Encounter is an approach to evangelization very important to Pope Francis, and so it must be seriously studied by those interested in the New Evangelization. Through his influence, encounter became a central theme in the Aparecida Document, the summary report of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM). As Cardinal Bergoglio, he was this document’s main author, and with his rise to the papacy, it now takes on importance for the universal Church. The theme of encounter is behind, for example, Francis’s demand of his priests that they not wait for the lost to come to them, that they need to go out as ambassadors of Christ in order to find the lost ninety-nine.
Pope Francis obtained the approach of encounter from at least two primary sources, Monsignor Giuseppe Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation, and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux. What Francis draws from these teachers is that personal witness is the starting point for all evangelization. That is, a non-believer first comes into contact with Jesus Christ through a personal encounter of humble service with one of His disciples. The meek witness of a Christian disciple brings to him an encounter with the divine mercy of Jesus Christ. In this encounter, the disciple witnesses to the faith through actions that reflect God’s love for man and the Christian’s love for God and all humanity.
For Pope Francis, this encounter of merciful love draws the unbeliever into a desire to respond, a response such that he wants to conform himself to this witness, that is, to Christ. This desire is a response to the attractiveness of Christ, which is the attractiveness of the Cross: total, humble, self-giving love. Of course, witness also necessarily entails the use of words in order to articulate the truths of the Gospel along with their relevance for one’s life. However, it is the encounter of humble mercy that attracts and that is the first cause of conversion. For Pope Francis, the central importance of encounter cannot be underestimated. In this way, there can be no fruitful new evangelization without the authentic witness of the faithful. This places a great demand upon the Christian disciple; it is a demand of constant striving for perfection in holiness (for more on this theme, refer to Keith Lemna & David H. Delaney, “Three Pathways into the Theological Mind of Pope Francis,” Nova et Vetera Vol. 12, No. 1 : 25-56).
There is another consideration in employing encounter; as a witness of Christ, one must view the one to whom He sends you as Jesus Christ views him. The evangelizer must sincerely love the evangelized; he must be concerned not simply with “making a convert” but be concerned for the other’s integral well-being (body and soul). In this way, one must work to develop an authentic affection for the evangelized and be willing to invest one’s time and life with him, to the extent circumstances permit. This commitment reveals to him Christ’s authentic love, and at the same time, it accords with the reality that conversion to discipleship is a long process that requires a committed disciple accompanying the one evangelized along the way. This is perhaps the key to encounter, to sincerely love the one being evangelized.