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Accessed on March 30, 2020 - 8:32:49

Proselytism vs. Evangelism: Round Two

Devra Torres, Nov 03, 2013

Last week, we talked about Pope Franics' dismissal of proselytism as “solemn nonsense.”  Many misunderstood.  They fell into three groups:

“What a relief!  Our Pope says we can keep quiet about religion!  No more uncomfortable conversations about faith and morality!  We’re called to sit back, make a reasonable attempt to be pleasant, and watch as the vast throngs (who will inevitably notice how pleasant we’ve become) spontaneously sign up for instruction in the Faith and embrace everything from the Immaculate Conception to the renunciation of birth control.”

The trouble, of course, is that the Pope was saying no such thing.  The New Evangelization is still on.  The teaching on whether we’re called to spread the Good News (we are) has not been rescinded, but we have been given a powerful nudge in the direction of reexamining how that goal is to be accomplished.

There’s really no novelty: we’re asked to respect persons, that’s all. To remember that nobody is "the sum of [his] weaknesses and failures," as Bl. John Paul used to say.  That nobody is to be reduced to a notch on your apostolic belt.  That each object of your efforts is also a unique subject, created by God for his own sake.

Because human persons matter so much, we can’t be satisfied to use "respect" for them as an excuse to leave them in a state of comfy obliviousness.  Our contact with them has to aim at something higher than leaving everybody's feathers unruffled and everybody's feelings calm and friendly.  That would be indifference, not respect.  And it would take a wild imagination indeed to believe that Francis is calling anybody to indifference.

Chastity educator Mary Beth Bonnaci has been ruminating on this question, too, and has an excellent article here ("Pope Francis makes things uncomfortable") about how we’re being asked to stretch far beyond our comfort zone.

We “purity evangelists” reach a lot of people. But there are a lot more whom we don’t reach. And plenty that we don’t even bother trying to reach, because we sense they wouldn’t be open to what we have to say. They are entrenched in their sin. They like their sin. Or at least that’s the way we see it.

But what would happen if we could really, really lead them to know and personally experience God’s deep and intense love for them? Do you think they might soften? That they might want to experience that unconditional love?

I’m the kind of person who tends to throw up my hands and think, “I could never bring them to understand that.” I honestly don’t know how. I can explain the teachings pretty persuasively to those who are open to hearing them. But to show Christ’s love, especially to those who are truly hardened, truly entrenched in sin? To make that love real and compelling to them? That’s above my pay grade. It makes me nervous. It reveals my own deficits. I understand the rules, but do I really understand God’s love for me? I live the rules, but do I truly live in His love? Am I an adequate witness to a heart open to Him? Frankly, I’m a little bit afraid to go too far down that road.

Last week, along the same lines, Al Kresta had a segment in Kresta in the Afternoon (October 30, Hour 1) about Jesus’ dealings with the Samaritan woman at the well, and how He handled someone who was, to all appearances, an unpromising prospect for evangelism--on four different fronts: her ethnic identity, her gender, her theology, and her conspicuous immorality.  Why didn't He write her off?

Their thoughts rang true as I recalled a recent coffeeshop conversation with a “recovering Catholic.”  It wasn’t unlike conversations I’ve had in the past, but this time, Pope Francis had been sitting on my shoulder, nagging me to shift my perception in inconvenient ways.

For example, when the man called himself a “recovering Catholic,” my instinct was to say, “Aha, someone with an axe to grind!”  Pope Francis suddenly made his presence felt, though, badgering me to try to find out what it was that had made him see himself that way.

Later, it emerged that he was divorced from his wife of thirty years.  “Aha!” my knee-jerk response piped up: “Someone who feels guilty about his own decisions and wants to disguise that guilt as an intellectual argument against the Truth!”  Pope Francis batted my response away and pointed out that a guy who had been married for thirty years at least had a demonstrated capacity for commitment.

Finally, it came out that he had read something called Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch.

“All eight of them!” he boasted.  My immediate impulse was to dismiss anyone who would take seriously this bogus genre (which fearlessly reveals that God happens to share every one of the author's political views and heartily seconds his antipathy for "organized religion"). But Pope Francis, deftly squashing my impulse, pointed out that anybody who was willing to read eight volumes of anything about God could hardly be dismissed as a lost cause. 

I know: some people really aren't good-faith truth-seekers.  Some people are just trying to trip you up and make excuses for themselves.  The astute evangelist knows the difference between a questioner and a scoffer.

But we're over-quick to define ourselves as the sincere ones (because there is some sincerity in us) and other people as scoffers (becasue, after all, we hear them scoffing).  We run with that grain of truth and inflate it until it looks like something it's not: a right to exempt ourselves from criticism, or a right to despise someone else.

These reactions are tempting.  But don't expect to get away with either one as long as Papa's watching.