Proselytism is Solemn Nonsense
Fr. Frank DeSiano, CSP
This stunning statement came from Pope Francis in his conversation with the Italian atheist who founded the Roman newspaper, La Repubblica. Is this a papal attack on evangelization? How can the Holy Father, who is preparing an apostolic exhortation to respond to last October’s “Synod on the New Evangelization” come out with a statement like this?
Actually we evangelizers need to thank Pope Francis for what he said. Because it allows us to clarify what proselytism is and what evangelization is-and how very different they are. In fact, about 15 years ago, Catholics and Evangelicals had a long series of conversations which were very helpful in identifying what proselytism is. Reviewing some of these ideas is helpful and important.
We proselytize when we dismiss the religious experience of other people just because they are different from us-especially when our dismissal presumes a guilt, sin, or state of damnation for them just because they do not have our faith. We also proselytize when we distort what another religion says and depict in ways that are totally unfair. For example, when some Evangelicals continue to say (especially to first-generation Hispanics in the United States) that “Catholics break the first commandment because we worship idols and statues,” this is distortion and deceit. And when some Catholics dismiss the worship of Evangelicals by saying, “It’s only entertainment,” that is proselytism.
We proselytize when we target groups as a whole for “conversion.” So if a group of Christians enters a Jewish neighborhood to convince them of their errors, or if a group of Muslims enter a Spanish neighborhood to convince them of their illusions, this is proselytism in one of its worst senses.
But evangelization is none of this. Evangelization targets no group as a group. Evangelization presumes the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of others. Catholic evangelization presumes that people can find salvation even through non-Catholic—and even non-Christian—forms, so long as people are open to where the Spirit is leading them.
Catholic evangelizers do not proselytize. Rather we invite, we welcome, we engage, we give people room to explore and ask questions, and we do this out of profound love and respect. Our motive for invitation is not the aggrandizement of our Church but the way the Kingdom of God, known through Jesus and his Church, can enrich and renew people who are seeking. Our motive for evangelizing is sharing the grace that God gave us in accord with the working of the Spirit in the lives of others.
We give to others who are seeking; we respond to others who are inquiring. We offer healing to those who are hurting. We offer wisdom to those who are questioning—the wisdom of Jesus. We announce a message of joyful salvation—of liberation—to those who are trapped and stuck in life. We offer the sweeping beauty of our thoughtful and artistic reactions to the Good News in the beauty of our Eastern and Western Catholic traditions. We offer food for those who recognize their hunger.
It’s easy to get miffed at people who, after hearing what the Pope says, then say, “Well, he really meant something else.” Who are all these experts that know the Pope’s mind so well? The Pope is clearly trying to something different to the Church and the world today—because he clearly wants to move us from our self-absorbed and self-complacent Church life into involvement with the world, especially the poor and the conflicted.
In this case, however, the Pope means exactly what he said: we do not proselytize because that is solemn nonsense, a rejection of the very bases on which faith is shared. We do not proselytize, we evangelize, in the “new” style that is being proposed to us: out of joy and love, with humility and sharing, without arrogance or pomposity, without dismissing the very people with whom we are in dialogue.
I explore some of these meanings of proselytism—and how we Catholics do not proselytize when we evangelize—in chapter 2 of my book “Mission America: Challenges and Opportunities for Catholics Today.” (www.pemdc.org)
The Pope meant what he said. Therefore, let us become not a church that proselytizes, but a church that more explicitly evangelizes, inviting and welcoming those who are drawn to our joy.