May 11, 2018

Pope Francis: proselytism vs evangelization

By Bishop Arthur Serratelli *
Credit: Unsplash
Credit: Unsplash

In 2013, Hallmark sparked a controversy by changing a single word in a Christmas song. Ever since 1877, the traditional English lyrics of Decks the Halls, originally written by the Scottish musician Thomas Oliphant, included the words “Don we now our gay apparel.” Many within the LGBT community protested Hallmark’s new version, “Don we now our fun apparel.” Obviously, Hallmark had taken note that the word “gay” that at one time meant festive, joyful, or colorful had now taken on a different meaning. It had become the preferred designation of those who adopt a certain lifestyle. 

Through common usage or deliberate choice, the meanings of words morph over time. “Awful” once described something that inspired reverence or awe, e.g. the awful majesty of God. Today, it can mean not fashionable or well-groomed or sickly as in the comment “he looks awful.” It can also mean that something is harmful, bad or terrible, as in “she left an awful mess.” It could even mean great, as in “an awful amount of rain.”

Still in transition is the word “hook up.” People speak about hooking up something, e.g. an electrical device or cable. Some, however, now speak about hooking up with someone, i.e. meeting them or even having casual sex. Times changed. Contexts changed. Words take on new meanings.

One religious word that has changed from a positive to a pejorative meaning, causing confusion among deeply religious people, is the word “proselytism.” Originally, the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament passed the word “proselyte” into modern languages with a neutral meaning. It simply meant a convert, someone who changed his or her opinion or religion. And, proselytism meant the attempt to persuade someone to make such a change. But, today proselytism is almost universally seen as a sinister activity when it comes to religious beliefs.

On several occasions, Pope Francis has strongly condemned proselytism. In the question and answer session during his Oct. 13, 2016 meeting with Lutherans, the Holy Father answered a young girl’s question about trying to convert a friend. He said, “It is not licit that you convince them of your faith; proselytism is the strongest poison against the ecumenical path.” Similarly, the Pope has said, “Proselytism among Christians, therefore, in itself, is a grave sin.” And also has said, “The Church is not a soccer team that goes around seeking fans.”

On the surface, the Holy Father’s strong condemnation of proselytism may make some committed Catholics begin to question. If it is a sin to try to convert others to the faith, then is Jesus truly the one Savior of all people? If it is a sin to attempt to bring others into the Catholic Church, is the Church no longer the very means of salvation that Christ established? Is one religion as good as another? These are very serious questions that touch on the very foundations of our Catholic faith.

Pope Francis’ strong language is directed at the modern meaning of proselytism. This meaning includes using any type of pressure to convert someone, whether it is moral, political or economic. It means caricaturing with unfair criticism the beliefs of others. Proselytism in its present meaning includes inducing people by offering them any kind of assistance, such as food, education, shelter or clothing. In each of these cases, proselytism is wrong because it does not respect the freedom of the other. However, while these methods of making converts is sinful, inviting others to the fullness of truth is not only not wrong but is truly an act of love.

Inviting others to the fullness of truth is something that no believer cannot simply cast aside. In the Risen Lord’s last appearance in Matthew’s gospel, he mandated his disciples, saying, “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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:19-20). The Church is born to evangelize. This is her task. This is the reason for her very existence. “Evangelization is in fact…her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize” (Blessed Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntandi, 14. 8). 

Thus, inviting others to hear the good news and accept Jesus as Lord is a permanent and vital dimension of the Church’s life. By her very nature, the Church is missionary. The Church is always open to others. She can never remain closed within herself. To all, she brings the good news that Jesus is Lord.

Most assuredly, Pope Francis is not against this. He is simply warning others that the necessary work of bringing the truth to others must always be done in love and with respect for the other person. Pope Benedict XVI clearly taught this when he said, “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” (Address to The Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, 2017).

Jesus is the one redeemer of all. His gospel is the word that saves. His word is the truth that sets us free. “No believer, no institution of the Church can avoid the supreme duty to proclaim Christ to all peoples” (Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 3.50). And when this is done in love, listening to the other, respecting the other, and offering the witness of a faith-filled life, this is not proselytism, but true evangelization.

Bishop Serratelli is the bishop of Paterson, New Jersey.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.