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The first week of my sophomore year of college, several friends and I spent hours standing in the middle of campus wearing matching T-shirts and Hawaiian leis.
The goal: to get a bunch of new students to come to our Catholic campus ministry’s annual pig roast. We brought out our best—neon flyers, friendly smiles, and a willingness to talk to strangers.
Having been on the receiving end of these events as a freshman, I was amazed to learn about the campus ministry’s prayer and planning ahead of this effort. I learned that evangelization isn’t just a matter of striking up a conversation with someone. It takes preparation! Ours included hours spent in prayer and training sessions about Jesus’ commission to “make disciples.”
In their new book How to Win Friends for Christ, Fr. Thomas Cavanaugh, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, and Dr. John Love, a theology professor at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, offer a similar window into the “why” and “how” of evangelization. They explain how Cavanaugh as a seminarian began a program of mission trips to college campuses under the guidance of Dr. Love. Most helpful, they share what they discovered about evangelization along the way. This is a book for jump-starting seminarians, pastoral leaders, campus ministers, and anyone who is hungry to evangelize.
The Fundamental Mission of the Church. “The Church exists to evangelize.” The first time I heard these words from Pope Paul VI’s exhortation On Evangelization in the Modern World (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 14), I was surprised. Evangelization is important, surely, but isn’t that a bit of an overstatement? Not according to Paul VI. Simply by our baptism into Christ, we share in his mission to bring good news to everyone. Cavanaugh begins by reminding us that this call is not optional.
“I cannot, I must not, live as a mere sacramental custodian in a parish of northern Virginia,” Cavanaugh explains. “You and I, priest and laity, exist to evangelize, to be Christ’s witnesses and to proclaim the gospel in and to the world.”
Convicted by this obligation, Cavanaugh sought to make evangelization a stronger component of his seminary’s curriculum. He enlisted his classmates’ help in forming the New Evangelization Club. Then he tried to pinpoint the fundamentals of evangelization—and to create an action plan for doing it. He asked a hard but honest question: “How do I evangelize?”
Contemplating the Face of Christ. At first, Cavanaugh concluded that the Church had little to offer in the way of practical advice. “To say the least,” he admits, “I was very disappointed and, quite honestly, irritated. Is there really no document of the Church, no manual, no practical guide for how to fulfill what Evangelii Nuntiandi says is the Church’s deepest identity?”
How often have we ourselves felt this way—that God has given us a task but left us no instructions? Despite our anxieties, the solution is often found through prayer. If there is one message of this book, it is this: that spending time in God’s presence is the foundation of evangelization.
“It is imminently practical to contemplate the face of Christ as the first, last, and constant step in evangelization,” Cavanaugh emphasizes. “Evangelization is nothing if not making Christ present to the world.”
Other Deliberate Preparation. Fortunately, Cavanaugh doesn’t just tell us to pray and then leave us to figure out the particulars on our own. As he describes the various topics that his New Evangelization Club discussed prior to their mission trips, he emphasizes the importance of strategic preparation in addition to prayer.
These chapters are empowering in their specificity, answering questions like: “How do we proclaim the gospel message? What makes a good testimony? Why is it important to go out in pairs, like the first disciples? How can we ask someone to open their heart to Christ for the very first time?”
The inspiring stories peppered throughout the book not only illustrate the seminarians’ methods and dedication, but they also show the miracles that can happen when we say yes to God. Reading them reawakened the missionary zeal that I felt during my college days—a palpable joy that comes from working actively to do God’s will.
Christ’s Loving Presence. In one of the book’s anecdotes, Cavanaugh explains how the genuine love of a seminarian, “Randy,” proved as powerful as more practiced apologetics. It started when a student approached the seminarian with combative words. Instead of getting defensive, Randy asked him about his major.
Taken aback by an encounter with a man who had no defense mechanisms, the student admitted that he had tried Christianity but that it “didn’t work” for him. He now made a habit of confronting religious people on campus to debunk their beliefs. Randy smiled, looked intently at the guy, and said, “Oh, that’s interesting. We’re actually on campus today to talk to students like you.” The guy seemed to melt, going from snide to sincere in just moments.
Out of mission encounters like these, the New Evangelization Club became an integral part of the formation offered at Mount St. Mary’s. Dr. Love believes it is important for everyone at the seminary to learn how to invite people to deepen their relationship with God. In the book’s conclusion, he says that increased efforts to evangelize have had a great impact on the seminary’s culture.
“While evangelizing, we were happier than we perhaps had ever been in our lives,” Cavanaugh recalls. It makes sense; when we share the good news, we are pursuing one of God’s deepest purposes—drawing people to himself. With the help of How to Win Friends for Christ, more of us will be prepared for this calling.
Laura Loker and her husband, Kevin, are curators of Angelus Always Forward, a daily email of news and commentary for Catholics.
How to Win Friends for Christ (softcover, 144 pp.) by Fr. Thomas Cavanaugh and Dr. John Love is available from The Word Among Us at wau.org and amazon.com.