In the decade or so I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve made it a point to avoid building for myself a self-affirming social media bubble. Scrolling through my newsfeed on any given day is likely to yield all kinds of reactions to current events, and all kinds of perspectives on matters of faith and life. I credit listening to people outside the conservative worldview I largely still held in 2009 (when I joined Facebook) as one very large reason why I no longer identify as conservative today.
That doesn’t mean I necessarily dropped my conservative contacts as my worldview shifted. Granted, I did my share of unfriending after the 2016 presidential election, and again after I left Catholic Answers in 2020. But I worked hard to keep in touch with my conservative roots, and to keep tabs as best I could on conservative Catholic social media influencers who dropped me after 2016 and 2020. I did this for the same reason I sought out progressive viewpoints in the first place—to avoid creating a bubble.
I mention this to explain how I ended up seeing two very different approaches to evangelization, one immediately after the other in my newsfeed recently.
The first post was written by Fr. Richard Heilman, a priest of the Diocese of Madison, Wisconsin. After Fr. John Zuhlsdorf (Fr. Z, as his faithful “Zedhead” groupies call him), Heilman is probably one of the most prominent priest bloggers in Conservative Catholicland.
The man is also more superstitious than a leprechaun, constantly talking about signs, power, and miracles—which can be yours if you just follow his podcast and buy merch from his online store. After the 2020 election, when MAGA stalwarts were in full “stop the steal!” mode (and, as we found out on January 6, 2021, prepared to do something about it), Heilman wrote a Facebook post confidently predicting that “something’s coming.” How did he know this? He’d been praying to his deceased mother when, lo!, a friend contacted him to tell him that she’d found a copy of his mother’s obituary in her Bible.
So, it may come as no surprise to you that Heilman loves to talk to people about his faith. He also fancies himself an evangelist, and recently shared his secrets for “fishing” (as he called it).
How does he do this? Well, let’s listen to him talk about a Planned Parenthood security guard who “has been in my [Heilman’s] evangelization crosshairs for a very long time.” (You may have to swallow first to clear away the alarm you might feel at seeing a priest speaking of having another person, in this case someone who guards a Planned Parenthood clinic, in “crosshairs.”)
Step One…. I remain non-threatening, not giving him any impression I am trying to reel him in. Just become friends, for now.
Step Two: Discover his “wheelhouse.” What interests Jerry?…
Step Three: Share fascinating stories of “God in action.” So, stories of ways I’ve seen God answer prayers, etc. These are stories that make most people marvel at the reality of our miraculous God….
Step Four…. I spoke with Jerry about the thousands joined together doing spiritual warfare…. This is where I showed him my Combat Rosary, and handed one off to him, telling him he will receive blessings just by carrying it (non-threatening). I told him it was touched to a relic of the True Cross. He glowed when receiving it.
Step Five…. I talk with him about the POWER of worship—The Mass—done with GREAT reverence that says “We actually believe God is truly Present.” This is when I ask Jerry to “check it out some time” (capitalization in the original).
Heilman is currently on “Step Four” with Jerry, by his own reckoning. And he does a lot of reckoning when he’s out and about “fishing.”
I’m at various steps with various people. Most souls are where Jerry is. They don’t want a scripture passage blurted out at them. They know evil is rising at an historic level, and they want a “real religion” that has “real power.” … they want to find hope in an “all-powerful God.” We have that!!! We just need to help souls know about it.
I worked for two decades as a staff apologist for an apostolate devoted to Catholic evangelization. You might think I’d be pleased to read of Heilman’s Adventures in Evangelization.
I was revolted, but wasn’t entirely sure why. I knew Heilman’s approach was manipulative and self-aggrandizing (rather than humble and directed toward God, as I’m certain he intended), but there was something more that bothered me that I couldn’t define. Feeling the need to respond in some small way though, I shared the link to Heilman’s how-to guide to evangelization on my own page and commented, “In some ways, Missionary Friendship is even worse than Missionary Dating. Run, Jerry.”
Then I returned to my newsfeed.
The first post I saw was the latest update from Humans of New York. The page’s owner, Brandon Stanton, takes photographs of interesting people, usually in New York where he is based, and posts the portraits along with stories from the people he’s featuring. In this post, Stanton spoke with and photographed a Dominican priest.
Father talked about how he prefers to spend time with joyful people, not “grumps.” He spoke kindly of the grouches, but quickly moved on to sharing about people in difficult circumstances who still manage to find pleasure in life. In particular, he remembered a little girl he met during his time as a chaplain on the pediatric ward of a cancer treatment center (slightly edited for readability).
One Christmastime there was a ten-year old girl from Ireland, dying of leukemia. All this girl wanted was a Cabbage Patch Doll. Ugliest doll you’ve ever seen in your life, seventy-five dollars. Seventy-five dollars! And sold out everywhere. The mother told me: “I’ve looked in every store.”
That same day a family from my parish asked what I wanted for Christmas. I say: one Cabbage Patch Doll, and two walkie talkies. They said: “Father, are you sure?” I told them: “Yes, I’m sure. I was a kid once too!” The Cabbage Patch Doll went to the little girl. Then I gave one walkie-talkie to her, and one to her twin brother. So they could speak while she was in isolation. After she passed away the mother wrote me a letter. I keep it in my sunshine file. It said: “Those walkie-talkies were the best medicine she ever had.”
HONY’s combox exploded with comments from readers who were touched by this priest.
“I want to be friends with him. No, seriously.”
“Where is your parish, Father? Your presence, your outlook, your optimism and kindness … that’s the type of religion that I want to be part of.”
“A true man of God! Spreading love, sunshine and comfort.”
“‘Mystery is reality, imbued with God’s presence’ [quoting Father’s definition]. I’m not a believer, but that is beautifully phrased.”
Heilman got a lot of kudos in his combox, of course, but those kudos came from people who are part of his “choir.” They already like him, follow his page, and feel affirmed in their own beliefs by his preaching. The Dominican, by contrast, was stopped by a photographer, told a story that was shared on social media, and managed to capture the hearts of people from all walks of life—some of whom were very open that they weren’t interested in religion per se.
This Dominican priest wasn’t going “fishing,” he wasn’t trying to reel in a catch. Yet, he managed to make Christmas special for a dying little girl by finding her a scarce doll that she desperately wanted. He thought the doll was ugly and overpriced, but convinced a family who wanted to buy him a Christmas gift to buy it for him. He doesn’t seem to have told them about the little girl. They wanted to buy him something, so he agreed to let them do so. Then he passed on the gift to the little girl. As a bonus, he found a way for the little girl to keep in contact with her twin brother, whom she’d been unable to see because of the hospital’s rules about visitors to cancer patients.
The gospel doesn’t share itself. And Christ did commission his followers to share the gospel throughout the whole world (Matt. 28:18–20). There’s a world of difference though between nattering on about God’s “POWER” and sliding a definition of “mystery” into a recollection of a time you found a way to fulfill the Christmas wish list of a dying child.
If you’re looking for an example of Christian evangelism in action, look to the Dominican priest who spoke with HONY’s Brandon Stanton. This is how you do evangelization—bringing joy into the lives of people who are suffering, for no other reason than to take their mind off their cares, if only for a little while. There’s nothing manipulative here, there are no steps to reeling in The Catch. Just being a decent, kind human being who happens to also be a priest.
(Image: Child holding adult’s outstretched hands; iStock / Used with license.)