According to the Oxford Dictionary ‘proselytize’ means ‘convert or attempt to convert someone from one religion […] to another,’ while ‘proselyte’ means ‘a person who has converted from one opinion, religion […] to another.’ Ever since the time of Jesus, the Church – as guardian of the truth – has given special importance to attracting all people to its midst, thus leading them toward salvation. In other words, it employs a proselytism for the good, in the full sense of the word. However… perhaps other methods are more pleasing to God.
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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. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good (Interview with Eugenio Scalfari, October1, 2013 – La Repubblica text)
Note 1: The authors of this study are aware that the Vatican Press Office has denied the interpretations that some media sources have attributed to certain affirmations contained in the interviews of Francis with Eugenio Scalfari. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that some of these sources are still published on the Vatican website (found by clicking on the links of the articles), lending an official air to their content, seemingly with the approval of Francis himself. In the midst of all the turmoil and confusion caused, we always feel that a presentation of the true doctrine should be made with clarity, together with such affirmations. We must not forget that the majority of the public read only the titles that the media publishes, and, as we know, the latter frequently manipulate the truth. Consequently, it appears that a mere declaration that the content of these interviews does not correspond with the textual words of Francis, is simply not sufficient. As such, we publish this article with the intention of clarifying and orienting the faithful, who have always been the principle objective of this page, as we expressed in our letter of presentation. In this way, each person can make a correct judgment, having beforehand attained knowledge of the truth.
Should you go and convince someone else that he should become Catholic? No, no, no! Go and encounter him, he is your brother!And this is enough. And go and help him, Jesus or the Holy Spirit will do the rest. (Video-Message on the feast of Saint Cajetan, August 7, 2013)
But Paul, too, was ‘aware that he must evangelize, not proselytize’. Paul teaches what the path of evangelization should be, to follow with courage. And ‘when the Church loses this apostolic courage, she becomes a lifeless Church. Orderly, perhaps — nice, very nice — but barren, because she has lost the courage to go to the outskirts, where there are so many people who are victims of idolatry, worldliness, and weak thought.’ In order to curb the fear of making a mistake, you have to realize that you can rise and continue to move forward. ‘Those who do not walk for fear of making a mistake’ — concluded Pope Francis — ‘make the most serious mistake.’ (Homily, Santa Marta, May 8, 2013)
I am also delighted to know that in recent years, it has been possible to restore several Christian shrines in Algeria. By welcoming everyone as they are, with benevolence and without proselytism, your communities manifest the desire to be a Church with open doors, one which ever ‘goes forth’ (cf. Evangelii Gaudium no. 46-47). (Address to the Bishops of North Africa, March 2, 2015)
[Eugenio Scalfari] One day, at one of our meetings, he spoke to me of that mission which concerned also unbelievers. “The missionary Church” — he said to me — “does not proselytize, rather attempts to engender in people the search for good in their own souls.’ (Conversation with Eugenio Scalfari, La Repubblica, March 15, 2015)
[…] yet again: the problem of ecumenism. Never fight! Let the theologians study the abstract realities of theology. But what should I do with a friend, neighbour, an Orthodox person? Be open, be a friend. “But should I make efforts to convert him or her?” There is a very grave sin against ecumenism: proselytism. We should never proselytise the Orthodox! They are our brothers and sisters, disciples of Jesus Christ. […] Do not condemn. No. I must not do this. Friendship, walking together, praying for one another. Praying and carrying out works of charity together, when this is possible. This is ecumenism. But never condemn a brother or a sister, never refrain from greeting an Orthodox brother or sister because they are Orthodox. (Apostolic Journey to Georgia and Azerbaijan, October 1, 2016)
Conversion is not easy, because it means changing one’s life, changing one’s ways, changing so many things, even changing the soul. But this path of conversion will give us the identity of a people who knows how to bear children, not a sterile people! If we, like the Church, do not know how to bear children, something is not working! The great challenge for the Church today is to become mother: mother! Not a perfectly organized non-profit, with so many pastoral plans… We need them, sure… But that is not essential, it is just a help. A help to what? To the motherhood of the Church. If the Church is not mother, it is sad to say that she becomes a spinster, but she does become a spinster! That’s how it is: she bears no fruit. The Church not only makes children, but it is part of her identity to make children, that is, to evangelize, as Paul VI says in Evangelii nuntiandi. The Church’s identity is this: to evangelize, that is, to make children. I think of our mother Sarah, who grew old without children; I think of Elizabeth, the wife of Zacharius, old without children; I think of Noemi, another old woman without descendents… And these barren women did bear children, they were given descendents: the Lord is capable of doing that!That is why the Church must do something, must change, must convert in order to become mother. She must be fruitfull! Fruitfulness is a grace that we today need to ask from the Holy Spirit, so that we can go forward in our pastoral and missionary conversion. This is not a question of seeking to proselytize, no, no! To go ring the bell: “Would you like to come to this association called the Catholic Church?…”. We need to make a card, another member… The Church —Benedict XVI told us — does not grow through proselytism, she grows through attraction, maternal attraction, offering her motherhood: she grows through tenderness, her maternity, the witness that generates ever more and more children. She is a little aged, our Mother Church… We shouldn’t call her “Grandma Church”, but still she is a little older… We must rejuvenate her! We must rejuvenate her, but not by taking her to the plastic surgeon, no! This is not the true rejuvenation of the Church, it doesn’t work. The Church grows younger when she is capable of generating more children; she grows younger the more she becomes mother.(Address to participants in Rome’s Diocesan Conference, June 16, 2014)
[Francis]: That is why the Spirit is the author of unity among Christians. That is why unity comes about on our journey, because unity is a grace that one should ask for, and that is why I also repeat that all proselytism among Christians is sinful. The Church never grows due to proselytism but rather “by attraction”, as Benedict XVI said. Proselytism among Christians, therefore, is in itself a grave sin.
[Francis]: Because it contradicts the very dynamic of how to become and continue being Christian. The Church is not a soccer team looking for fans.(Interview with “Avvenire”, November 18, 2016 – English summary)
Enter the various parts of our study
The proclamation of the Word of God has Christian conversion as its aim: a complete and sincere adherence to Christ and his Gospel through faith. Conversion is a gift of God, a work of the Blessed Trinity. It is the Spirit who opens people’s hearts so that they can believe in Christ and ‘confess him’(cf. 1 Cor 12:3); of those who draw near to him through faith Jesus says: ‘No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him’ (Jn 6:44). From the outset, conversion is expressed in faith which is total and radical, and which neither limits nor hinders God’s gift. At the same time, it gives rise to a dynamic and lifelong process which demands a continual turning away from ‘life according to the flesh’ to ‘life according to the Spirit’ (cf. Rom 8:3-13). Conversion means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple. […] Nowadays the call to conversion which missionaries address to non-Christians is put into question or passed over in silence. It is seen as an act of ‘proselytizing’; it is claimed that it is enough to help people to become more human or more faithful to their own religion, that it is enough to build communities capable of working for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity. What is overlooked is that every person has the right to hear the ‘Good News’ of the God who reveals and gives himself in Christ, so that each one can live out in its fullness his or her proper calling. This lofty reality is expressed in the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman: ‘If you knew the gift of God,’ and in the unconscious but ardent desire of the woman: ‘Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst’ (Jn 4:10-15). (John Paul II, Encyclical Redemptoris Missio, no. 46, December 7, 1990)
The Roman Pontiff in fact has the ‘sacra potestas’ to teach the truth of the Gospel, administer the sacraments and pastorally govern the Church in the name and with the authority of Christ. (John Paul II, Address to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, no. 8, January 21, 2000)
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. (2Tim 4:1-2)
If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! (1Cor 9:16)
Now we consider another abundant source of the evils with which the Church is afflicted at present: indifferentism. This perverse opinion is spread on all sides by the fraud of the wicked who claim that it is possible to obtain the eternal salvation of the soul by the profession of any kind of religion, as long as morality is maintained. Surely, in so clear a matter, you will drive this deadly error far from the people committed to your care. With the admonition of the apostle that ‘there is one God, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph 4:5) may those fear who contrive the notion that the safe harbor of salvation is open to persons of any religion whatever. They should consider the testimony of Christ Himself that ‘those who are not with Christ are against Him’ (Lk 11:23), and that they disperse unhappily who do not gather with Him. Therefore ‘without a doubt, they will perish forever, unless they hold the Catholic faith whole and inviolate’ (Symbol of St. Athanasius). Let them hear Jerome who, while the Church was torn into three parts by schism, tells us that whenever someone tried to persuade him to join his group he always exclaimed: ‘He who is for the See of Peter is for me’ (St. Jerome, Epistle 57). A schismatic flatters himself falsely if he asserts that he, too, has been washed in the waters of regeneration. Indeed Augustine would reply to such a man: ‘The branch has the same form when it has been cut off from the vine; but of what profit for it is the form, if it does not live from the root?’ (St. Augustine, Epistle 166). (Gregory XVI, Encyclical Mirari Vos, August 15, 1832)
In these times of confusion and disorder, it is not unusual to see Christians, Catholics – even within the secular clergy and cloisters –who constantly have a word of conformity, of conciliation and negotiation on their lips. Very well! I do not hesitate to declare: these men are in error, and do not consider them to be the lesser enemies of the Church. We live in a corrupt and pestilent atmosphere and we must know how to preserve ourselves from it. Let us not allow ourselves to be contaminated by false doctrines, which lose all things under the pretext of saving all. (Pius IX, Speech in the Church of Aracoeli, September 17, 1861)
Therefore if a man does not want to be, or to be called, a heretic let him not strive to please this or that man… but let him hasten before all things to be in communion with the Roman See. If he be in communion with it, he should be acknowledged by all and everywhere as faithful and orthodox. He speaks in vain who tries to persuade me of the orthodoxy of those who, like himself, refuse obedience to his Holiness the Pope of the most holy Church of Rome: that is to the Apostolic See. (Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis cognitum, no. 13, June 29, 1896)
Therefore the Church announces the good tidings of salvation to those who do not believe, so that all men may know the true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, and may be converted from their ways, doing penance (Jn 17:3; Lk 24:27; Acts 2:38). To believers also the Church must ever preach faith and penance, she must prepare them for the sacraments, teach them to observe all that Christ has commanded. (Mt 28:20), and invite them to all the works of charity, piety, and the apostolate. For all these works make it clear that Christ’s faithful, though not of this world, are to be the light of the world and to glorify the Father before men. (Vatican Council II, Constitution Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 9, December 4, 1963)
The apostle’s art is a risky one. The desire to come together as brothers must not lead to a watering down or subtracting from the truth. Our dialogue must not weaken our attachment to our faith. In our apostolate we cannot make vague compromises about the principles of faith and action on which our profession of Christianity is based. An immoderate desire to make peace and sink differences at all costs is, fundamentally, a kind of skepticism about the power and content of the Word of God which we desire to preach. Only the man who is completely faithful to the teaching of Christ can be an apostle. And only he who lives his Christian life to the full can remain uncontaminated by the errors with which he comes into contact. (Paul VI, Encyclical Ecclesiam suam, no. 88, August 6, 1964)
The Church’s commitment to evangelization can never be lacking, since according to his own promise, the presence of the Lord Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit will never be absent from her: ‘I am with you always, even until the end of the world’ (Mt 28:20). The relativism and irenicism prevalent today in the area of religion are not valid reasons for failing to respond to the difficult, but awe-inspiring commitment which belongs to the nature of the Church herself and is indeed the Church’s ‘primary task’ (cf. Benedict XVI, Homily during the visit to the Basilica of Saint Paul outside the Walls (25 April 2005): AAS 97 (2005), 745) ‘Caritas Christi urget nos – the love of Christ impels us’ (2 Cor 5:14): the lives of innumerable Catholics bear witness to this truth. Throughout the entire history of the Church, people motivated by the love of Jesus have undertaken initiatives and works of every kind in order to proclaim the Gospel to the entire world and in all sectors of society, as a perennial reminder and invitation to every Christian generation to fulfill with generosity the mandate of Christ. Therefore, as Pope Benedict XVI recalls, ‘the proclamation of and witness to the Gospel are the first service that Christians can render to every person and to the entire human race, called as they are to communicate to all God’s love, which was fully manifested in Jesus Christ, the one Redeemer of the world’ (cf. Benedict XVI, Address to the participants in the International Conference on the 40th anniversary of the conciliar Decree ‘Ad gentes’ – March 11, 2006: AAS 98 (2006), 334). The love which comes from God unites us to him and ‘makes us a ‘we’ which transcends our divisions and makes us one, until in the end God is ‘all in all’’ (1Cor 15:28). (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Doctrinal Note on Some aspects of the evangelization, no. 13, October 6, 2007)