The Personalist Project

In a recent interview, the story goes, Pope Francis dismissed proselytism as “solemn nonsense.” 

That “interview,” it turned out, was an 89-year-old atheist’s after-the-fact reconstruction of his recollection of a conversation he recorded with neither gizmo nor even pen and paper. A grain of salt is clearly indicated.

But suppose the Pope did say this, or something like it?  Has the New Evangelization been declared obsolete and recalled, like an old-fashioned car seat?  Have we al been ordered to convert to indifferentism?

No, not by a long shot.  Alarmed parties are directed to Pope Emeritus Benedict, no fan of the dictatorship of relativism, who has said that the Church grows not by proselytism, but by attraction.  

The key to understanding what they’re talking about is the difference between proselytism and evangelization.  They are not synonyms.

What’s the difference?  Evangelization is spreading the Good News within the context of an encounter with a fellow human person whose freedom, interiority, and personhood you take seriously.  Proselytism is—well, here’s a handy five-step guide to how to commit proselytism:

  • When speaking with a prospective proselitiz-ee, make sure to win the argument (and make sure it is an argument, not a conversation).  If what comes out of your mouth is objectively superior to what comes out of the mouth of your target (yes, target), you win.  If you discern emotionalism or faulty logic where his argument ought to be, and you pounce, extra points for you.

  • Make sure your speech is coherent, correct, and, of course, lengthy.  
  • Do not break your momentum to ask any questions that might allow you to determine who it is you’re talking to.  Do not tailor your style of expression to your audience in any way.  That would be relativism.

  • Approach your target not as a person but as a bundle of inadequate propositions and emotionally generated biases.  Or else approach him as a specimen of a demographic segment.  Don’t try to find out why he believes what he does; assume that he’s been brainwashed by pop culture.  Don’t try to discover why he feels the way he does; assume that all his arguments are really transparent excuses to keep on committing his favorite sins. 

  • It is your job to convert people singlehandedly.  Do not pray to the Holy Spirit for the right words, or for your target to hear them in a way that will strike a chord with him or touch him.  God gave you an intellect. If you use it correctly, a conversation between you and your target will be a straightforward operation.  Your task is to spout the truth.  His is to receive it with due docility.

  • If he fails to exhibit passive docility, he must be stubbornly resisting the Holy Spirit.  If he finds your arguments unpersuasive, he must be emotionally immature or attached to his sinful lifestyle.  Your tone or lack of respect for his personal freedom could not possibly be the problem.

In short, personalism and proselytism start with the same letter, but that's about all they have in common.

Comments (1)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Oct 26, 2013 4:13am

Devra, this gels perfectly with the homily of Cardinal Poupard we happened into last weekend. He elaborated on the Pope's recent homily about the danger of faith becoming an ideology. He spoke about evangelization being about attraction, and the way nothing attracts like sanctity. Therefore, the best way for us to participate in the New Evangelization is to deeper our communion with God.

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