“With all the changes and lack of stability in Church practice,” my friend asked, “what can we do to actually encourage and help non-Catholics into the Church?”
It was a good question and one for which none of us had a particularly good answer. There are many stumblingblocks on the paths leading into the Catholic Church, many more than the necessary scandal of the Cross. There is no one book, no single kind of testimonial, no absolutely heartrending piece of liturgical music that will infallibly draw the souls of infidels, schismatics, and heretics into the Catholic fold. There is no Alexander who can cut cleanly through the Gordian Knot of clerical and lay scandals.
My own reception into the Church was delayed for a full year because of the transparent wickedness of so many priests and bishops, and also because of obfuscation of doctrine at the highest offices. The painfully bad music and formless liturgy would not have delayed me in and of itself, although they still would have driven me to a seek ritual alternatives once I was a communicant.
G.K. Chesterton has remarked that “For the convert’s sake, it should also be remembered that one foolish word from inside does more harm than a hundred thousand foolish words from outside…. Only the word of a Catholic can keep him from Catholicism.” And it is assuredly the words and actions of Catholics—usually those who were so from the cradle—that prevent many conversions, and drive many recent converts into apostasy or back into schism.
First and foremost we must attend to ourselves: to the perfection of our thoughts, words, and actions. There must be nothing in us that would cause unnecessary scandal. If we are given to drink, we must moderate our liquidations. If we are given to loose speech, we must reign in the tongue. If we are given to lechery, we must discipline our sight.
Secondly, we must learn to make both apologetic and apology for our fellow Catholics. Some scandal is merely taken and not given, and for this the truth of the disturbance should be explained. When scandal is actively given, the rest of us must, in some sense, take responsibility for it, do penance, and beg it be overlooked for the greater spiritual good.
Thirdly, we must make up for what is lacking in the teaching ministry of the Church. We must learn all we can about doctrine, history, tradition, and the moral precepts that most directly affect fallen man of the twenty-first century. When RCIA lay teachers play banal VHS lectures on the goodness of a eucharistic-centered community, we must be ready to step in with an explanation of transubstantiation and the Mass as sacrifice. When the glories of Ordinary Time are praised from the pulpit, we must insist that the richness of the old kalendar be understood.
Fourthly, and I think most importantly, we must truly befriend those whom we would make into fellow-pilgrims. “But I have called you friends, because all things whatsoever I have heard of my Father I have made known to you.” We cannot treat honest seekers as students who either pass or fail their final exam, nor as radio show call-ins who receive prefabricated answers to complex questions. “Bear ye one another’s burdens,” St. Paul writes, “and so you shall fulfill the law of Christ.”
Ambrose did not believe that the son of so many tears could be lost, and Monica proved her friendship towards Augustine by her prayers and penances after many years of bad example. Are we capable of tears for those living far from Christ and his Eve? Too many live in the double darkness of sin and ignorance, and what good are we to Christ if we are pitiless towards them?
Be without offence to the Jews, and to the Gentiles, and to the church of God. As I also in all things please all men, not seeking that which is profitable to myself, but to many, that may be saved.