Proselytize NO, Evangelize YES, Said Pope Francis

Well now, didn’t the Internet explode this week, what with all that excitement regarding Pope Francis’ second interview with the atheist Eugenio Scalfari in La Repubblica?

“Proselytism is solemn nonsense,” he said.  “It makes no sense.”

To which faithful Catholics responded, “WHAT?!!”  What about the resurrected Jesus’ instruction to the apostles in Matthew 28?  You know, when He told His followers to

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Continuing his dialogue in a personal meeting with Scalfari, Pope Francis said, “I believe I have already said that our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope.”

But did he mean that in the sense that English-language readers first thought—that one should not try to convert anyone to Christianity?

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A look back to his remarks at morning Mass in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae residence on Wednesday, May 8, proves that he did not mean that at all.

“Evangelization is not proselytizing,” he said. This was the focus of Pope Francis’ remarks to faithful gathered for Mass on Wednesday morning in the Chapel of the Domus Sanctae Marthae residence in the Vatican.  The Pope reiterated that the Christian who wants to proclaim the Gospel must dialogue with everyone, knowing that no one owns the truth, because the truth is received by the encounter with Jesus.

Radio Vatican published the full remarks:

“A Christian,” said Pope Francis, “must proclaim Jesus Christ in such a way that He be accepted: received, not refused – and Paul knows that he has to sow the Gospel message.  He knows that the proclamation of Jesus Christ is not easy, but that it does not depend on him.  He must do everything possible, but the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the truth, depends on the Holy Spirit.  Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: ‘When He shall come, the Spirit of truth, shall guide you into all the truth.’  Paul does not say to the Athenians: ‘This is the encyclopedia of truth.  Study this and you have the truth, the truth.’  No!  The truth does not enter into an encyclopedia.  The truth is an encounter – it is a meeting with Supreme Truth: Jesus, the great truth.  No one owns the truth.  We receive the truth when we meet [it].

But why did Paul act as he did?  First, the Pope said, because “this is the way” of Jesus who “spoke with everyone” with sinners, publicans, teachers of the law. Paul, therefore, “follows the attitude of Jesus”:

“The Christian who would bring the Gospel must go down this road: [must] listen to everyone!  But now is a good time in the life of the Church: the last 50 or 60 years have been a good time – for I remember when as a child one would hear in Catholic families, in my family, ‘No, we cannot go to their house, because they are not married in the Church, eh!’.  It was as an exclusion.  No, you could not go!  Neither could we go to [the houses of] socialists or atheists.   Now, thank God, people do not says such things, right?  [Such an attitude] was a defense of the faith, but it was one of walls: the LORD made bridges.  First: Paul has this attitude, because it was the attitude of Jesus. Second, Paul is aware that he must evangelize, not proselytize.

So clearly, in the Pope’s mind, evangelization is not proselytizing.

Pope Francis stressed the courageous attitude of Paul St Paul at the Areopagus, when, in speaking to the Athenian crowd, he sought to build bridges to proclaim the Gospel. The Pope called Paul’s attitude one that “seeks dialogue” and is “closer to the heart” of the listener. The Pope said that this is the reason why St Paul was a real pontifex: a “builder of bridges” and not of walls. The Pope went on to say that this makes us think of the attitude that a Christian ought always to have.

“A Christian,” said Pope Francis, “must proclaim Jesus Christ in such a way that He be accepted: received, not refused – and Paul knows that he has to sow the Gospel message. He knows that the proclamation of Jesus Christ is not easy, but that it does not depend on him. He must do everything possible, but the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the proclamation of the truth, depends on the Holy Spirit. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: ‘When He shall come, the Spirit of truth, shall guide you into all the truth.’ Paul does not say to the Athenians: ‘This is the encyclopedia of truth. Study this and you have the truth, the truth.’ No! The truth does not enter into an encyclopedia. The truth is an encounter – it is a meeting with Supreme Truth: Jesus, the great truth. No one owns the truth.  We receive the truth when we meet [it].

But why did Paul act as he did?  First, the Pope said, because “this is the way” of Jesus who “spoke with everyone” with sinners, publicans, teachers of the law. Paul, therefore, “follows the attitude of Jesus”:

The Pope continued:

“The Christian who would bring the Gospel must go down this road: [must] listen to everyone!  But now is a good time in the life of the Church: the last 50 or 60 years have been a good time – for I remember when as a child one would hear in Catholic families, in my family, ‘No, we cannot go to their house, because they are not married in the Church, eh!’.  It was as an exclusion.  No, you could not go!  Neither could we go to [the houses of] socialists or atheists.  Now, thank God, people do not says such things, right? [Such an attitude] was a defense of the faith, but it was one of walls: the LORD made bridges.  First: Paul has this attitude, because it was the attitude of Jesus. Second, Paul is aware that he must evangelize, not proselytize.

Citing his predecessor, Pope Benedict, Francis went on to say that the Church “does not grow by means of proselytizing,” but “by attraction, by witnessing, by preaching,” and Paul had this attitude:  proclamation does not make proselytism–and he succeeds, because, “he did not doubt his Lord.”

The Pope warned that “Christians who are afraid to build bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are not sure of their faith, not sure of Jesus Christ.” The Pope exhorted Christians to do as Paul did and begin to “build bridges and to move forward”:

“Paul teaches us this journey of evangelization, because Jesus did, because he is well aware that evangelization is not proselytizing:  it is because he is sure of Jesus Christ and does not need to justify himself [or] to seek reasons to justify himself.  When the Church loses this apostolic courage, she becomes a stalled Church, a tidy Church a nice, a Church that is nice to look at, but that is without fertility, because she has lost the courage to go to the outskirts, where there are many people who are victims of idolatry, worldliness of weak thought, [of] so many things.  Let us today ask St. Paul to give us this apostolic courage, this spiritual fervor, so that we might be confident.  ‘But Father,’ [you might say], ‘we might make mistakes…’ … ‘[Well, what of it,’ I might respond], ‘Get on with you: if you make a mistake, you get up and go forward: that is the way.  Those who do not walk in order not to err, make a the more serious mistake.

See the rest at Vatican Radio.

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My friend and fellow Patheos blogger Fr. Dwight Longenecker recounted a story of a conversation with an Evangelical friend regarding theology.  Father Dwight first assured the friend that he wasn’t out to convert him; but the friend was having none of it.  “First of all,” he said, “I don’t really believe you.  You do actually want me to become Catholic.  Secondly, you should want me to become Catholic.  If you really believe your religion, then you believe it is for my good now and for my soul’s salvation that I convert to the Catholic faith.  You should want to convert me, and if you really don’t then I think even less of your religion than I did before.”

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And one last example:  The atheist magician Penn Jillette is a man of virtue, I’ve thought, although he’s still not been granted the gift of faith.  Penn tells a story about being given a Bible by a man who prayed for his conversion.  Penn said, “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. If you believe there’s a Heaven and Hell, and people could be going to Hell, or NOT getting eternal life, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to NOT proselytize?”


So go:  Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel. 

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If you haven’t seen it, you can read my report on Pope Francis’ first interview with Eugenio Scalfari here.


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