Is the Catholic Church in crisis and in decline? That’s what I was hearing from some of the international secular media that had descended on Rome to cover the election of Pope Francis, as I did late-night TV interviews with St. Peter’s Basilica in the background.
There are many reasons — even in the face of the crowds overflowing St. Peter’s Square in anticipation of the white smoke announcing the election of a new pope, and the thousands who streamed in for his first Sunday Angelus message and Mass of installation — that frame might be believable. The most damning one is that Catholics all too often simply don’t show the world that the name “Christian” means something radical that causes them to order their lives anew. As Christians celebrate the holiest days of the year during Holy Week and Easter, they are called to renewal, to the real encounter with Christ that Pope Benedict XVI and now Francis have spoken about with urgency.
College football fans may have caught a spiritual pep talk from coach Lou Holtz during some of the bowl games earlier this year. Tom Peterson, a former advertising executive, is president of Catholics Come Home, the project that got the ad on air. Peterson feels called to use his talents to welcome Catholics back to the Church and to invite everyone to better understand and experience just what it is Catholics believe.
LOPEZ: Why is the mercy of Christ, which Pope Francis talked about in his first Angelus address, such an important and timely message?
PETERSON: We have all sinned against God and our neighbors, but Christ’s healing and compassionate mercy reconciles us and restores our relationship with God and others. We all are in need of Christ’s mercy, and once we receive it, we are called to show and share His healing mercy with others. This is the Christian life. Pope Francis lives this message of compassion, humility, and mercy. The world is so attracted to him because he exudes the Holy Spirit in modeling Christ to the world.
LOPEZ: What does the Holy Spirit have to do with GPS?
PETERSON: The Holy Spirit is our advocate and guide. Just like a GPS in your car, the Holy Spirit serves as our GPS to guide our route to safety, to Heaven. But you and I need to turn on the GPS, need to call upon the Holy Spirit to guide our way. If we rely on our own thinking, we often end up making wrong turns or end up in a spiritual ditch.
LOPEZ: What do you mean when you say, “I was addicted to the sense of power that security and control brought me”?
PETERSON: The lures of the world often lead us into lives of mediocrity. We can get desensitized, and begin to want more and more of what the world offers, straying from the greatest good that God offers. Without realizing it, I became addicted to business power, wealth, and the control that came to me as a successful executive. I became selfish and strayed off the path of faith. We all are looking for happiness and trying to find love in the wrong places. As St. Augustine described so well, our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
LOPEZ: What does it mean to you that only one out of every four Catholics regularly attends even weekly Mass?
PETERSON: According to recent CARA and Pew studies, only a fraction of the 1.2 billion baptized Catholics worldwide actually attend Mass every Sunday. To me, this shows how the apparent glitter and glamour of the world have captured our attention and lured us away from God. We are failing to “keep holy the Sabbath,” as the commandment instructs, when we can’t even worship God and thank Him for all He has done for us, even for just one hour on Sundays.
LOPEZ: How do Catholics come to have some confidence in their faith? To truly know it? To have the courage to live it?
PETERSON: Living the Catholic faith begins with reconciliation. We serve a God of second chances, actually a God of unlimited second chances. The sacramental graces and mercy found in the confessional are often the best means of starting over, heading back home. We are all prodigal sons and daughters who need to come home to the loving arms of God, Our Father. With regular and frequent participation in Mass (weekly yes, but also even daily), receiving Holy Communion in a state of grace, praying the Rosary, reading the Bible and good Catholic books, regularly partaking in Eucharistic adoration, fasting, and doing works of mercy for others, we grow in our faith. We begin to emulate Christ in the world. As Pope John Paul II said, “Be not afraid,” for as Scripture confirms, with God all things are possible. At first it takes a bit of courage to live as Christ commands because the world will ridicule you. But over time, we begin to realize the joy that comes from knowing, loving, and serving God and nothing in this world can fill our hearts the way Christ truly can. Over time, we come to realize we are not servants of Jesus Christ, but are brothers and sisters in Christ, adopted sons and daughters of our loving Father.
LOPEZ: You quote Pope Benedict at the end of one of your chapters: “If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful, and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed.” How do we truly live that?
PETERSON: We do this by turning away from the burden of sin, trusting God, and living in His holy will. When we do this, the adventure truly begins, our eyes and hearts are opened, and we find true purpose, fulfillment, and happiness in life.
LOPEZ: Is Pope Francis’s attraction the “Downsize and simplify” message that helped you?
PETERSON: Pope Francis is the epitome of someone who has downsized and simplified his life. When God called me to downsize and simplify, I found much more freedom from having less, and realized that ties to managing worldly stuff were a burden.
LOPEZ: What do you love most about the Catholic Church?
PETERSON: Jesus instituted “a Church,” His Church, and He feeds us with Himself in the Eucharist, forgives us in the confessional, guides His bride, the Church, with the Holy Spirit to the end of time, and gave us a mother, His own mother. I love the Catholic faith, because it is the pure form of the complete fullness of Christianity, of living as Christ taught, not vacillating on moral issues because of changing cultural opinions. It’s all here: truth, beauty, and goodness.
LOPEZ: How do you make sense of all the sins within it?
PETERSON: Catholics are humans and humans sin. We all need a Savior. But just because humans sin, that doesn’t mean that what Christ taught and gave us in the Catholic faith is in any way flawed. Jesus himself taught us that we will have Judases among you so why should we be surprised? Jesus’ own apostles denied Him and failed at times. As Christians we are called home to God’s mercy and forgiveness when we fail and sin, and then as Christians, we must also show others that same mercy and forgiveness. This is our faith.
LOPEZ: Is prayer for real? Is it practical? Is it more than something that makes us feel better in times of need?
PETERSON: Yes, yes, and yes. Prayer is communication with God — asking, listening, sharing our hearts, our needs, our weaknesses, our heartfelt intentions. Prayer combined with fasting is most beneficial. All prayers are answered. It’s just sometimes we don’t like the answer God gave us.
LOPEZ: You write, “If you speak from the heart, if you speak sincerely and with love, wonderful things can happen. Don’t be afraid. Be open and pray every day that God will grant you the grace to help lead someone to Christ, to help love somebody to heaven.” Surely there must be a more rigorous strategy?
PETERSON: Not really, for you see, God’s ways are simple and straightforward: Love God with all your heart, your soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Life — and the spiritual life — really doesn’t have to be so complicated!
LOPEZ: “Every day, all day long, God is saying to you, ‘I’m here. I love you. Return to me.’” How do you know you are not just hearing things?
PETERSON: Each one of us has a homing device in our hearts, for we were created in God’s own image and designed to return to Him. We can “hear” and feel God’s quiet voice in our heart, if we open our heart to Him. He is constantly knocking, we just need to open the door and let Him in. If our hearts are cold and stony, this may take more time. Again, our hearts soften when we free ourselves from the burden of sin, and come home to God through the sacrament of confession. If you don’t hear God’s voice, try seeking His healing love in confession. He is waiting for you and will greet you with open arms.
LOPEZ: “Accept the gift of God’s mercy. Let yourself be filled with the graces of the Holy Spirit so that the light of Christ and the love of Our Heavenly Father can overflow through you to those you meet.” You’re a busy, realistic guy. How do you do that?
PETERSON: Growing in humility and making God our top priority are the keys to experiencing God’s overflowing mercy and love. Pope Francis knows this very well.
LOPEZ: How do you know this is all true?
PETERSON: We know this is all true through the gift of faith. When we open God’s gift of faith, our souls “know that they know.” Ask any Christian who is a true believer who has “encountered the living Christ.” We just know Jesus is for real, and we can truly trust in Him. If you aren’t there, pray for God’s gift of faith. Beyond this, we can see and experience God’s majesty in the miracles of nature, in the love of a baby’s glance, in the tenderness of a mother’s or father’s sacrificial love.
LOPEZ: What have you most treasured about your Catholics Come Home work?
PETERSON: I’m so blessed that God allows and invites us to be part of His salvific mission and can live the adventure of helping to love souls to heaven.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.