Winning New Converts

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, winning converts to our Faith should be a constant concern for all Catholics: “The true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers. . .or to the faithful.” [905] How should we go about it? With the knowledge that people are brought to the Church one by one.

All who are saved are saved through the Church even if they are not aware of it on earth. Everyone in heaven is a member of the Church. Pope Francis has rightly criticized proselytism (in the pejorative sense): that is, attempts to coerce, manipulate others into the faith. Instead, we need to approach others prepared for that total “gift of self” which is never more complete than when we act as God’s collaborators in communicating God’s grace.

How then should we go about legitimately sharing our faith? In the course of our daily lives, we come into contact with dozens, if not hundreds, of people, from friends and loved ones to coworkers and acquaintances.

HenrykSienkiewicz - 1
Henryk Sienkiewicz

With any who appear even remotely open to such a thought, we should have the boldness to ask, “Have you ever thought of becoming a Catholic?” Over the course of life, this will certainly produce not only converts, but also interesting and thought-provoking conversations – and new personal relationships.

You will often be surprised at how flattered many people are at the question. The great majority will say that you are the first person who has ever asked. More than a few may say they have been waiting for someone to ask them that question all their lives!

That, at least, has been my experience over many years of accompanying a great range of people, from “names,” such as Bernard Nathanson and Sam Brownback, to college students and professionals, along the road to the Catholic Church. (For stories of some of these conversions and more advice on how best to convey the faith, see Good News, Bad News, Evangelization, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith, which I co-authored with Russell Shaw.)

You will also need to know where, religiously speaking, those you interact with are coming from. To this end I recommend Separated Brethren, a survey of Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and other denominations in the United States by William J. Whalen. There are also useful online resources (and even smartphone apps) from apologetics sites such as Catholic Answers.

By entering into conversation on God, revelation, and religious belief, you will be inviting your friend, and committing yourself, to go deep below the surface of everyday trivialities. Why are we here? What is truth? Is there a right and wrong? Is there a God? An afterlife? Is Jesus Christ God? Did he found a Church during his lifetime? If so, which one? Do we need to belong to it to be saved? Of course, you need to be not only willing to discuss and answer these queries, but prepared to do so.

Ronald Knox
Ronald Knox

St. Peter admonished, “Be ready always with an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in you.” (1 Peter, 3:15) Although this is the work of a lifetime, it does not excuse us from evangelizing while we learn on the job. Remember, no matter how little we know, our friends know less.

And what is more important, we know where to go for the answers. Obviously we should have a good grasp of the New Testament and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. However, we should also become familiar with the great English and American apologists: John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis (especially Mere Christianity), G.K. Chesterton (especially Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man), Robert Hugh Benson, Ronald Knox, Frank Sheed (try A Map of Life), and Peter Kreeft.

I would also recommend offering some stories of conversions, such as Journeys Home or the Surprised by Truth volumes. Or suggest that a potential convert visit Marcus Grodi’s Coming Home ministry, where they can find an abundance of written and video accounts of conversion from a variety of religious beliefs. Don’t forget, either, the classic spiritual autobiographies of St. Augustine, Cardinal Newman, Thomas Merton, and Malcolm Muggeridge, and the more recent one of Dr. Bernard Nathanson. They have changed millions of hearts and minds.

In addition, you should also familiarize your friends with the richness of Church history, since, as Newman famously said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.” Msgr. Philip Hughes’s Popular History of the Church remains an excellent synopsis, and Warren Carroll’s multi-volume History of Christendom, which reads like a series of novels but is painstakingly researched and does not hesitate to reveal the Church in all its heights and depths, is another good choice.

Rodney Stark
Rodney Stark

In addition, current authors of popular works on Church history such as (non-Catholic) Rodney Stark and Diane Moczar, counter many secular myths about the Church throughout history.

If potential converts are open to great literature, introduce them to the great Catholic authors, starting with Dante and continuing on down the centuries to Alessandro Manzoni (The Betrothed, 1827) and Henryk Sienkiewicz (Quo Vadis, 1896) in the 19th century to the Sigrid Undsets, Evelyn Waughs, Flannery O’Connors, George Bernanos, François Mauriacs, and Shūsaku Endōs of our own day. If they are not open to great literature, you may need to recommend pamphlets rather than books, and hymns rather than symphonies.

Listen to their needs and questions and try to satisfy them. Spending time in prayer with them or a visit to the poor or elderly may prove more influential in their conversion than any possible reading you might give them.

If after a reasonable amount of time your friend appears immovable, you may dial back on your direct apologetics, but you should continue relying on prayer, persistence, and constancy to eventually win him over through showing unconditional love. Conversion takes place at God’s pace, not a minute sooner or later, whether that means an early spectacular turnaround like St. Paul’s or a deathbed conversion that you witness from heaven.

Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.