Pope Francis has stated on more than one occasion that the Catholic Church should not be intent on proselytizing the five-and-a-half billion persons who have not yet heard the Gospel message in its fullness. As recently as last month, His Holiness made the point that the Apostle Phillip did not convert the Ethiopian eunuch who was pondering passages from Isaiah by proselytizing the official but rather by listening to the official. The Pope made clear that he was still in favor of evangelization, which is announcing the spirit and truth of Jesus Christ to all peoples. An evangelizing Church will always be “on its feet and on the journey.” But an evangelizing Church will first listen to the unbelieving or faintly believing world before that Church preaches to the masses of humanity. The Pope applauds listening: “What do people feel? What does the heart of the people feel? What does it think? But do they think mistaken things? But I want to hear these mistaken things, in order to understand where the restlessness is. We all have this restlessness within. The second step for the Church is to find the restlessness of the people.”
In other talks Pope Francis has mentioned St. Therese of Lisieux who never left her Carmelite convent yet won souls by her prayers and good works. She helped “draw people to Jesus by way of attraction, not by proselytizing.” The Holy Father has also cited the small but faithful Catholic communities in the former Soviet republics. They are eager to extend the Kingdom of God but “they do it with prayer and charitable works.” A vibrant faith expressed through personal devotion to Christ and through practical concern for the neighbor will win hearts to the fullness of truth so the pontiff insists. Catholics must “seek an encounter and dialogue with all who believe in God, to build together a more just and fraternal world.” The Catholic world’s attitude toward the Eastern Orthodox world should not first of all be conversion but rather, “Be open, be a friend.” It might be well to note here that Pope Francis is not alone in his discouragement of proselytizing. (He once even labelled it “nonsense.”) Pope Benedict also 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.”
There is not one person currently reading the Quiet Corner whose Catholic faith does not stem from some eager missionary venturing to the lands of our ancient ancestors and winning them over by the Gospel message. St. Patrick famously converted Ireland. St. Augustine preached to England, St Denis to the French, St. Boniface to Germany. St. Ansgar won over Scandinavia. SS. Cyril and Methodius brought the Good News to Eastern Europe. Scores of missionaries have visited the Americas, Africa and Asia and planted the truths of the faith there. It is true that some attempts at evangelization did employ the heavy handed tactics of proselytization. Some might have put the cart before the horse by stressing belief over faith. But the Christian religion has endured most effectively when personal faith and charitable works have accompanied the preaching of the Gospel. Authentic dogma must be supported by enthusiastic goodwill.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus teaches boldly, “What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.” Jesus’ words here are audacious and challenging. There is much urgency about Christ’s instruction to his apostles and his disciples. The mandate of the Church is clearly to bring the Gospel “to every creature.’ Pope Francis does not deny the goal of the Church’s mission but rather revisits the means by which it is accomplished. There certainly is a place, an important place, within the Church for faithful dogma and authentic moral teaching. But if these instruments of salvation are not accompanied by fidelity within the preacher’s own life and by a willingness to heed the world’s varied needs then the mission of the Church will appear heavy-handed and hypocritical. The pontiff insists that a preacher’s faith-filled life is the first and most effective foundation for spreading the Good News to the larger world.
Strange as it may seem the goal of the Church is not to introduce people to the faith but rather to introduce them to Jesus. The faith apart from Jesus is merely doctrines and principles. Such is not the saving grace that Jesus died on the Cross and rose from the dead to win for the world. The faith rather “is an encounter,” the Pope insists. “It is a meeting with Supreme Truth: with Jesus, the great truth.” Only through faith, alive in the hearts of Christians, will the Gospel message be spread to every creature.