Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense.
I take it for granted that a man with such lively faith and apostolic zeal as Pope Francis would want others to have access to that same gift of faith. So what, then, is he criticizing as “proselytism”? And how does this differ from what many modern popes have called “evangelization”? Unfortunately the English dictionaries are not very helpful here because they define “proselytizing” and “evangelizing” similarly. We may have to approach it from a different angle.
Let me offer a tentative thesis: proselytism is counterfeit evangelization. It bears many resemblances to evangelization, uses similar language, and occasionally will result in a like outcome. But there is a crucial difference between these two modes of trying to spread the faith. I’ll take two statements I’ve heard in recent conversations as points of departure.
I was in her “save a soul a day” project.
This is a common sentiment among those on the receiving end of proselytizing. They sense they are being checked off a list. There is a certain lack of respect for the person’s life and context. Much of this difficulty originates in the excessive intentionality of the proselytizers. They’re so zeroed in on their purpose that the norms of natural conversation are dispensed with. Because of their own agenda, they’re not speaking to the real questions or concerns of their interlocutors. As Fr. Peter John Cameron once put it, “answering a question that was never asked is the perfect definition of boring.”
In addition to being boring, however, the proselytizer often runs the risk of upsetting his potential convert. Rather than starting with a conversation that reveals the questions in someone’s life that can be answered by the Gospel, the proselytizer focuses on certain activities and moral changes that he has in mind: “I need to get so-and-so to do x, y, or z.” People naturally resist this because they perceive it as an imposition of will by the other person rather than an invitation to a relationship with the Lord.
The root of the problem with proselytizing, however, is the proselytizer’s view of God Himself. Unintentionally, the proselytizer has made God a competitor inside the world: He is seen more as a political boss to be promoted by us as his partisans doing canvassing for him rather than as the Almighty One whose love undergirds everyone and everything.
On the other hand, we have this statement:
My soul expanded, and afterwards I was able to do what had never occurred to me before.
Contrary to the picture outlined above, the effect of evangelization is that divine revelation is received as what it truly is, good news. There is a respect for the person’s humanity; grace is seen as perfecting nature and not destroying it. The evangelizer, if you will, invites the other person to embark on a supernatural endeavor but realizes that the human foundation must be attended to.
Unlike proselytizing, evangelizing is received not as an imposition but as an invitation. Evangelization is more like Andy Dufresne playing Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro on the loudspeaker in Shawshank Redemption than Lt. Kaffee interrogating Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men. Perhaps Dostoevsky was right when he said that beauty would save the world. The truth is most easily received when presented through the attractiveness of beauty and charity. Moral changes are certainly important, but they often follow after someone comes to know who God is, through the typically gradual working of His grace.
Fundamentally, the evangelizer does not see God as a competitor with other things. God is transcendent and does not exist simply as the most powerful entity in creation. He has no equal and doesn’t even deal in such terms. While most of us would acknowledge this in theory, those who desire to evangelize and want others to receive the gift of faith need to remember it in practice. While we must take our responsibility as evangelizers seriously, we trust the Holy Spirit to do the hard work of transforming souls.
And finally, while numbers may be the mark of a successful proselytizer, faithfulness marks the successful evangelizer. We must realize that the truths of the faith are hard to accept. Jesus, an omniscient evangelizer, knew exactly what people needed to hear in order to be converted, and even he was rejected constantly. But still, two thousand years later, encouraged by our Holy Father Francis, Jesus’ faithful followers go forth in confidence as true evangelizers, proclaiming the good news that answers the questions and fulfills the desires of every man: the perfect happiness of knowing the Lord Jesus.
Image: Peder Severin Kroyer, Lunch with Otto Benzon