You Can Lead a Beggar to Bread: Pope Francis on Evangelization & Proselytism

It’s Tuesday, and Pope Francis is smacking gobs again. We’re still waiting for a better English translation of his latest published conversation with La Repubblica founder Eugenio Scalfari , but it’s safe to say there’s a lot of seasickness aboard ye olde Barque of Peter this morning. Again.

My gob has been so far pretty unsmackable, but a few pull quotes from this latest piece made me reach for the spiritual Dramamine. One, in particular, seemed to be a stunningly insensitive and snarky way to kick off October, the month in which the Church observes World Missions Sunday:

“Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.”

Yowch. There’s no way to misread that, or blame what appears to be a wholesale rejection of convert-making on a bad translation.

So we’ve all been murmuring on the Patheos backchannels, scratching our heads or tearing our hair out by the handfuls. And out of that Apostle-like “WTF did he just say?” reflection, a couple of things emerged. Jennifer Fitz gently reminded us that we don’t make converts—the Holy Spirit does. The Great Commission does not task us with the forcible baptism of the multitudes. We are sent—missioned, all of us—to preach the Good News of salvation and to welcome those who hear and long for it. Nothing we do is more important than this—letting God’s children come to him, and not impeding them from that encounter.

Jennifer also reminded us that in denying that he was attempting to proselytize his atheist interlocutor, Francis was writing—for global publication—the best possible set of instructions for enabling that encounter. Think of the Atheist-Christian exchanges in the public forum, even here on Patheos. There is, in Francis’s conversation with Scalfari, not a trace of the barbed defensiveness, the intellectual smugness, the dismissiveness, the bile we on both sides so often fall into. There are simply two men talking, laughing, about what means most to them, what they have in common, what they respect in each other, where they are unwilling to compromise but not to listen. No solemn nonsense here, folks. But lots and lots and lots of evangelization in action.

And here’s something I tracked down that may shed light on the key parsing of those words, proselytism and evangelization. It seems that Orthodox Christianity, with which Pope Francis is enamored in a deeply fraternal way, makes a very clear distinction. Here’s Orthodox writer Stephen Methodius Hayes, sounding very “Franciscan”:

The difference between evangelism and proselytism is not the same as the difference between centripetal and centrifugal mission, though it can perhaps give a clue to it. . . .

Evangelism, in the English use of the term, means telling or spreading good news. The four gospels of the New Testament tell the good news about Jesus Christ. When we, as Christians, tell others about what God has done in Jesus Christ, we are evangelising.

Proselytism, on the other hand, means “bringing people in”, causing them to change their beliefs, their party, their opinions or their religion. In proselytism there is a strong element of telling people how bad or wrong their present beliefs are. Telling people that their beliefs are wicked or wrong does not appear as “good news ” to them. If we evangelise, we are not saying “Our religion is better than your religion”. We are not setting ourselves up as morally or spiritually superior beings, and trying to get people to leave their religion and join ours so that they can be superior like us. When we evangelise, we say, in effect, that God has done great things. Someone once described evangelism as “One beggar telling another beggar where to get bread.” To a hungry beggar, that is good news. And a beggar telling another beggar such news can hardly boast about it, or claim to be superior because of it.

It’s a difference with a distinction, and worth contemplating on this feast of the great missionary patroness St Therese of Lisieux. She dreamed of becoming a proselytizer, making converts in what was then French Indochina, now Vietnam. Yet she ended up doing all her missionary work from a Carmelite cell, dying at 24 of tuberculosis, leaving behind a sheaf of handwritten pages that might just as well have been “I am a beggar, and I have found bread for you!” written a thousand times over. Therese has, it is safe to say, brought more people to a life-changing encounter with Jesus than any door-to-door proselytizer, and she gives Jesus all the credit.

So I understand that gobsmacking and seasickness go on with this pope, but in the back of my head is always the thought of how many gobs Jesus smacked, how many people he made seasick, how many were confused by his words and walked away, how many cried blasphemy. But they all heard, and it was up to each of them to choose. When the Vicar of Christ on earth speaks puzzling words, even if we just overhear them, we can all be forgiven for doing this a little. Then, we must be about the business of bringing beggars like us to bread.


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