Evangelize, Don't Proselytize - And There's a Difference

People can't be coerced into the faith, they must be loved. That is what Pope Francis is saying, and that is what his predecessors said.

Fr Dwight Longenecker
03.10.2013 // PRINT
Jeffrey Bruno
In this week’s interview with atheist newspaper publisher Eugenio Scalfari, Pope Francis commented that “proselytization is solemn nonsense.” Christians who have converted to the Catholic faith, missionaries, and those involved in apostolates that work helping people to convert to Catholicism were offended. When Pope Francis said “proselytization is solemn nonsense” and re-assured Eugenio Scalfari that he did not intend to convert him, they heard the Pope saying that evangelization was a waste of time and that converting people to Catholicism was “nonsense.”

Pope Francis does not have the theologian’s precision that characterized Pope Benedict XVI nor the philosopher’s clarity of thought and expression that marked Bl. Pope John Paul II. He is a pastoral Pope, interested in people and passionate about meeting them on their own terms, wherever they are. Unfortunately, Pope Francis seems more concerned with the individual contact and warm personal style than he does with clarity of teaching. 

To understand Pope Francis’s words, we should first understand what he means by “proselytization.” To proselytize is to attempt to convert someone to your religion. This simple definition is clear enough, but the word also carries a connotation of using coercion of some sort. To use guilt, emotional blackmail, or psychological pressure to get a person to accept a religion is both immoral and ineffective. Even if they convert, they have done so under pressure, and thus it is not a true conversion.

To understand the Catholic approach to evangelization, it is worth considering Pope Benedict XVI’s teachings on a visit to Brazil in 2007. Addressing the Latin American Bishops, the Pope said, “To you who represent the Church in Latin America, today I symbolically entrust my encyclical Deus Caritas Est, in which I sought to point out to everyone the essence of the Christian message.”  Pope Benedict then explained that 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.”

The first Christians converted the Roman Empire because of the radiant love they showed. As John Zmirak has written,

"What impressed the Romans was how the Christians lived, and their willingness to push back against the corruptions of a dying, death-dealing culture. Christians did not kill their unwanted infants – in fact, they went to the city gates and rescued the infants whom pagans had abandoned. Christians did not divorce, as Romans did; they were more likely to be chaste before marriage and faithful afterward – which led Roman aristocrats to seek out Christian wives. … In an increasingly totalitarian Roman state, Christians were even willing to say no to the emperor. These radical acts of resistance to the social and political culture, carried out at personal cost that sometimes included martyrdom, won over jaded residents of the crumbling empire."

This is the point Pope Francis is making: people must be attracted by the love Christians exhibit rather than some form of emotional, psychological, or social coercion. So in the interview, he says to Eugenio Scalfari, “It is love of others, as our Lord preached. It is not proselytizing; it is love. Love for one’s neighbor, that leavening that serves the common good.” Scalfari replies, “Love your neighbor as yourself?” And the Pope says, “Exactly so.”

Neither Pope Benedict nor Pope Francis have any intention that Catholics should stop evangelizing. However, they are aware that a preaching that consists only of laying down the law or presenting doctrinal precepts to be affirmed is in adequate. Preaching the Gospel must be in words and works. The Gospel of love must be shown through lives of self-sacrificial love. 

When Jesus commanded us to go into all the world and preach the Good News, he expected us not only to proclaim the message, but first to be transformed by it. Once we are transformed by the Gospel of the Risen Lord, we will be able to radiate his life and love into the world with great power. This is the same message communicated by Bl. Pope John Paul in his apostolic letter, Into the New Millennium

In that manifesto for the New Evangelization, John Paul II reminds all Catholics of the primacy of love as the heart of the evangelistic effort, and with ringing tones he calls us:

"Let us go forward in hope! A new millennium is opening before the Church like a vast ocean upon which we shall venture, relying on the help of Christ. The Son of God, who became incarnate two thousand years ago out of love for humanity, is at work even today: we need discerning eyes to see this and, above all, a generous heart to become the instruments of his work. … Now, the Christ whom we have contemplated and loved bids us to set out once more on our journey: “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” (Mt 28:19). The missionary mandate accompanies us into the Third Millennium and urges us to share the enthusiasm of the very first Christians: we can count on the power of the same Spirit who was poured out at Pentecost and who impels us still today to start out anew, sustained by the hope “which does not disappoint.” 


Fr. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Browse his books, visit his blog and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

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