In Layman's Terms - Bob Sullivan

In Layman's Terms: Evangelizing family members

Apologetics by Bob Sullivan

If you have a family member who has fallen away from the Church, you likely spend a lot of time praying about it, looking for opportunities to encourage them to return to the Church.

This causes heartache for any Catholic, but it can be an overwhelming misery for Catholic parents. If you could hand them one book, CD, or pamphlet, or say one thing to them that would turn their hearts back to their faith in Christ, you would do it in the blink of an eye.

So what is that one thing that will bring them home? There is no one thing.

There is a truism in evangelization and in teaching: They don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. The problem with evangelizing family members is that you often care so much that you pour it on too heavy or you get angry or hurt too easily because your emotions serve as the catalyst for your efforts. This rarely (probably never) brings anyone back to the faith, and it almost always pushes them further away. While avoiding these things, there are some things you should always do:

Pray steadfastly and unrelentingly for the intercession of St. Monica, the mother of St. Augustine as well as the Blessed Mother. Allow prayer to be the catalyst instead of your emotions.

Will to love them. If you have focused on prayer, your emotions have a place to find peace. You can then allow your will to focus on the task of an intentional and deliberate love. I’m not suggesting that you encourage or enable their separation from the Church, but there are ways to convey love that have little or no relation to their faith. You can invite them to things, laugh with them, find common interests you both can enjoy together, etc… And when you are doing these things, avoid mentioning the Church, faith, the Bible, etc… unless they bring them up.

Be an example to them. You can live your faith without making them feel like you are throwing it in their face. If you are living a life of faith that is nourished by the sacraments, daily prayer and love of neighbor, you will be joyful in a very natural and authentic way. Because of this, they will feel invited.

Don’t be defensive. If they consistently say derogative things about the Church or about your faith, there are times when you should just let it go. Don’t feel like you have to prove them wrong or set them straight every time, on the spot.

If you never let a comment go, you are probably being defensive and they are probably trying to provoke you into an argument. Some people don’t even realize they are being negative, skeptical or disrespectful. Pick the right time and circumstances to make a defense. The best time is in private and when you are calm.

Timing is important. When they say something critical and inaccurate about the Church, or if you see them behaving in a way that is unChristian (but not immediately dangerous), you can overlook it for the time being and then follow up with a call, e-mail or gift later on. People usually make critical comments or behave in disrespectful ways when they are letting their emotions control them. Their emotions can impact your emotions and before you know it, everyone is emotional. Let things cool down a bit so you can both engage your intellect as you offer your perspective or offer information.

Above all, you should always remain humble, merciful, kind, patient and courteous. If someone has drifted from the faith, they might be more easily scandalized by something that they would have previously overlooked. They might consider a mere comment as a “sermon” or a cautionary statement as a condemnation. In other words, they are more likely to take things much more personally and negatively than in the past.

And now for how to evangelize family members. That’s right. The above points are all the basics in evangelization.

The truth is, it is extremely difficult to evangelize your own family member once he or she has begun to question the faith. By living your faith in the ways described above, you may not be directly engaged in evangelizing the members of your own family, but you will avoid pushing them further away and you will not serve as a barrier to others who actually can be effective evangelists to your family members.

One of my favorite questions to non-Catholics is, “why are you Lutheran (or Presbyterian or Methodist, etc…). They usually say that is the way they were raised. But last summer, one guy really gave me something to consider. When he told me he was Lutheran, I asked him why. He replied, “because my brother is Catholic.”

He may have been kidding, but our family members have seen us at our best and at our worst. Once they start to question Catholicism, they may overlook the good moments and recall the less than saintly moments. We say we love Jesus, we pray, we go to Mass, read the Bible and try to live a life of holiness, but when we sin, we can be taken as a hypocrite.

Our main role in the evangelization of the members of our own family is to avoid being a hindrance to those who can most effectively evangelize them. Jesus had no such flaws, yet even He was rejected by His own people (Mark 6:1-6).  

This is why, when I am asked for advice on evangelizing family members, I say “you evangelize my family members and I’ll evangelize yours.”


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