Back in the silly season of summer, when new Pope Francis interviews were giving Catholics the vapors on a weekly basis, one thing that got a lot of knees a-jerkin’ was his comment about proselytization being “solemn nonsense.” I understood what he meant at the time, but, as I observed, aggressive proselytization in the Catholic Church hardly seems to be a problem worthy of being called out. I don’t recall ever seeing an example of it.
Francis returns to the issue in the apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, published today.
Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of these are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”.
The footnote cites Benedict, emphasis added:
Christ’s mission is accomplished in love. He has kindled in the world the fire of God’s love (cf. Lk 12:49). It is Love that gives life: and so the Church has been sent forth to spread Christ’s Love throughout the world, so that individuals and peoples “may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). … The Church considers herself the disciple and missionary of this Love: missionary only insofar as she is a disciple, capable of being attracted constantly and with renewed wonder by the God who has loved us and who loves us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction”: just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.
This is the core of affirmative orthodoxy: the “yes” of the Church. Our mission is preaching Christ in word and deed. Proselytization suggests an aggressive approach, using rhetoric and persuasion to try to induce someone to change their faith. This is not merely contrary to how we do things: it’s positively the worst way to go about evangelization. It’s off-putting, ineffective, and often fails to yield lasting fruit. Proselytization is the seed thrown on rocky ground, which springs up, but has no depth of soil.
Conversion must be of the heart, which can’t be accomplished by tricks or abuse, but only by offering a light so powerful that others long to warm themselves by its glow.
In short, it’s this..
… not this.