Pro-Actively Pro-Convert: a Mark of the Saints
The saints have lived in their own flesh the words of Christ: “Go out into the highways and byways…” ( Luke 14:23). “The true apostle is on the lookout for occasions of announcing Christ by word, either to unbelievers…or to the faithful” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, (#905).
“How I grieve, my God, that you are not known, that this savage country is not yet wholly converted to faith in you, that sin is here not yet blotted out! Indeed, my God, if all the torments which captives must undergo in this country, even the most cruel tortures, were inflicted on me, I offer myself most gladly to accept them, that I alone may suffer them.” (St. Jean de Brebeuf, from his spiritual diaries)
Another role-model is St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) who was given the tough mission of re-converting to Catholicism the Chablais area of Savoy which had been Calvinist for over sixty years.
After spending his first winter tramping around in the cold, receiving a welcome of the same temperature as the weather from the inhabitants, sleeping sometimes in haylofts at night, crossing the Dranse river on an icy plank, being targeted by a sniper on occasion, at year’s end all he saw for his exertions was a handful of converts.
Part of the problem was that the people had been forbidden by the Calvinist leaders to attend his explanations of the Faith. So the enterprising young priest decided on a change of tactics: he wrote apologetics pamphlets and had them distributed all over the region.
That marked the beginning of the return to the Catholic Faith of most of the Chablais: about 70,000 people in only four years. Father de Sales was thirty-two years old.
Another, less-known “hunter of souls” was Father Dominic Barbieri, who helped the great intellectual, John Henry Newman, to enter the Church. The latter wrote the following of the saintly priest on October 8th, 1845:
“I am this night expecting Father Dominic, the Passionist, who, from his youth, has been led to have distinct and direct thoughts, first of the countries of the North, then of England. After thirty years’ (almost) waiting, he was without his own act sent here. But he has had little to do with conversions. I saw him here for a few minutes on St. John Baptist’s day last year. He is a simple, holy man; and withal gifted with remarkable powers. He does not know of my intention; but I mean to ask of him admission into the one Fold of Christ.”
Father Barbieri arrived late at night to Newman’s home. Drenched from the continuous rain, he began drying himself at the fireplace. While doing so, the door quietly opened and in entered England’s foremost intellectual. In a dramatic scene Newman knelt at the humble priest’s feet, asked to be admitted into the Catholic Church, and began his confession.
In a letter, Father Barbieri commented:
“What a spectacle it was for me to see Newman at my feet! All that I have suffered since I left Italy has been well compensated by this event. I hope the effects of such a conversion may be great…”
And the effects were great ‒ and continue to be great. In his lifetime, Newman is said to have brought into the Church over 600 members of the British nobility, some 700 clergymen, as well as inspiring some 100 vocations to the priesthood: souls won over certainly by his intellect but also by his Christian character, and also his prayer and sacrifice for, as St.Charles Borromeo remarked, “souls are conquered on one’s knees”.
Pro-Actively Pro-Convert Seminarians
Seminarians and those in minor orders have also been trailblazers in proposing the Faith to non-Catholics.
One of them was Blessed Ignatius Falzon (1813-1865) who lived on the island of Malta. As a seminarian he had received minor orders but judging himself unworthy of ordination he had spent the remainder of his 52 years working with his brother who was a priest in the pastoral care of the English soldiers stationed on the island.
Ignatius started by bringing the Catholic troops together for meetings teaching them how to pray and explaining the catechism. Soon these gatherings attracted the non-Catholic soldiers. The results? Some 656 Protestants, two Jews and four Muslims converted to Catholicism. Even after the soldiers had left the island, Ignatius kept in contact by letter urging them to persevere in the Faith.
The seminarian, Frank Parater (1897-1920), was another whose zeal for the souls of non-Catholics was an integral part of his identity. Before dying at twenty two years of age at the Casa Santa Maria of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, he wrote the following on December 5th, 1919, two months before his death, in his last will and testament.
“I have nothing to leave or give but my life, and this I have consecrated to the Sacred Heart to be used as He wills.
I have offered my all for conversions to God of non-Catholics in Virginia.
This is what I live for and, in the case of death, what I die for.
Death is not unpleasant to me, but the most beautiful and welcome event of life.
Death is the messenger of God come to tell us that our novitiate is ended and to welcome us to the real life.
Melancholic or morbid sentimentality is not the cause of my writing this, for I love my life here, the College, the men and Rome itself.
But I have desired to die and be buried with the saints.
I dare not ask God to take me lest I should be ungrateful or be trying to shirk the higher responsibilities of life; but I shall never have less to answer for – perhaps never be better ready to meet my Maker, my God, my All.
Since I was a child I have desired to die for the love of God and for my fellow-man.
Whether or not I shall receive that favor I know not but if I live, it is for the same purpose; every action of my life here is offered to God for the spread and success of the Catholic Church in Virginia.
I have always desired to be only a little child, that I may enter the kingdom of God. In the general resurrection I wish to always be a boy and to be permitted to accompany Saints John Berchmans, Aloysius and Stanislaus as their servant and friend.
Do we serve God and man less worthily by our prayers in heaven than by our actions on earth? Surely it is not selfish to desire to be with Him Who has loved us so well.
I shall not leave my dear ones. I will always be near them and be able to help them more than I can here below. I shall be of more service to my diocese in heaven than I could ever be on earth.
If it is God’s holy will, I will join Him on Good Friday, 1920, and never leave Him more – but not my will, Father, but Thine be done!”
Before sickness hit him, Frank had spoken to a fellow seminarian about how he intended to work as a priest on his return to the U.S.A.: “His chief ambition was to help boys, to work among them, to write stories for them which would inculcate into their souls high, noble, Christian ideals… He spoke, too, of the many friends outside the fold and of how he would like to help the Good Shepherd bring them back to the unity of the one flock.”
Pro-Convert Urged By Christ’s Love: With a love for others that wants the best for them
Ignatians in their pro-active pro-convert outreach will be urged by Christ’s love and by Christ’s example in dealing with others of charity and clarity, gentleness and firmness, sensitivity and tenacity.
Thus, Ignatians will seek to follow in the footsteps of Saint Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual sons of preceding generations.
For instance, Saint Peter Canisius. Born in 1521 in Holland, he went to Germany after ordination and became one of its greatest apostles by defending the Faith in the face of the heresy of Protestantism through preaching, writing, teaching and apologetics. They called him The Hammer of Heresy. Yet “the hammer” was a gentleman who insisted:
“One ought not attempt to confound but to convert the dissenters. One must respect the person while condemning his error. A sharp and bitter manner of writing ill fits a disciple of Jesus Christ who should reproduce in himself the modesty, the humility, the meekness of the Divine Model. It is better to conquer the spirit by reasoning than to embitter the heart by upbraidings…With a heart on fire that inflames others!”
A great deal of listening and patience is called for especially in our days because the “Dictatorship of Relativism” has caused confusion on religious and moral issues in the minds of the masses. We must remember that conversion is not merely intellectual – an acceptance of truths – but also a radical moral conversion.
For a case study of a clearly intellectual and moral conversion, see that of C.S.Lewis in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy.
Another who made his way through the labyrinth of modernity’s confusioin is Vittorio Messori, one of the most famous journalists in Italy and co-author of books with Pope John Paul II ( “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”) and with Pope Benedict XVI (“The Ratzinger Report”). In the Teatro Argentino in Rome’s city center, packed with youth, he told the story of his conversion to the Catholic Faith: “It was in the late 1960s: as I was going towards the Church, crowds were leaving shouting ‘Marx, Camus, Sartre’ and every ‘ism’ you can think of. Noone was asking the right questions anymore. Noone was worried about the foundations, about whether or not Christianity was true.”
He gave his mind to Jesus Christ after his conversion. He spent twelve years researching his book on the truth of the Church’s teachings about Jesus Christ’s historical reality – Ipotesi su Gesu, (Jesus Hypotheses) – . Why did he write this apologetics book? “I decided to write what I couldn’t find anywhere to read”.