As in the Days of the Early Church, God Can Still Accomplish the Impossible| National Catholic Register

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — How to convert the world? A vast question, to say the least, at a time when the West itself, once covered in the “white mantle of churches,” is once again becoming a missionary land, reminiscent of the Church of the first centuries.

Three emblematic figures from the Catholic world offered some personal thoughts on this issue last month at the annual Bratislava Hanus Days festival in Slovakia, an annual five-day event in Bratislava that brings together intellectuals and artists from a variety of disciplines, with the aim of reconciling faith and reason and offering an alternative to mainstream culture.

At a June 16 roundtable discussion with Dominican Father Thomas Joseph White, rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, on the evening of June 16, apologists and theologians Scott and Kimberly Hahn discussed the new challenges of evangelization and the ways to build more adapted and creative methods of sharing faith in today’s society.  The well-known American Catholic couple also spoke to the Register on the sidelines of the event. 

Scott Hahn is president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and author of numerous books, including The Lamb’s Supper and Reasons to Believe. He converted to Catholicism in 1986, subsequently bringing with him a number of other Protestant pastors and Bible scholars as well as his wife, Kimberly, who was received into the Church in 1990. Kimberly is a regular speaker in the public arena on issues relating to the family, women and sexuality. Their book Rome Sweet Home traces the conversion journey of the couple, who have also co-written Secrets for Successful Evangelization and Catholic Marriage Covenant.

Scott and Kimberly Hahn
Scott and Kimberly Hahn smile for the Register.(Photo: Solène Tadié)

 

Today’s Western societies are deeply divided, and these divisions are necessarily reflected in the Church, too. How should we evangelize in such a polarized world? 

Scott: The secularist agenda, in America, in Europe, produces a joyless existence. It pursues pleasure and power and wealth, but it never attains the joy that Christ alone can give. And so following from Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, Pope Francis has emphasized the joy of the Gospel, in his very first encyclical [Evangelii Gaudium]. That is the thing that we have to offer the world and to share with each other. 

Instead of simply identifying a list of all of our losses, we must look at the eternal gain that we find in the Eucharist, that Jesus institutes on Holy Thursday to transform his execution into the consummation of his own self-gift, and then to see that Easter Sunday has transformed this body, this sacrifice, into the Blessed Sacrament. Beyond divisions, we must celebrate how his death became an event of life-giving love, and the life and love are not merely human, but divine. 

It’s almost too good to be true. But it is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

If you were to identify the main pitfalls to evangelization in the West, what would they be?

Scott: The same thing, I would say. It’s always been in the East, the West, the North and South. And that is pride, hubris, the pursuit of happiness apart from God, thinking that we can privatize God, that we can relativize morality and have things our own way. 

God respects our freedom to a terrifying degree. And he allows us to have our way until we wake up and realize that his way is far better.

Kimberly: I think there is also a lack of love, a lack of love of those who do not know the Lord yet. And if we genuinely love them with the love that Christ has placed in our hearts for them, then this is too good to be kept to ourselves. I think a lot of people hesitate to share the faith because they’re concerned they don’t have all the answers or that they’ll say something wrong. And instead, I believe we need to just risk loving people, sharing the truth and joy of faith in Christ. And then if we misspeak, or if we don’t know the answer, then we go home, we pray, we read, and then we come back with more truth to share.

 

During your panel discussion, Father White spoke about this kind of “quietism” that can be seen specifically in the Catholic world, meaning that many people tend not to dare discussing their faith publicly. How do you explain such a phenomenon? 

Scott: Some 50, 60, 70 years ago, there used to be a kind of spiritual aristocracy in the Church consisting in saying “my parents [the Church hierarchy] know, so I don’t need to know.” That was a form of paternalism. Your parents know for the purpose of teaching and raising you up. But this distinction is not a separation. We must distinguish the clergy and the laity to unite them. We should indeed subordinate ourselves to the clergy but the clergy has the task of raising us up not just as children, but as brothers and sisters in Christ, so that we can be lay apostles, not to subvert, or to replace, but to form this alliance, this partnership. My wife and I have six kids and 21 grandkids. All of our six kids are grown up, so they’re no longer just our children; they are like us — God’s children, and they’re brothers and sisters in Christ. And I think the model of the family serves as a paradigm for how the Church can flourish nowadays.

 

You both advocate the development of a lay culture of evangelization. What should it look like? 

Kimberly: In a practical way, it can be as simple as extending hospitality. We invite couples over for a meal and just share some life. I had a friend who went around her little neighborhood and found a number of Catholic people who had been raised in the Church but had left it. They weren’t married in the Church; their children weren’t baptized. And so she just began inviting them to the local parish where she attended and spread information about when confirmation classes, Communion classes were. 

It’s about extending friendship. We can get people back in the Church by inviting, by welcoming them. We knock on their door and say, “We missed you.” And again, it’s allowing the Holy Spirit to work, through prayer as well to receive inspiration about how to proceed in each case. Then if they say, “No,” fine. But at least we invite. We have the responsibility to share the faith. 

Scott: There are things that the priests alone can do. And we have to encourage and express gratitude for this sacrifice. One of our six children is a priest, Father Jeremiah. And so he has become to us a sacramental father, doing things that even I as his breadwinner could not do in confecting the Eucharist. We have to recognize that there is a ministerial priesthood that the clergy share, but there’s also the priesthood of the baptized. 

And so, we are commanded to be lay apostles, following Jesus and then announcing him. It’s like inhaling the breath of God’s Spirit and then exhaling that breath of God’s Spirit that will carry the word of truth, the Gospel, not only to those who have strayed or wandered off, but ourselves, too. The understanding of conversion that I discovered when I became a Catholic was not just something that was done in the past, it’s something that continues to be done; it’s ongoing, it’s lifelong, and it’s challenging. And when we find ourselves without joy, it’s a reminder that we are not just trying to reach these people, we are them. And Christ is reaching all of us together in stages, as it were.

 

Evangelical movements tend to do better than Catholics in evangelizing, and that is often considered to be a reason for their international success. Do you think that your Protestant background is making you more prone to share your faith, as Catholics?   

Scott: We used to sing the song Amazing Grace when we were Protestants. Then becoming Catholic, the grace became even more amazing. And it’s amazing how amazed we are. And I think the more we allow ourselves to share the grace of conversion, the more our culture of evangelization will develop on its own.

Also, I think it’s ironic that people often assume that because we were Protestants, we can bring something to Catholics, namely, sacred Scripture. And it’s tragic, because it’s sort of a divorce settlement: We Catholics have the sacraments, and Protestants have the Scriptures. But to be Catholic is to be scriptural. Sacred Scripture comes from the Church, and it’s fulfilled within the Eucharistic liturgy. So it really is a reunion. What God had joined together, man should never have set apart. And so to reunite the Old Testament, the Scripture, with the Sacrament of the Body of Christ, this is what it means to be Catholic. 

The world celebrates diversity, equity and inclusivity. But the Catholic Church has had greater diversity and equity than any secular culture could imagine. It’s Scripture and Tradition. It’s the clergy and the laity. It’s the parents and the children. It really is the family of God. And that’s not just religious rhetoric. That’s the reality that we’re so often distracted from. 

Kimberly: My background is one of the things that is not wasted because what is of the Lord is still something that we can share as Catholics. But today, we long to share with our Protestant brothers and sisters the fullness of the faith, all of the sacraments, the beauty of the authority of the Church. We have many wonderful family members who know and love the Lord but do not know and love the Church. And it’s like renting an apartment in the middle of town when you own the estate at the end of the road.

 

How can the Church embody a credible message today, especially in light of the recent sex scandals that have hit it hard and also the fact that young people tend to be increasingly lost and inclined to put their trust in false gods, such as the state or consumerism?

Scott: We were not going to postpone the proclamation of the Gospel for one generation because of what Judas did, or because of what our first pope, Peter, did, in denying Jesus three times. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Jesus’ first followers then faced Imperial Rome, a culture of death and violence. Christ chose fishermen and tax collectors to proclaim the Gospel, to “make disciples of all nations.” What were their chances of success? None. And yet, against all odds, they transformed imperial Rome into what we would call Christendom, although it was not perfect, by any means. But it is the proof that God can basically do the seemingly impossible. If God could do it back then, there’s no reason to conclude that he can’t do it now. I tend to think that in our current context, God wants to surprise us and achieve a kind of supernatural work that will not be necessarily measured in numbers, by transforming many sinners like me into saints. 

Kimberly: We have to be faithful to timeless truths. We do need to address current issues, but with a confidence that the Lord has led the Church and will continue to do so, to speak truth to power, to speak truth to our culture. And in terms of drawing young people, they’re looking for adults with heroic virtue; they need to be called to a heroic virtue. We don’t know what the future holds. It may involve a lot more persecution of Christians that already exists today. We will never further the Gospel by watering it down to make it palatable. We have to speak the truth, knowing that even when we speak the truth with all the love we can, the truth itself may be offensive. Jesus said, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Don’t we want people to know the freedom in Christ?

 

Kimberly, during this five-day event, you also gave a talk that focused on evangelization within the family. Intra-family transmission is indeed a crucial way to maintain the faith alive in our societies.

It is so important that we continue to grow in Christ for the sake of our children and grandchildren — and to not hesitate to draw them to the Lord, bringing them to the sacraments, sitting with them. I was recently with my daughter and her five children. It was such a joy to receive Holy Communion, drawing my arms around these children and bringing them up on my lap, communicating my personal love for them, but also Christ’s love for them. 

And then calling them to commitment. I have 13 [older] grandchildren. I often take them out on a coffee date, and I give them a china cup. And we get coffee in a paper cup, and we talk about purity. We talk about what is more valuable: a paper cup that you throw away or this beautiful china cup. Through this analogy, I’m giving them a personal call: to choose Christ and to choose purity, what is truly valuable. I also have little tunes for the verses that make me think of them; I have tunes for the books of the Bible so that they memorize them in order, and it becomes more familiar to them. We need to share the joy of our faith and continually speak God’s truth into their hearts, and not say, “Okay, they’re baptized. They’re good.” No, this is just the beginning. 

 

Hahns
June 16 roundtable discussion with Dominican Father Thomas Joseph White, rector of the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, included the Hahns.(Photo: Courtesy of Bratislava Hanus Days)

What prompted you to travel from the U.S. to attend this central European event? What do you think the U.S. can bring to the Old Continent when it comes to evangelization? Your country was once evangelized by zealous European missionaries, but Americans seem to have a greater missionary dynamism nowadays.

Scott: What we have in common with Europe is so much greater than our cultural differences. When we received the invitation, it sounded like a divine calling, offering us the opportunity to learn from people whose political history has shaped their own spiritual history. And even if we are on the other side of the ocean, we are so close to the very heart of Jesus and Mary. 

I think it’s also appropriate because so much comes from America that is not life-giving. For us, to come from America, with the faith that we share and that we received from Europe, it seems like a kind of turnabout, a fair play, from a divine perspective. 

Kimberly: I didn’t think of myself as an American coming to bring something American here, but as a sister in Christ, so grateful as a convert for all those who have been faithful in the Church that we were able to be welcomed into. 

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