Most faithful Catholics, at one time or another, have experienced the anguish of a loved one walking away from the Lord, the Church, or both.
Some live through the daily heartache of children who have strayed from the fold; others experience the often unbearable tension of living with a spouse who does not share their faith, and still more worry about the salvation of friends and relatives who are indifferent, lukewarm or openly hostile to all things to do with “religion”.
Out of Options?
Volumes have been written about what to do when faced with these situations. There are strategies for talking to your loved ones about your faith. There are an equal number of suggestions for how to not talk about your faith and simply allow the witness of your own zeal to stir up a desire in their hearts.
“How-to” guides for evangelizing family and friends abound. Sympathetic and well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ are always standing at the ready to provide advice, encouragement and prayers.
What do you do, though, when you’ve tried everything; when your strength and your patience have worn thin and the anxiety over a loved one’s soul is crippling your own faith? How do you cope when the glory stories of others’ conversions you hear at your small faith-sharing group are grating on your last nerve, and the invitation to your friend’s son’s Ordination leaves you collapsed on the couch in a heap of resentment and frustration?
The answer, I propose, lies in the wisdom of Saint Padre Pio’s short maxim: “Pray, Hope and Don’t Worry.”
Sounds too easy, right? Let’s examine each of these three components:
St. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ.” (1 Thess 5:16-18)
His words speak to us today. Prayer is the single most efficacious thing we can do to bring about another’s conversion. The example of St. Monica is one of the most well-known testimonies of a mother’s prayers being answered for her son’s conversion.
St. Monica “prayed without ceasing” for 30 years for her son, St. Augustine. Entrenched in sexual sin and filled with intellectual pride and arrogance, St. Augustine, prior to his conversion, seemed to be a rather hopeless case. Yet, his mother persevered in her prayers, and the Lord answered them, raising up St. Augustine to be one of the greatest theologians the Church has ever seen.
Not only were St. Monica’s prayers answered, but she herself was purified and sanctified through her struggle by those very same prayers and is now numbered among the Church’s canonized saints. Our prayers make a difference.
St. Paul has sandwiched his instruction to “pray without ceasing” between two very powerful challenges, especially for those who are agonizing over a wayward loved one. They are to: “rejoice always” and “give thanks in all circumstances.”
These two components are not optional, but listed as part of “the will of God for you in Christ.” You may be asking yourself — how can I possibly rejoice when I don’t see the victory, and what exactly am I supposed to be giving thanks for?
The virtue of hope holds the key to living out St. Paul’s words in the midst of dire and seemingly desperate circumstances. The Catechism of the Catholic Church in article 1817 defines hope as
“…the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
Hope is not merely a pious wish, like the kind we utter on a rainy morning when we want to go swimming, when we say to no one in particular: “ I hope the sun comes out….” By contrast, when we exercise the virtue of hope, we are resting on the sure foundation of God’s promises and His grace.
In our hope for our loved one’s conversion, we can live out St. Paul’s challenge to “rejoice always” and “give thanks in all circumstances” because our hope is in the Lord, who loves them and desires them to be with Him for all eternity even more than we do.
3. Don’t Worry
Anxiety is the thorn in the flesh of everyone who has ever struggled with a loved one who has strayed from the Faith. As Catholics, we desire the fullness of life that a relationship with Jesus and His Church brings for all our loved ones. It is difficult, if not impossible, to not fret about their soul, the quality of their temporal life and their eternal destiny.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provides the blueprint for Gospel living. Included in this teaching is a section warning against worry in which the Lord stresses the goodness and providence of God the Father in His care for all of creation and most especially for us, His children.
Jesus asks the obvious question that every chronic worrier already knows the answer to: “Can anyone of you by worrying, add a single moment to your life-span?” (Matt 6:27) His rhetorical question points out the futility and unproductive nature of worry.
Instead, Jesus offers us an antidote to our anxiety: “Seek first the kingdom of God and all his righteousness and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matt 6: 33) By seeking God through our prayers and the promises that the virtue of hope gives us, we will indeed be freed from our anxiety over our loved ones.
If Padre Pio’s words sound like a simplistic, childish antidote to the serious and devastating situation of a loved one’s lapsed faith, it is because the Lord demands that we approach him in a childlike way, trusting in His goodness, love and mercy for ourselves and for those whom we love.
When we choose to live in this childlike trust, then we can rest in the promise that “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:7)