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The Birth of Catholic Evangelism

By Deal W. Hudson
4/20/2014 (2 years ago)
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

If it's true that good storytelling is the basis of effective evangelism then the Catholic Church is the most fertile soil one could imagine.

In spite of being ignored, and in some cases blacklisted, several of the hosts of EWTN radio and TV shows grew ministries of their own in the evangelistic Catholic style of Mother Angelica's still-prospering network. Jeff Cavins is one of the most successful of Mother's "graduates." There is no Catholic layman in the country better qualified than Jeff to create a new template for Catholic evangelism.  He told me during the inter-view that he will be implementing a "creative" approach to evangelism in his role at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. 

I recently interviewed Jeff Cavins  for my weekly show  on Ave Maria Radio.  Jeff, who is nationally known for his study guides to the Bible, has just taken a job as Director of Evangelism at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  It's a significant point in this nation's Church history that an apologist/educator with EWTN origins has taken a significant job inside an archdiocese.

I recently interviewed Jeff Cavins for my weekly show on Ave Maria Radio. Jeff, who is nationally known for his study guides to the Bible, has just taken a job as Director of Evangelism at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. It's a significant point in this nation's Church history that an apologist/educator with EWTN origins has taken a significant job inside an archdiocese.

WASHINGTON,DC (Catholic Online) - I recently interviewed Jeff Cavins  for my weekly show  on Ave Maria Radio.  Jeff, who is nationally known for his study guides to the Bible, has just taken a job as Director of Evangelism at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  It's a significant point in this nation's Church history that an apologist/educator with EWTN origins has taken a significant job inside an archdiocese.

There was a time in the mid-90s that many established Catholic leaders did not care much for Mother Angelica and her radio/TV network.  This wasn't helped when the USCCB wasted millions of dollars on a failed TV project of its own.  In spite of being ignored, and in some cases blacklisted, several of the hosts of EWTN radio and TV shows grew ministries of their own in the evangelistic Catholic style of Mother Angelica's still-prospering network. Jeff Cavins is one of the most successful of Mother's "graduates."

There is no Catholic layman in the country better qualified than Jeff to create a new template for Catholic evangelism.  He told me during the inter-view that he will be implementing a "creative" approach to evangelism in his role at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  He began to explain this approach by talking about "pre-evangelism," our ability to lay the groundwork for speaking to a person about the Church.  This involves creating a relationship, earning the right to speak about such a weighty matter, and learning to listen before speaking.

Pre-evangelism is a marvelous term to describe what we have been trying to do through this series of columns at Catholic Online as well as with our Church and Culture radio show.  First, we create a point of contact with individuals who might not otherwise be interested in anything Catholic or Christian. This is done through what I have termed cultural apologetics, using something of mutual respect, or mutual disregard, to start a conversation about why coming from differing perspectives we would find value in the same thing. 

Jeff Cavins went on to discuss the next phase, when you are able to discuss, explicitly, matters concerning faith and salvation.  This conversation should be connected to what was discussed during the pre-evangelism phase but should not suddenly become doctrinal or dogmatic. As Cavins explained it, we must learn to tell stories, stories that contain a positive message of mercy, kindness, forgiveness, and love.  "The last thing in the world," I replied, "that should be placed on top of persons seeking salvation is more guilt; to be told, for example, they are in a state of mortal sin."

Cavins agreed with me that American Catholics, for the most part, are uncomfortable with the topic of evangelism, which they identify with a, largely, Southern style of preaching and personal witnessing that turns them off.  It's not among the dispositions of Catholics in American culture to comfortably share their faith with others, to recognize opportunities in daily life to raise the question of ultimate concern.  There needs to be a homegrown style of Catholic evangelicalism, and I expect to see it soon emerging from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.  (Not to put any unnecessary pressure on Jeff at his new job!)

What about the evangelical style exhibited by Mother Angelica and the other hosts of the EWTN network?  To my mind, it represents the pre-evangelization of America's Catholics but will not be the evangelism itself. Mother's EWTN has prepared the ground nationally for the kind of work Jeff Cavins will do at his archdiocese. 

To speak of limitations regarding the house style of EWTN is only a foot-note to an apostolate that has changed the character of Catholicism in America more than any other in the last 30 years. But every institution reaches its limits, unless it hears a call for change, and EWTN shows no sign of having heard such a call. The spectrum of Catholics it now serves is aging quickly. Even though EWTN has created a Catholic subculture of its own, that will not be big enough to sustain the network in to the future, that is, without substantive changes in programming and a variation of style. 

The one exception to this is the work of Raymond Arroyo as news director - he has expanded the vision of EWTN and made it a presence in Washington, DC and part of any international event, whether in the Vatican or not, of importance to the Church. Arroyo has also been able to treat the issue of politics with great sensitivity and non-partisanship, thus, bringing another range of, often controversial, issues to its viewers.

In fact, I would compare Arroyo's work at EWTN with that of Jeff Cavins and predict that the Catholic form of evangelism soon to be born will be deeply influenced by both of them - intelligence wedded to taste, good humor, confidence, courage, flexibility, and the ability to tell great stories.  Both men, like anyone associated with EWTN, carry the disposition to evangelize with them 24/7.

After all, the Catholic version of Christianity has far more stories ready-to-hand than any other denomination - from its 2000 year history and its role in the creation of Western Civilization to the stories of its saints, martyrs, clergy, and religious.  If it's true that good storytelling is the basis of effective evangelism then the Catholic Church is the most fertile soil one could imagine.

© Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

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Deal W. Hudson is president of the Morley Institute of Church and Culture, Senior Editor and Movie Critic at Catholic Online, and former publisher and editor of Crisis Magazine.This column and subsequent contributions are an excerpt from a forthcoming book. Dr. Hudson's new radio show, Church and Culture, is heard on the Ave Maria Radio Network.

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