How many atheists or agnostics wish to become Catholic when all they see and hear are vociferous, unhappy and possibly unwell people dishing out venom against all the “unrighteous”? This sort of proselytization is harmful because it runs completely counter to the gospel. What was Jesus’ attitude to the sinners? He befriended them. He did not condemn. The only ones Jesus condemned were the self righteous, angry, threatened religious people.
To the rest he was attractive. This is what Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are trying to communicate and what they both communicated in their own gentle and loving ways–that Jesus Christ was the friend of sinners. He was gentle and kind, patient and loving with all those who were seeking God. He incarnated beauty, truth and goodness, and therefore he attracted those who were genuinely seeking beauty, truth and goodness.
This is also the evidence from the lives of the saints. While you will find many great saints who were missionaries you will not find one who used any form of coercion or force to convert people. It was not through explicit proselytization done in human power that they won converts, but through the holiness of their lives. It is because others saw Jesus in them that they were attracted to the Christian faith.
Kathy Schiffer discusses this question in a post from October 2013 when the “proselytism is solemn nonsense” quote first appeared. She quotes Pope Francis who makes a distinction between proselytization and evangelization.
“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].
“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.
What is lacking in the Catholic church is this genuine holiness, openness and zeal. Instead we have on the one hand a sweet and sentimental religion that mistakes kindness and social welfare with genuine holiness and on the other hand we have harsh, self righteous conservatives who mistake doctrinal orthodoxy and moral strictures for holiness. The first never seek to win people to the Catholic faith because they do not think it either worthwhile or necessary. The second spend their time arguing or condemning everyone who is not Catholic and accomplish little. Neither of these will convert anyone. What wins converts is people who have been transformed into the likeness of Christ.
All of this is laid out in the teaching of Pope St John Paul II–especially in his letter Into the New Millennium. There he says that the new evangelization can only take place as one first “casts out into the deep” is transformed through the contemplation of Christ and then the face of Christ is reflected in the face of the individual Christian. The adored is reflected in the face of the adorer.
Once that foundation is in place then the individual Catholic actually longs to introduce people to Jesus Christ and bring people into full communion of the Catholic Church. Seeing them as sheep without a shepherd they have compassion on them and following the Lord’s example want to “seek and to save that which is lost.” This is where the missionary mandate of the church becomes a living reality and not just a theory. Then active forms of evangelization, education, apologetics, service to the poor, ecumenical discussions and yes, at times strong preaching and condemnation of evil can have its effect, but without that essential attractive holiness the rest is really….solemn nonsense.