means knowing, loving and serving God.

How organized are the murderers of the world today. How are we, who do not only respect human life, but recognize human life as destined for eternity, how organized we should be. And we are living, let me remind you, in the Church Militant.

But to do this effectively, the laity – and I’ve got three closing recommendations – to do all of this, the laity must be spiritually formed. You must continue growing in your spiritual life. Any pro-life movement which is not concerned about the spiritual development of those in the pro-life movement is misguided, in other words, to develop our spiritual life. We shall be only as effective in doing the world of God as we are united with God in His grace.

Secondly, to do all of this effectively, the laity must be doctrinally educated, which means what? That they, or you, speaking to you, must grow in your understanding of your Catholic faith, Catholic morality and, need I add, the Catholic liturgy, and not which is such as scandal in the world today. Catholics must continue their education of the faith. “But I don’t have the time.” Well, my friend, are you serious or aren’t you? We must all examine our consciences, beginning with the speaker. How willing are we, how really willing are we, to take the time to deepen our understanding of the faith. Otherwise, we try to be the lapsed Catholic back to the faith and, as far as they’re concerned, we’ll just be babbling.

This is Saturday, is it? This week, I met a man, a professional lawyer in Detroit. Complete unbeliever. Never baptized, whatever he believed in, it wasn’t clear to anybody. His wife is a believing Catholic. A crisis hit the family. By the time the third child was came along, the children were being broken between a strongly believing mother and a strongly unbelieving father. She lives in one place with the children; he lives in an apartment all by himself. I met the man only once, briefly.

About a month ago, I got a very unexpected letter. This lawyer wrote to me. He said, “I would like to take instructions in the Catholic faith.” And he said, “I think you are a match for my intelligence.” I’m not sure whether that was a compliment.

Am I clear, however, am I clear? The devil is very intelligent, do you hear it? Very intelligent. And those who are enrolled in his army, and it’s an army, are especially the very educated people. Either you know your faith intelligently or you won’t even be listened to by those who you may dearly love, but for you are no match, because of either their intelligence or their education.

Finally, if the Catholic laity are to engage in this organized effort to re-Christianize our nation, or in so many cases, re-Catholicize our own family, you must be trained, taught, how to effectively, how to effectively retrieve those who have left the Catholic Church.

You’ve all heard about Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” What we need is not one, but a dozen volumes on how to befriend lapsed Catholics and bring them back to the Catholic Church from which they have strayed.

I would like to close, surprisingly, with two prayers – not one, but two prayers. One is a prayer for the return of lapsed Catholics to the Church. And the second is a prayer for the conversion of America.

Prayer for the Return of Lapsed Catholics to the Church

Almighty Father, You desire not the death of the sinner, but that they may be converted and live. Pour out upon us Your mercy and hear the prayers of Your servants. Soften the hearts of Your children who have strayed from the true faith which You established for their salvation. They are now forgetful of their duties as Catholics and pursue the pleasures of the world. Grant that they may quickly return to the practice of every Christian virtue so that their lives may shine with the integrity of faith, the fervor of piety and the ardor of charity. Restore them all to Your sacraments and the life of Your grace through the merits the most Precious Blood of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Prayer for the Conversion of America

Lord Jesus Christ, grant to all Your servants, but especially to the people of our own nation, the grace of being fully united with You in Your Church. Divine Redeemer, the prophets sang of You, “All the kings of the earth shall adore you and all the nations shall serve you” (CITE). Extend Your kingdom over the entire human race, and in particular, over our beloved country. Grant in Your mercy that the people of our land may be converted to You and humbly and lovingly serve this. We ask this, O Savior, through the intercession of Your Immaculate Mother, the patroness and protector of our country. Amen.

(Father takes questions.)

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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