THE image above pretty much sums up how unbelievers today approach the central message of the Gospel in our contemporary culture. From Late Night talk shows to Saturday Night live to The Simpsons, Christianity is routinely mocked, the Scriptures belittled, and the central message of the Gospel, that “Jesus saves” or “God so loved the world…” has been reduced to mere epithets on bumper stickers and baseball backstops. Add to that the fact that Catholicism has been marred by scandal after scandal in the priesthood; Protestantism is rife with endless church-splitting and moral relativism; and evangelical Christianity is at times a televised circus-like display of emotion with questionable substance.
Indeed, the internet, radio, and 24 hour cable channels create a stream of holy words that soon blend into the cacophony of noise that is a hallmark of our technological age. Most troubling of all, is that there is a real crisis of faith in the world where many people “believe in God”—but you’d never know which god, by how they live.
As a result, the faith as such becomes unbelievable, and the Church can no longer present herself credibly as the herald of the Lord. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Light of the World, The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times: A Conversation With Peter Seewald, p. 23-25
It is in this context that both Pope Benedict XVI and Francis have made inciteful, if not controversial pastoral directives regarding how to evangelize a culture that has become dulled to the Word of God.
ATTRACTION, NOT COMPULSION
Pope Francis ruffled the feathers of not a few Catholics when he allegedly said in an interview with atheist Dr. Eugenio Scalfari:
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.—interview, Oct. 1st, 2013; repubblica.it
I say allegedly because Scalfari admitted afterward that the interview was not recorded and nor did he take notes. “I try to understand the person I am interviewing,” he said, “and after that, I write his answers with my own words.” National Catholic Register, Nov 12, 2013 As a former news reporter myself, I was a little stunned by that revelation. Indeed, the interview was inaccurate enough that the Vatican, who initially posted the interview on its website, later pulled it. Ibid.
Nonetheless, the Pope later left no doubt about how he felt about “proselytism” when he said in St. Peter’s Square:
The Lord does not proselytize; He gives love. And this love seeks you and waits for you, you who at this moment do not believe or are far away. And this is the love of God. —POPE FRANCIS, Angelus, St. Peter’s Square, January 6th, 2014; Independent Catholic News
For some, these words are the “smoking gun” that prove Francis is a modernist if not a Freemason attempting to create a generic religion, a unified hodge-podge of niceness without the form of truth. Of course, he was saying nothing that hasn’t already been said by his predecessor:
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
When I pointed this out in my last writing, Who Said That? the reply of some was that I was merely proving that Benedict XVI, John Paul II, etc. were also modernists. As bizarre and almost calumnious as that sounds, I am wondering if these Catholics simply have a different definition of proselytism than what is being presented? Yet, I’m not sure. I see a gulf between how some perceive we should evangelize and what the popes are teaching, and that gulf, in my opinion, is a dangerous one. Because Christian fundamentalism can be as damaging as keeping the truth obscured.
FREEDOM, NOT FORCE
In its Doctrinal Note on Some Apsects of Evangelization, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith clarified the context of the term “proselytize” as no longer simply referring to “missionary activity.”
More recently… 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. —cf. footnote n. 49
This is what is meant, then, when Francis says, “evangelization is not proselytizing”: Homily, May 8th, 2013; Radio Vaticana that we are to build bridges, not walls. These bridges, then, become the means over which the fullness of truth passes.
Still, some Catholics hear this as “compromise, not evangelize.” But that is plainly putting words in the mouth of the Pontiff that don’t exist. For he was utterly clear about the intent of our Christian mission when he said:
…the transmission of the Christian faith is the purpose of the new evangelization and of the entire evangelizing mission of the Church which exists for this very reason. Moreover the expression “new evangelization” sheds light on the ever clearer awareness that countries with an ancient Christian tradition also need a renewed proclamation of the Gospel to lead them back to an encounter with Christ which truly transforms life and is not superficial, marked by routine. —POPE FRANCIS, Address to the 13th Ordinary Council of the General Secretary of the Synod of Bishops, June 13th, 2013; vatican.va (my emphasis)
Didn’t Blessed John Paul II also call the Church to “new means and new methods” and expressions of the Gospel? Yes, because walking up to someone in mortal sin who was raised in ignorance of the faith and morals of the Church and telling them they will go to hell, will likely keep them from the Church doors for a very long time. You see, our culture today is marked by a massive ignorance in which the lines between evil and good have been erased resulting in “the loss of the sense of sin.” We have to start again at the beginning, of appealing to the spiritual nature of others by bringing them into an encounter with Jesus. North America is missionary territory once again.
Don’t get me wrong (and somehow, someone will): hell exists; sin is real; repentance is intrinsic to salvation. But we are living in a society that Paul VI said is not thirsting for words—we are inundated with words—but for “authenticity.” To be an authentic Christian means, in a word, to be love itself. This becomes the “first” word that then gives credibility to our verbal words, which are also essential, but are carried by the vehicle of genuine love.
How can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? (Rom 10:14)
LOVE BUILDS BRIDGES…
Since when does a young man walk up to a pretty young woman, present a ring, and ask this complete stranger to marry him? So too, the Gospel is not about presenting a list of truths with a dotted line at the bottom which one must sign, but about introducing others into a relationship. In fact, you really are inviting someone to become the bride of Christ. True evangelization occurs when they see the Groom in you.
Jesus spent three years with the Apostles. Technically, he could have spent three days, for Christ didn’t come to preach to the whole world before His Passion (that, He commissioned the Church to do). Jesus built relationships wherever He went. He never hesitated to speak the truth, even the hard truth. But it was always in a context of the other knowing they were loved and accepted, not condemned. cf. John 3:17 That’s what gave such power to His words, “Go and sin no more”: the sinner was so attracted by His love, that she wanted to follow Him. The Church, said Benedict, is called to this “practical imitation of the love of her Lord” that gives truth its real edge.
…JOY INVITES OTHERS TO CROSS
If accepting others where they’re at and loving them in that moment in all their weakness and faults so as to establish a relationship, a bridge, is vital—then it is joy which invites them to begin crossing the bridge of salvation.
Dr. Mulholland, an Assistant Professor at the Benedictine College in Kansas, put it succinctly:
What I am doing, ideally, when I share my faith is not arguing about right or wrong. What I am doing is witnessing to fulfillment, to the fact that life in Christ brings joy and fulfillment to my life. And against such facts, there are no arguments. “The Church is right about contraception and you are mortally sinning by going against it” is less compelling than “Following the Church’s teaching on contraception has brought immense joy and fulfillment to my marriage.” — “Witnessing versus Arguing”, Jan. 29th, 2014, gregorian.org
Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation begins with a beautiful and anointed call for Christians to return to the joy of our salvation. But this is not about forming small groups and feigning cheerfulness. No! Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit! Joy, then, has the power to penetrate another’s heart who, when tasting that supernatural fruit, wants more of what you have.
…an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that “delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ”. —POPE FRANCIS, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 10
Some Christians argue that what people need is truth, for the truth sets us free. Absolutely. Christ is the Truth. But the question is how we present the truth—with a bludgeon or as an invitation to the Way and the Life?
AN ICON OF EVANGELIZATION
Meditate on how Jesus approached Zaccaheus, and there you’ll find the difference between proselytizing and evangelizing. Jesus didn’t just look at him and say, “You’re on the fast track to hell. Follow me.” Rather, he said, “today I must stay at your house.” It was precisely this investment of time that so moved Zaccaheus, he who thought he was worthless and unlovable. How many of us feel this way too! And it is only reinforced by the fact that all these Christians standing beside me at Mass have absolutely zero interest in getting to know me, to love me, to spend time with me—or vice versa. You see, it was the fact that Jesus was willing to simply be with Zaccaheus that opened his heart to the Gospel.
How much time is necessary? Sometimes it’s only a few minutes that opens the door to the Gospel. Sometimes it’s years. For whatever reason, some Christians always defer to the example of Jesus blasting the Pharisees with the hard truth; that this, somehow, justifies their combative approach to evangelization. But they forget that Jesus spent three years dialoguing with them before He chastised them for their hypocrisy and hardheartedness a few days before He entered His Passion (to let His death say what His words did not.)
“Time is God’s messenger,” said Blessed Peter Faber.
We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. —POPE FRANCIS, Evangelii Gaudium, n. 171
What do you think Jesus did when He was in Zaccaheus’ house? You can be sure that Our Lord did what He always did when He had built a bridge: listen to the other, and then speak the truth.
This is precisely what the popes mean by evangelizing, not proselytizing.
You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds… And you have to start from the ground up. —POPE FRANCIS, americamagazine.org, Sept. 30th, 2013
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