Priest offers guidelines on evangelizing family and friends

NORMAL — The most difficult people to lead to the Catholic faith may be those closest to your heart.

What to say to the son you suspect isn’t attending Mass while away at college? To the friend who is angry at the church because of the harmful words or actions of another Catholic? To the cousin who is marrying outside the church?

The answers vary, but guidelines including prayer, prudence, and especially love always apply, said Father Patrick Henehan in an April 19 presentation on “The Tough Witness — Evangelizing Family and Friends.”

“Evangelization is not about winning arguments,” Father Henehan told about 50 young adults attending a Theology on Tap evening at The Medici restaurant and bar near Illinois State University. “The goal of evangelization is winning souls.”

And when those souls are especially dear to you, the need for a balanced approach is all the more important, he said.

“We can’t force anyone to believe,” said Father Henehan, who is chaplain at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington and pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish, Wapella. “It’s an invitation. The Holy Spirit is who converts people.”

Father Henehan said three keys to evangelization are prayer, study and action.

Prayer benefits self as well as others, he said. “The more we are conformed to God, the more attractive we will be” in witnessing to our faith, said Father Henehan. It’s also important to “pray for the right moment” to share the truths of the faith with another, adding that in his experience God provides that moment and it’s recognizable.

He called continuing study of the faith “vital,” especially learning Scripture so that God’s word “becomes part of who we are.”

And if you don’t know the answer to a question posed about the faith, Father Henehan provided a failsafe one.

“Say ‘I don’t know the answer, but I’ll find it for you'” he suggested. “And then do it.”

The most difficult part of evangelizing friends and family, said Father Henehan, is the action phase.

“The virtue here is prudence, and I don’t have the answer to prudence,” said Father Henehan of the ability to judge appropriate times and actions.

Taking the example of someone marrying outside the church, Father Henehan said Catholics often ask “Do I go to the wedding? To the reception only? Not at all?”

“Sometimes the prudent answer could be any of the three,” said Father Henehan. But he added it’s important to avoid “burning bridges” with family and friends, noting “God thinks long term.”

Father Henehan advised an approach of “balancing truth” that states church teaching with gentleness followed by an assurance such as “Here’s the other truth: I love you.”

The issue a family member or friend is having with the church — whether it be a personal faith crisis, doctrinal conflict, or the negative influence of culture — also factors into an evangelization approach. Father Henehan stressed the importance of listening, and then perseverance in prayer and witness.

“Stay faithful to the end,” he told the group. “Your efforts will never fall on deaf ears.”

He began his comments with the Gospel story of a paralyzed man being lowered to Jesus through a hole in the roof his friends had cut. “They were going to do anything they could to bring their friend to God,” said Father Henehan. “People go out of their way because of love.”

He also recommended those interested in the subject read the book “Search and Rescue: How to Bring Your Family and Friends Into, or Back Into, the Catholic Church,” by Patrick Madrid.

Theology on Tap invites young adults to discuss matters of faith in an informal setting. Series sponsored during April by the Diocese of Peoria in Bloomington and Champaign end this week.

Paul Larson and Kim Hayes will present “Under the Influence — Media and the Message” at The Medici, 120 W. North St. in Normal on Monday, April 26, while on Tuesday, April 27, Father Tom Loya will speak on “Who is Man for Woman and Woman for Man?” at Guido’s Bar and Grill, 2 E. Main St. in Champaign. Participants are invited to begin gathering for food and conversation at 6:30, followed by the sessions at 7 p.m.

For more information on Theology on Tap, contact Brad Colvis at (309) 671-1550 or e-mail

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