In evangelizing souls (including our own), there are usually stages that precede conversion. In the past I have written on these stages and referred to them as “Mad … Sad … Glad.”
1. Mad – In this stage, one may present as angry, resistant, or averse to the message of the Gospel or to some aspect of the Christian moral vision.
2. Sad – In this stage, one comes to realize that worldly notions and promises are both false and disappointing—even harmful to one’s life. One is chastened, realizing that rejecting God and His truth was wrong. Although initially experiencing humiliation and a kind of depression, through the prayers of the faithful and the work of the Holy Spirit one can turn this sadness into a humility that is now open to the Gospel.
3. Glad – In this stage, one is now open, through hope, to the wisdom and promise of the Gospel. One is joyful as the initial effects of the Gospel message bring conversion, transformation, hope, and a new vision.
Thus, conversion is a process, a kind of extended conversation. Notice that the same root, conversio, is in both words. We often want to think of evangelization as a moment, or a point of success in winning a soul for Christ. But rare indeed is the convert who is willing (or even able) to go from zero to a hundred on the disciple scale.
This is true not only with bringing souls to Christ, but also with the deeper conversion of lifelong Catholics. Sadly, as we know, not all Catholics agree with all of the teachings of the Gospel and the Church. Here, too, the stages of conversion typically apply; a longer conversation is usually necessary to conform them to the faith. Though possible, it is rare that one conversation or one sermon will draw a person from dissent to orthodoxy. The longer conversation between the individual, the Church, and God is usually necessary.
St. Gregory the Great reflected on the return of St. Thomas the Apostle (whose feast we celebrated earlier this week). He described, in a very brief sentence, the stages of St. Thomas’ conversion from unbelief to belief:
Do you really believe that it was by chance that this chosen disciple was absent, then came and heard, heard and doubted, doubted and touched, touched and believed? (St Gregory the Great, Pope Hom. 26, 7-9: PL 76, 1201-1202v)
As Pope St. Gregory described it, St. Thomas went from “absence” (unbelief) to an ever-present faith in four stages:
1. He came and heard. For reasons unspecified, St. Thomas was absent from the first appearance of the risen Lord to the Apostles on that Easter Sunday evening. Although not at that Sunday gathering of the Church, he still knew and had relationships with others who were there. It was they who told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
For a variety of reasons, many people today do not gather with us on Sundays. Sadly, they miss an encounter with the Lord. They do not hear him speak in His Word or offer us His Body and Blood. They do not receive His blessings through the priest. But they do know us. It is from us that they must hear the joyful shout, “We have seen the Lord!” Evangelization typically breaks down right here because most Catholics do not talk like this. They go to Church, come home, and say little or nothing about it. But if we are going to bring back the Thomases we know, this must change. We have to become more aware of how we encounter the Lord in every liturgy and learn to witness to the fact that the Lord is changing our life through this encounter.
I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word made Flesh in Holy Communion, and experiencing deep fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cell of anxiety no longer constrains me. The Lord delivered us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.
What is your testimony? Thomas was restored to the community by the testimony of others who had seen the Lord. And though he doubted, he heard the call to “Come and see.” To whom have you testified? Whom have you invited?
2. He heard and doubted. St. Thomas heard but doubted—but at least he heard! And he accepted the invitation to come the next Sunday.
In his expressed doubts and his demands to see and touch in the ordinary human way, we see the common human longing to experience God in tangible ways. The extreme form of this is a kind of radical empiricism or scientism that says, in effect, “If God does not tip the scale in my laboratory or light up the retina of my eyes, He is not real.” There is not enough space to debunk that in this post, except to say that as God is not physical, He is not weighed on a scale. There are many metaphysical realities that are very real. For example, justice, love, and mercy are certainly real, but you can’t weigh them on a scale or see them out for a walk. Since they are not physical, they are seen in their effects, though not in themselves. It is the same with God. He is not some other thing in the physical universe; He is existence itself.
Thomas’ insistence to see and touch is more commonly expressed in the desire of most people that faith and the experience of God be tangible, that it be palpably experienced rather than just a bunch of abstractions, generalities, and slogans.
It is not wrong to insist that if the faith we announce were real, it would have real effects on our lives and bring about transformation. This is why our witness cannot simply take the form of reciting slogans or even creeds. While the content of the faith must be clearly and accurately proclaimed, its effects must also be evident in order to evangelize effectively.
Rightly or wrongly, the mere advancement of arguments and ideas isn’t going to move most people today. They are looking for a tangible experience of truth; they want to see how the faith we proclaim has touched us and how they can touch it as well.
In this second stage, we learn that it is important to listen to the doubts people express and their need to touch and see the truth, not just hear it. Good apologists listen carefully and compose respectful answers. As any good apologist knows, though, mere arguments seldom win the day. An apologist must also be a witness to the power of the Gospel to set us free. The Gospel must be tangible: able to be seen, touched, and encountered in us who teach and proclaim it. We cannot simply present answers to questions. We have to be witnesses of the power of these truths to set us free.
3. He doubted and touched. St. Thomas, though excessive in his demand to see and touch in a merely physical way, expressed a common human need. Jesus rebuked Thomas’ demand to see in a purely ordinary and physical way. He praised those who come to faith without seeing in this way. However, this does not mean that there is no legitimate need for evidence. That is why Jesus sent out witnesses.
In an extraordinary way, the Lord met Thomas’ need, so that he might believe. He also cautioned that the ordinary way of encountering the Lord is not going to be through physical seeing and touching. Rather, we will encounter him in the Liturgy, the sacraments, His Word, and prayer and unity with His Body, the Church.
This must still be tangible for people, though. When people do encounter the gathering of the Church on Sunday morning, is Christ’s presence tangible? Are the expected effects of the true presence of Christ on display? Is there joy? Is the transformative power of Christ seen in the lives of the faithful? How?
We ought to pray and work for parish communities that feature transformed Catholics rather than bored believers and tepid troops. The Church is a bride, not a widow; the Mass is a wedding feast, not a funeral. What can a doubter touch and see in our parish? If we are alive, reverent, attentive to the Lord, eager and joyful to be instructed, and grateful for the Eucharist and what the Lord is doing in our lives, then the Thomas who comes into our parish will see the Lord step forward and say, “See and touch …. No longer be unbelieving but believe.”
4. He touched and believed. We have largely done our work in following these stages, perhaps just a few concluding questions. Although Thomas’ need to see and touch is excessive, it is not wholly illegitimate.
How can people see and touch the Lord in our life and the life of our parish? What evidence will unbelievers find in us and in our parishes so that they can touch and believe? Can Christ step forward in our lives and in our parishes and say to unbelievers or to the weak in faith, “See and touch my hands and my side. No longer be unbelieving but believe.”?
These are just some thoughts based on Pope St. Gregory’s stages of evangelization. You should be a witness!