THE NOW WORD ON MASS READINGS
for May 24th, 2017
Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Easter
Liturgical texts here
THERE has been much hullabaloo since Pope Francis’ comments a few years back denouncing proselytism—the attempt to convert someone to one’s own religious faith. For those who did not scrutinize his actual statement, it caused confusion because, bringing souls to Jesus Christ—that is, into Christianity—is precisely why the Church exists. So either Pope Francis was abandoning the Church’s Great Commission, or perhaps he meant something else.
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.—POPE FRANCIS, interview, Oct. 1st, 2013; repubblica.it
In this context, it seems that what the Pope is rejecting is not evangelization, but a method of evangelization that does not steam-roll over the other’s dignity. In that regard, Pope Benedict said the very same thing:
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, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord. —BENEDICT XVI, Homily for the Opening of the Fifth General Conference of the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops, May 13th, 2007; vatican.va
We see this kind of true evangelization—the imitation of Christ—in today’s first Mass reading where Paul engages the pagan Greeks. He does not enter their temples and trounce their dignity; he doesn’t insult their mythical beliefs and ritual expressions, but uses them as a basis for dialogue.
I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. (First reading)
Much more than post-modern man (who is increasingly atheistic and shallow), Paul was quite aware that the most brilliant minds of his day—doctors, philosophers and magistrates—were religious. They had the innate sense and awareness that God exists, though they could not grasp in what form, since it had not yet been revealed to them.
He made from one the whole human race to dwell on the entire surface of the earth, and he fixed the ordered seasons and the boundaries of their regions, so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him, though indeed he is not far from any one of us. (First reading)
His majesty is above earth and heaven. (Today’s Psalm)
Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality “that everyone calls God”… all religions bear witness to man’s essential search for God. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 34, 2566
But with the advent of Jesus Christ, the search for God finds its locus. Still, Paul waits; he continues to speak their language, even quoting their poets:
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
In this way, Paul finds common ground. He doesn’t insult the Greek gods or belittle the peoples’ authentic desires. And so, they begin to feel, in Paul, that they have someone who understands their inner longing—not someone who, because of his knowledge, is superior to them, where…
A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. —POPE FRANCIS, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 94
This relational aspect is what Pope Francis has been stressing from day one of his pontificate. But for the Christian, evangelization can never end with merely reaching an abstract agreement or mutual goals for the common good—as worthy as these are. Rather…
There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, are not proclaimed. —POPE PAUL VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, n. 22; vatican.va
And so, having found common ground, Paul takes the next step—that step that puts the relationship, the peace, his comfort, safety, and even very life, at risk. He begins to allow Jesus Christ to emerge:
Since therefore we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination. God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now he demands that all people everywhere repent because he has established a day on which he will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man he has appointed, and he has provided confirmation for all by raising him from the dead.
Here, Paul does not coddle their egos, but speaks to a place in their heart that they are already instinctively aware of: that place where they know they are sinners, seeking a Saviour. And with that, some believe, and others simply scoff and walk away.
Paul has not proselytized, nor compromised. He has evangelized.
Bless you and thank you.
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