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

You Can Lead a Beggar to Bread: Pope Francis on Evangelization & Proselytism October 1, 2013


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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  • Agni Ashwin

    The Stephen M. Hayes link is broken.

    • joannemcportland

      Fixed. Thanks!

  • Mary E.

    Interesting–I have a negative response to the word “proselytize.” I know that the denotative meaning points to something that I should support wholeheartedly, but the connotative meanings get in the way. I do not have an Orthodox background, but I associate “proselytize” and “proselytism” with a strident, egoistic approach to evangelization such as that described by Stephen Methodius Hayes. So when Pope Francis called proselytizing “solemn nonsense,” I hardly batted an eye.

  • Mike Gannome

    Jesus gobsmacked people with the truth, not with moral relativism. The pope’s comments are irresponsible, confusing and misleading. Get your head out of the sand.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I think this pope, like Jesus, expects people to live the word OUT LOUD, so that people would be drawn to experience the same.

  • AugustineThomas

    Jose Bergoglio would have hated Saint Francis, who was not shy about trying to convert sinners.

    • IRVCath

      And how do you know that is not his object? You can draw more flies with honey than vinegar, after all. And the Christian Custody in the Holy Land, for example, does not proselytise, but evangelizes by providing an open door and inviting people to see “how they love each other” – even unto martyrdom, as we have seen in Syria in recent months. This was set up by Saint Francis himself. Or would you eschew the methods even the saints have used?

      Oh, and the Holy Father’s Christian name is “Jorge,” not “Jose”. The first is George, the second Joseph. Both very good Christian names, of course.

    • BrianB

      There’s a saying. “Your actions speak so loudly I can’t hear what you said.” People should know us by our love for them and one another.

  • johnnyc

    Jesus also talked much about sin, the devil and hell. Out of love. This too is a pastoral approach. The Church’s mission includes the saving of souls, no?

  • Kate

    I understood it. Proselytizing (as I understand the current widely understood meaning, which is trying to shove your faith down people’s throats — which is also how I’m sure the atheist interviewer would interpret it) sucks. I hate having it done to me. And as a revert, I can tell you, it doesn’t work. It is indeed “solemn nonsense.” You have to reach people where they are, gently, giving them as much as they can take where they are in their lives. And sometimes, all that can be is a helping hand, a sympathetic shoulder or a bowl of soup. I want to be the Catholic I wish I’d met — and never did — during my reversion. I lived off JPII and EWTN and reading. If only there had been a kind, faithful, patient Catholic to help me, it might not have taken 10 years. I want to be that person for other people — especially with the unchurched, unbelievers and people of other faiths, you have to walk the walk for a long time before they’re ready to hear the talk. And if you do it right, they just might ask you outright. And believe me, they ask me about Francis. Right there is my chance, not to proselytize, but to gently evangelize.

  • Dagnabbit_42

    See, now, I always had nothing but positive associations with the word “proselytize.”

    The main reason, of course, is that when (at a young age) I asked what it meant, I was told, “Oh, it’s just another word for evangelism.”

    And then, at an older age, when I asked why it felt like some people used the word “proselytism” to mean something different than “evangelism,” I was told by someone I respect, “It’s hard to know why that is; my best guess is that Christians use the word ‘evangelism,’ and non-Christians use the term ‘Jesus talk,’ unless they (either the Christians or the non-Christians) happen to be intellectual snobs, in which case they use the snootier-sounding word ‘proselytism.'”

    Anyhow, I wish the Holy Father would take greater care to define his terms in all these off-the-cuff remarks; but then, had God wired him that way, perhaps he wouldn’t be quite so well-suited to all the successful proselytizing he’s been doing.

    Or, if he prefers, “evangelizing.”

  • Casey Voce

    All sorts of bloggers are interpreting the Interpreter. It seems very protestant.