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Pope Francis on “Proselytism”

Jimmy Akin

Pope Francis recently raised eyebrows by saying, in an interview, that “proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.”

This could sound strange since, historically, the word “proselyte” has simply meant a convert, and proselytism has simply meant making converts.

Yet the pope was not dismissing the idea of making converts. In fact, evangelization is high on his priority list.

How can we square these two things?

Francis on Proselytism

A striking illustration of Francis’s attitude toward proselytism is found in a recent address he gave to a group of catechists:

Remember what Benedict XVI said: “The Church does not grow by proselytizing; she grows by attracting others.”

And what attracts is our witness. Being a catechist means witnessing to the faith, being consistent in our personal life. This is not easy!

We help, we lead others to Jesus with our words and our lives, with our witness. I like to recall what Saint Francis of Assisi used to say to his friars: “Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.”

Words come . . . but witness comes first: people should see the Gospel, read the Gospel, in our lives [Address to Catechists, April 27, 2013].

Benedict on Proselytism

I am not certain what statement of Benedict XVI Pope Francis is referring to.

My suspicion is that he is paraphrasing, but the attitude expressed in the quotation is not foreign to Benedict’s thought. He, like other recent churchmen, used the word “proselytism” in a special sense.

For example, in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict stated:

Charity, furthermore, cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practiced as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside [Deus Caritas Est 31].

Proselytization vs. Evangelization?

What’s striking in Pope Francis’s address to the catechists is that he is in no way seeking to put the brakes on evangelization. Quite the opposite!

He’s tells the catechists that the Church “grows by attracting others” and what does this is our witness, that “we lead others to Jesus with our words and our lives.” And, although he stresses the importance of witnessing with our lives, he notes that “words come”—the gospel must be preached by word and not just by action.

So he’s not unconcerned with Church growth. He wants it to happen, but he says that proselytization is not the way this is to be accomplished.

What’s he talking about?

A New Meaning

This is something I’ve written about before. In a relatively recent sense of the term, “proselytization” refers to using inappropriate tactics to get someone to convert, rather than allowing them to make a free choice for Christ.

The inappropriate tactics can take a number of forms, including deception, coercion, emotional manipulation, threats, and even bribery.  

An explanation of this usage is found in the 2007 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled Instruction on Some Aspects of Evangelization. According to that document:

The term proselytism originated in the context of Judaism, in which the term proselyte referred to someone who, coming from the gentiles, had passed into the Chosen People.

So too, in the Christian context, the term proselytism was often used as a synonym for missionary activity.

More recently, however, the term has taken on a negative connotation, to mean the promotion of a religion by using means, and for motives, contrary to the spirit of the Gospel; that is, which do not safeguard the freedom and dignity of the human person.

So that’s what Pope Francis means when he says that the Church grows by our witness, in words and deeds—rather than through proselytization.

Not Unique

Although it hasn’t penetrated many circles yet, this use of the term has become established in Church circles, and we should expect it to be used in the future.

Indeed, the address to the catechists was neither the first nor the last time Pope Francis has used it.

Since evangelization is one of his big themes, he actually uses the term proselytization a lot. Consider a few examples since the time he took office, just seven months ago:

The Church’s missionary spirit is not about proselytizing, but the testimony of a life that illuminates the path, which brings hope and love. The Church—I  repeat once again—is not a relief organization, an enterprise or an NGO, but a community of people, animated by the Holy Spirit, who have lived and are living the wonder of the encounter with Jesus Christ and want to share this experience of deep joy, the message of salvation that the Lord gave us [Message for World Mission Day, May 19, 2013].

[In one of his morning Masses, Pope Francis said that ] Christian life must always be restive and never act as a tranquillizer or even less as “a terminal treatment to keep us quiet until we go to heaven”; so like St Paul we must witness “to the message of true reconciliation” without being overly concerned with statistics or proselytism. This is a lunatic way of acting but is beautiful, for it is the scandal of the Cross [L’Osservatore Romano Account of Fervorino, June 15, 2013].

“Father, now I understand: it is a question of convincing others, of proselytizing!” No: it is nothing of the kind. The Gospel is like seed: you scatter it, you scatter it with your words and with your witness. And then it is not you who calculate the statistics of the results; it is God who does [Address, June 17, 2013].

There are pastoral plans designed with such a dose of distance that they are incapable of sparking an encounter: an encounter with Jesus Christ, an encounter with our brothers and sisters. Such pastoral plans can at best provide a dimension of proselytism, but they can never inspire people to feel part of or belong to the Church [Address to Latin American Bishops, July 28, 2013].

The Church grows, but not through proselytizing: no, no! The Church does not grow through proselytizing. The Church grows through attraction, through the attraction of the witness that each one of us gives to the People of God [Address in Assisi, Oct. 4, 2013].

Add the mentions of proselytization in the address to catechists and in the interview to these five, and we have seven mentions of the subject in seven months.

We can expect more.

But we shouldn’t think that, by warning against proselytization, he’s running down evangelization.

Instead, he wants us to understand the difference between proselytization and true evangelization.

We should, in his view, not try to manipulate others into converting. We should evangelize by witnessing to the transforming love of Jesus Christ, both by word and deed, and then let them make a free choice—leaving the results up to God.

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