When I was a Protestant evangelist, I had one goal: get the person to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer.” This prayer essentially asks God to forgive someone of his sins and invites Jesus to become Lord of his life. Once it was prayed, the work of the evangelist was successfully completed, and he could move on to the next potential convert.
Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? And in many ways, it was easy . . . too easy. Once I became Catholic, I realized how flawed this method was. Although I could get people to say the prayer, and by itself the prayer was theologically valid, using it as the singular goal of evangelization was an oversimplified approach, for of course evangelization is much more than just getting someone to say a single prayer.
So what should be the invitation of the Catholic evangelist, if it’s not to pray the Sinner’s Prayer? This will vary, depending on the person we’re evangelizing. Right now, let’s look at evangelization efforts directed only toward fallen-away Catholics. Why? Because they are often the “low-hanging fruit” for evangelization since they already have a connection to the Church. And, sadly, they make up the second-largest religious group in America, so there is a lot of work to do. Fallen-away Catholics clearly need to be (re-)evangelized, but what should our specific invitation be?
This is actually a trickier question than it may first appear. Some might say that it’s best to invite the fallen-away Catholic to Mass, but this can be problematic. First, because the Mass isn’t intended to be a means of evangelization. That might be a secondary benefit of it, but the purpose of Mass is to worship God, not attract people to the Faith. In the early Church—which was very evangelistic—only practicing Catholics were allowed to attend Mass (even catechumens had to leave before the Eucharistic Prayer began).
Another issue is that, by definition, a fallen-away Catholic is not allowed to receive Communion at Mass. Making the person aware of this situation while extending an invitation can send a mixed message.
Sometimes Catholics like to invite a fallen-away Catholic friend to read a good Catholic book. Perhaps they were greatly impacted by the book, and so they hope it will do the same for their friend. There’s a lot to commend this idea; many people through the ages, even saints (including St. Ignatius Loyola), have been converted through the reading of good books.
But in today’s low-attention-span age, asking someone to read an entire book can be like asking him to take a graduate course in physics. Most people will not want to sit down and read a Catholic book; those who do are likely already converted. So, although recommending books is a good practice, it’s not necessarily the best first invitation to give when evangelizing.
We could instead invite the fallen-away Catholic to a parish event, such as a talk. This too is a good idea, as it introduces him to the parish without the problems of diving right into Mass. It’s also a pretty low-key invitation; there’s no commitment involved and sometimes free food is part of the deal (and who doesn’t like free food?).
Often, however, parish talks are directed toward practicing Catholics, and their content can confuse or even offend the fallen-away Catholic. If, on the other hand, the content of the talk is too light, the person may see the parish as just another social club, not a place that can powerfully benefit him in this life and the next.
So what should be our first invitation? We discover it when we examine the first-ever post-Pentecost act of Catholic evangelization: St. Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:14-36). At the end of his exhortation, Peter is asked, “Brethren, what shall we do?” He answers, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). In that simple answer is the invitation every Catholic evangelist should be offering: an invitation to repentance.
Does this mean that we should be shouting “Repent! The end is near!” on every street corner? Not exactly. Peter’s follow-up to his call to repent—“be baptized”—is the key facet. The invitation of the Catholic evangelist is a sacramental invitation. Of course, a fallen-away Catholic is already baptized. But the sacramental invitation is still needed—not to baptism, but to confession. The sacrament of reconciliation is not only the best invitation for the fallen-away Catholic, it’s the very means by which the person comes back to full communion with the Church.
This sacrament is the Catholic evangelist’s secret weapon. It’s secret because for decades it has been ignored and even forgotten. It might pop up in a movie or two (usually for laughs), but it has practically disappeared from the life of the average Catholic, to say nothing of the fallen-away. Yet it has the power to forgive sins and restore someone’s relationship with God! When the invitation to confession is accepted, nothing in the evangelist’s arsenal is more powerful.
How does this invitation happen in practice? Obviously, going to confession is a very personal act, and so the invitation must be offered with love and gentleness. Especially since inviting someone to go to confession says that you believe the person is a sinner. Of course, you do believe this, you can say—since everyone is a sinner, including you.
But in today’s “I’m okay, you’re okay” culture, implying that someone else is a sinner can offend some. That’s why the best way to extend the invitation is to follow the method used by the greatest Catholic evangelist of them all, St. Paul: personal testimony.
The Apostle to the Gentiles loved to tell his story: how he was a persecutor of the Church, a proud Pharisee who hated the Christians, and yet Christ saved him and forgave him of his sins. When making an invitation to confession, we should tell our own story—how the sacrament has powerfully changed our life. “Yes, you are a sinner, but so am I!” This personal testimony will do more than a hundred textbooks or dozens of talks in demonstrating the power of the sacrament of reconciliation. You might even drive the point home by getting in the confession line next to him.
There is no better way to evangelize than to promote confession. It is the true “Sinner’s Prayer,” with sacramental power behind it. It really does forgive sin, restores the fallen-away Catholic’s relationship with Christ, and brings him back into the practice of the Faith.