Proselytism, Conversion, and Other “Solemn Nonsense”


pope-francis-waveIn my previous column, we examined how the words of Pope Francis found echo in Pope Leo XIII.  A lot of Catholics were also “scandalized” by another statement from Pope Francis.  When an atheist asked if the point of their meeting was to convert him, the Holy Father Stated:

Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas.

I am sympathetic to worries that Popes should not be giving so many interviews, since there is a strong chance what they say will be misinterpreted.  All that being said, sometimes we need to be realistic:  the problem with interpretation comes not from the Holy Father, but from our own ignorance.  This will be a bit longer than my usual works, but that is only because a large amount of people talking about this issue (both supporters and critics) are doing so from a framework completely alien to the Gospel.

For far too many people, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is treated as an economic commodity. It is “successful” to the extent that people “convert.” They are in the business of “converting souls” like some Grand Crusader. They read a few tracts, develop a few fancy arguments, and go out to slay the dragon of unbelief so everyone can come to the truth.  The Pope is right. That is solemn nonsense. What he proposes is a far humbler approach, and it is an approach the Church has used throughout history, especially during her missionary activity. It is based on an understanding of the roles of an apologist, evangelist, and a catechist according to Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church.

The first is that of an Evangelist. This comes from the Greek word euangelion which means “good news.” In the times of Christ, the evangelical proclamation most would be familiar with was the one of Caesar Augustus, who built himself into a quasi-messianic figure who provided peace, freedom, and stability to mankind under his benevolent rule. St. Mark the Evangelist does a clever play on words when he begins his work by stating that he is giving a different proclamation: the Euangelion of Jesus Christ, the true Son of God. (Another direct challenge to Imperial Rule.)

When we are evangelists today, we are doing a similar job. We are pointing out to modern society that the beliefs they uphold cannot provide true peace and happiness. (It sure didn’t in Rome. Within two generations of Augustus’ death a nasty civil war gripped Rome in the Year of the Four Emperors.) We announce the true good news of the true Son of God. That good news is “Christ and Him Crucified” according to St. Paul. (1 Cor 2:2)

After the good news is proclaimed, it is natural people will have questions. (Acts 2:37) This is where the role of the apologist comes into play. Apologist comes from the Greek word apologia which means a defense or statement of belief. From this a lot of people picture the job of an apologist as finding people who disagree with them and fighting over the faith. Think the “Great Debate” series between James R. White and some other Catholic apologist who duke it out for hours on a given topic in front of an audience.

That isn’t apologetics. That’s showmanship. In the internet age, it has gotten even worse, as I would argue a lot that passes for apologetics is merely showmanship and controversy creating cash. I’m not saying no good can come out of this, some certainly is. Just that it’s very limited. In its purest form, we give a defense for the hope that lies within us. If people ask you questions about why you are Catholic, and you give them answers for why being Catholic is the most important thing to you, congratulations, you are doing apologetics. You don’t need a foil to do apologetics. All you need is a soul seeking truth. By doing apologetics you are simply telling people you are not ashamed of the Gospel which brings true freedom and salvation to those which believe. (Romans 1:16)

In the ideal world after hearing the Gospel and the reasons for hope, the heart is moved and wishes to learn how to apply the lessons of the Gospel in our life. Here is where the catechist comes in. I would say that the basis of Catechesis is 2 Timothy 3:15-17, where the word of God exists so that every man can be instructed and equipped for every good work. In the Early Church, Clement of Alexandria viewed the job as catechesis as one of “curing the passions within us” of the wounds of sin. (Paedagogus 1:1) St. Cyril of Jerusalem (the greatest catechist of Ancient Christianity) viewed the job of catechesis as helping people to change their souls from immorality to righteousness. (Catechetical Lectures, Prologue) Consistent with this, St. Pius X teaches us that through catechesis we should learn how to dread vice and practice virtue.  (Acerbo Nimis)

Notice one thing that is missing from any of this? Whether or not somebody accepts our teaching and converts. That’s important, but that’s not our job. There is no quid pro quo in preaching the Gospel. We should preach the Gospel even if (and this will almost certainly happen) the overwhelming majority of people reject what we are saying. If we measure success by how many people we convert, all of us are miserable failures. Even Christ would get a failing grade. Instead, we measure success by how we offer the Gospel with our words and our actions. This is why Francis placed such an emphasis on dialogue, and how when one dialogue ends, Francis is instantly thinking of the second. Every chance you get to proclaim healing and peace is a chance we must take. St. Pius X reminds us in E Supremi:

It may be that the fruit of our labors may be slow in coming, but charity wearies not with waiting, knowing that God prepares His rewards not for the results of toil but for the good will shown in it.

To this Pope Francis adds an emphasis on going out in the world and engaging the lost and working among them, looking to use every opportunity as an opportunity to heal them of their wounds. Christ’s most powerful act didn’t come through teaching with words, but through His sacrifice on the cross, where He was numbered among the condemned and worthless of society, just as we are all condemned and worthless without Him. If we find this teaching scandalous, it is not because of the Popes words being contrary to tradition. It is because we have fallen far from a proper understanding of what spreading the Gospel is.


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