Evangelization vs. Proselytism

Steve Dawson Evangelizing
July 28, 2014

Pope Francis has continuously warned  against proselytizing, calling it antithetical to authentic evangelization.  His recent exchange with the priests of the Diocese of Caserta, Italy was his most recent repetition of this admonition.  Now, while one must admit that his style of speaking does not always translate easily into idiomatic English, a consistent reading of his interventions and writing does not give warrant to the claim that he is indifferent to bringing people into the Catholic Church any more than it warrants claiming that Pope Benedict XVI was indifferent when he similarly criticized proselytism.

To understand  Pope Francis's meaning we should begin by distinguishing between proselytism and evangelization.  Let us begin with a concise consideration of the phenomenology of faith and the meaning of proselytism.  Proselytism essentially means to make a convert, to bring an outsider over to one's side.  At the outset, this might seem to be exactly what the Christian disciple should have in mind.  However, Pope Francis is helping us to see that more precision in needed in our understanding of faith if we think this way.  At times he has been quoted as saying he does not want to convert anyone.   It would be nice if he were to explain this a bit more clearly but we would argue that such a statement fits with his admonition against proselytism.  To put his meaning concisely, what he is saying is that he is not the Holy Spirit.  That is, conversion is not the business of the disciple-missionary but that of the Holy Spirit Who invites and the one to whom the disciple is witnessing.  The non-believer must not feel compelled, he must be free to respond.

This is the key to the distinction between proselytism and evangelization.  In authentic evangelization, the disciple witnesses Jesus Christ to the non-believer.  The Missionary may be the instrument of the Holy Spirit, but he is only the instrument.  If there is to be authentic conversion, that is authentic faith, it must be by the free, full response of the non-believer.  Evangelization is not the winning of an argument; nor is it the making of a convert.  It is helping the non-believer to understand Jesus' offer of a radical relationship of trust and life long commitment with Him and His Catholic Church.  In this way, the disciple is a mediator of the invitation, but he must continually decrease and allow the Holy Spirit to engage with the freedom of the one to whom the disciple is witnessing.  This then is evangelization; it is bringing Jesus Christ to the non-believer.

Pope Francis is focused on what he considers to be a most important question of method (an approach shared by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI by the way).  Francis is greatly influenced by Msgr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of the ecclesial movement Communion and Liberation.  Giussani emphasized that effective evangelization is accomplished not through trying to compel belief through argumentation but through the attraction of Jesus Christ, witnessed by Christ's disciples.  Attraction through encounter is the key to understanding what Pope Francis understands as the most powerful method of evangelization.  He clearly wants to everyone to experience the fullness of God's gifts within His Catholic Church.  However, he also recognizes that for authentic, lasting conversion, disciples must be instruments of the Holy Spirit and not mistake themselves to be the convert makers.

For more on this topic, take a look at our tutorial on The New Evangelization and Encounter.


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