Occasionally, Fr. Sean receives inquiries from parishioners about bringing a loved one back to the Catholic faith, including cases when the individual no longer believes in God. In these situations, the concerned parishioner often wants both (1) answers to the questions or points posed by the loved one and (2) advice on how to best address those questions and debate the issues in discussions with the person.
People struggle with their faith for various reasons, and it seems that every atheist/agnostic/ skeptic has his or her unique story or experiences that have led them to non-belief. An easy—but frequently unused—way of convincing skeptics that they may be misguided is to present common philosophical misconceptions in their beliefs and opinions, and that’s our goal in this series of posts, in which we hope to provide the faithful with insights into their loved ones (and, again, their beliefs that influence their non-belief in God). Knowledge is important, but empathy and love are crucial to encouraging a skeptic to return to the faith.
For those seeking advice on leading someone back to faith in God, it is crucial to understand and accept that faith is a gift. Without that gift, believing in God seems like nonsense and superstition. It’s important to be patient and to listen to your loved one and to realize that if or when the time comes when he or she begins to reexamine their beliefs that god doesn’t exist, that person will usually need to pray for that gift. This is often a necessary step, and it stands as a reminder that faith is a gift and not simply something that can be reasoned to by one’s own intellect.
It’s worth noting that believers often think nonbelievers are either just being difficult or expressing their anger at God for some past, negative event. Indeed, some skeptics are angry or disappointed at their own or others’ misfortunes, but many other skeptics simply don’t believe that God exists. Because nonbelievers may have lost their faith for various reasons, each may need to have different questions addressed: there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
There is an important truth every believer needs to know to help recover a lost soul. In John Ch. 15, Jesus tells us:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing… If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.”
So, what can you do to help the nonbeliever?
Make sure that you are still actively attached to the “vine.” “Remaining in Jesus” means more than attending Mass on Sundays. It includes maintaining an active, daily prayer life and living your faith. Your prayers and actions will assure that life will continue to flow through the vine to (and through) you.
More specifically, pray to God for the nonbeliever and love him or her. Prayers and expressions of love are far more important than having all the right theological answers—just as Jesus said that loving God and loving each other are the two most important commandments. “They will know you by your love. (John 13:35).
While these actions may seem less satisfying than engaging in persuasive debate and forceful argument, they are crucial. Consider anyone that you may know or may heard or read about who has abandoned the faith and returned. In almost every case. there was someone praying for that person and giving example through their life and actions that ultimately caused the skeptic to reevaluate his beliefs. Action do speak louder than words!
So, before considering other conversion methods, never underestimate the power of prayer and the power of love.
Think of it as “praying” the person into heaven. St. Ambrose—at the time, Bishop Ambrose—was once asked by a crying St. Monica what she could do to bring her son, St. Augustine, back to the faith. Seeing the mother’s love for her son, Ambrose replied, “it is impossible that a son of so many tears should be lost.”
St. Monica prayed for many, many years for son’s conversion. After struggling with doubts for decades and answering many of his own questions and challenges, Augustine did convert. (He was eventually named a doctor of the Church and was canonized.) It’s possible that had God answered her prayers quickly—without that long struggle, during which Augustine reconciled ancient Greek philosophy with Christianity—there would be no St. Augustine and no St. Monica–at least not as well-known, historical figures in the Church.
The then-Bishop Ambrose’s approach is probably the best advice anyone has ever given on the subject.