In this excerpt from his new booklet, 20 Answers: Conversion, Shaun McAfee offers advice for those in the difficult position of not sharing the Catholic Faith with one’s spouse or family. As much as one might desire his loved one’s conversion, it is important to remember that this is an act of the Holy Spirit and the person and cannot be imposed. Prayer, living with love and integrity, and having good answers when questions arise is the best way forward.
Perhaps no challenge for converts is greater than entering the Church without your spouse or close family. Similar is the challenge of being a lifelong Catholic in hopes of your friends and family one day joining you. Being united in faith with those we love is so important: to strong marriages, to the Christian upbringing of children, and to our own religious practice and happiness.
At one point in time, my wife and I were in this situation: she was a lifelong Evangelical and I was a new Catholic. I wondered where my marriage was headed with this drastic change. And I was afraid for my children’s faith. I had read studies showing how important consistency from Mom and Dad is in a child’s religious upbringing. Needless to say, I empathize with converts who deal with this and want to convert their spouse or family.
If your spouse is not Catholic, I have some time-tested advice for you: be patient, pray, and set the best example you can as a spouse. (And this advice works equally well for other people close to us.)
Patience is a requirement in every good marriage, and that goes double for when you become Catholic but your spouse isn’t. Maybe you’re the only one taking kids to Mass, perhaps you hear a few too many complaints about your Catholic moral conscience, and maybe sometimes you even have to defend your Faith to your own beloved. Remember that your patience is a visible tool of evangelization and that letting your spouse come to a position of trust on his or her own is more favorable than a superficial acquiescence to the Faith.
Next, pray for your spouse. Not only is every married person is called to pray—for his spouse’s well-being and salvation—but for unity in faith. Pray God may place other people in his or her life to help present the Faith with a fresh frame of mind and take some of the burden off you.
Above all, remember to set the example you want your spouse to follow. If you can’t do that, much of your work will be in vain. Whatever you do, avoid the notion that you and you alone must convert your spouse. It’s a meaningful desire of your heart, but it does not make you a failure if you are unable to—you ultimately must entrust your spouse to the Lord.
Whether it’s your spouse or other family members, when they ask you about your faith, they’re going to demand solid answers, so study up on apologetics and catechesis. Your approach is everything to your efforts, but you’re in luck: everyone eventually asks questions. Wait for these to present themselves—do not force the conversation! At the same time, don’t be afraid to bring up your faith—keeping your lips sealed never helps.
When talking about the Faith with your non-Catholic family, whether it’s your spouse, parents, or anyone else, there are points of emphasis that tend to come up most often. Here are some areas where you might want to focus your study and prepare your answers:
- Authority: explain the Church, Sacred Tradition, Scripture, and the papacy
- Indifference: know why the truth matters
- Mary and the saints: know the key differences between worship and veneration
- Salvation: understand grace and the formula for getting to heaven
- Miracles: show how God has worked incredible feats to help us believe
- Scandal: be ready to discuss the failures of individuals
Lastly, an assured means of evangelizing is to involve the saints, not as a topic of apologetics but as an opportunity to demonstrate the wisdom and supreme holiness the Church offers in guidance of souls. Saints can be the beacons non-Catholics need to see the truth, often winning their confidence well before the dogmas do.
By far the most challenging work you might have is how to handle anti-Catholic family members. Division in families is a natural consequence of differences in religious preference. When this happens, accept the long-term approach to your relationship and employ these ground rules:
- Avoid arguing. They might as well be wearing earplugs—so don’t think that suddenly they will listen when you have a heated debate.
- Be ready to give answers. Study hard, because they will eventually ask a question, and you will want to have something intelligently concise to say.
- Answer correctly. I don’t mean factually only—I mean with the right amount of gentleness, sincerity, and respect.
- Love them. Make practical acts to show them you care for them, not their agreement with you. Eventually, your acts of generosity will stand out.
- Pray persistently. Remember that God grants the persistent prayer (Luke 18:4) and that it is he who convicts hearts, not us.
There isn’t a magic wand to wave over your spouse or family to get them to enter the Church. (You don’t want that anyway: you want it to be their decision.) It takes time, sometimes a very long time. And sometimes it doesn’t happen. So, be patient and understanding. Do not blame yourself, and do not be afraid. Be open to God’s voice in how he is asking you to be obedient, and trust that he will demonstrate his truths to your loved ones.