Pope Francis recently sat down with journalist Gianni Valente of Fides (the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) for a lengthy interview on some of his favorite topics, including evangelization, what it means to be a missionary, and witnessing to the Gospel. It was published on November 5 in Italian as a book entitled, Without Him, We Can Do Nothing: a Conversation About Being Missionaries in Today’s World. Hopefully an English version will be coming out soon!
Junno Arocho Esteves of Catholic News Service wrote an article about the book, summarizing a number of passages and themes. Francis has spoken about many of these subjects frequently, but has often been misunderstood by his critics. One of these is the difference between proselytism and true evangelization. Esteves writes:
The pope said that to evangelize means to deliver Christ’s teachings “in simple and precise words like the apostles did” without the need to “invent persuasive discourses.”
“The proclamation of the Gospel can even be whispered, but it always passes through the overwhelming power of the scandal of the cross. And it has always followed the path indicated in the letter of the apostle Peter, which consists in simply ‘providing reasons’ of one’s hope to others, a hope that remains a scandal and foolishness in the eyes of the world,” he said.
Vatican News also provided some interesting, compelling excerpts in their entirety from the interview in English, many of which are worth bringing to your attention.
You always repeat: “A Church that is on the move”. Many have picked up this expression, and sometimes it seems to have become a hackneyed slogan, used by a growing number of people who spend their time lecturing the Church on what she should or should not be.
“A Church on the move” is not a fashionable expression that I invented. It is Jesus’ command, who in the Gospel of Mark asks His followers to go into the whole world and preach the Gospel “to every creature”. The Church is either on the move or she is not Church. Either she evangelizes or she is not Church. If the Church is not on the move, she decays, she becomes something else.
What does a Church that does not evangelize and is not in movement become?
It becomes a spiritual association, a multinational that launches ethical and religious initiatives and messages. There is nothing wrong with that, but that is not the Church. This is the risk of any static organization in the Church. We end up taming Christ. You no longer bear witness to what Christ does, but speak on behalf of a certain idea of Christ. An idea that you have appropriated and domesticated. You organize things, you become the little manager of ecclesial life, where everything happens according to an established plan, to be followed only according to instruction. But the encounter with Christ never happens. The encounter that touched your heart at the beginning doesn’t happen anymore.
Here are some key passages where he explains how evangelization occurs by attraction, not argumentation or coercion. He continues by giving a comprehensive explanation of what he means when he talks about mission and evangelization:
Something else you repeat often, in this case in a negative sense: the Church does not grow through proselytizing, and the mission of the Church is not proselytism. Why do you insist on this so much? Is it to maintain good relations with other Churches and dialogue with other religious traditions?
The problem with proselytism is not only the fact that it contradicts the ecumenical journey and interreligious dialogue. There is proselytism wherever there is the idea of making the Church grow by putting less emphasis on this attraction on the part of Christ and the work of the Spirit, focusing everything on any type of “wise discourse”. Therefore, proselytism first of all cuts out Christ Himself and the Holy Spirit from the mission, even when we claim to speak and act nominally in Christ’s name. Proselytism is always violent by nature, even when it is hidden or exercised with white gloves. It does not tolerate the freedom and graciousness with which faith can be transmitted from person to person by grace. This is why proselytism is not only something of the past, of bygone colonialist times, or conversions forced or bought with the promise of material advantages. Proselytism can also exist today even in parishes, communities, movements, religious congregations.
So what does it mean to evangelize?
To evangelize means delivering Christ’s own testimony in simple and precise words, like the apostles did. But there is no need to invent persuasive discourses. The proclamation of the Gospel can even be whispered, but it always passes through the overwhelming power of the scandal of the cross. And it has always followed the path indicated in the letter of the Apostle Peter, which consists in simply “providing reasons” of one’s hope to others, a hope that remains a scandal and foolishness in the eyes of the world.
How do we recognize a Christian “missionary”?
A distinctive feature is that of acting as facilitators, and not as controllers of the faith. Facilitating, making easy, without us placing obstacles to Jesus’ desire to embrace everyone, to heal everyone, to save everyone, not being selective, not imposing “pastoral tariffs”, not playing the part of the guard at the door controlling who has the right to enter. I remember parish priests and communities in Buenos Aires who set up many initiatives to facilitate access to baptism. In the last few years, they realized the number was growing of those not being baptized for various reasons, even sociological ones, and they wanted to remind everyone that being baptized is something simple, that everyone can request it, for themselves and for their own children. The path taken by those parish priests and those communities had one objective: not to add burdens, not to make claims, to remove any cultural, psychological or practical difficulties that could push people to postpone or drop the intention to baptize their own children.
In America, at the beginning of evangelization, missionaries discussed who was “worthy” to receive baptism. How did those disputes end?
Pope Paul III rejected the theories of those who claimed that the Indians were by nature “incapable” of accepting the Gospel and confirmed the choice of those who facilitated their baptism. They seem to be things of the past, yet even now there are circles and sectors that present themselves as ilustrados [enlightened], and even sequester the proclamation of the Gospel through their distorted reasoning that divide the world between “civilized” and “barbaric”. What irritates them and makes them angry is the idea that the Lord might have a predilection for many cabecitas negras [a derogatory term]. They consider a large part of the human family as if they were a lower class entity, unable to achieve decent levels in spiritual and intellectual life according to their standards. On this basis, contempt can develop for people considered to be second rate. All this also emerged during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon.
Some tend to drive a wedge between the transparent proclamation of the faith and social work. They say that we must not reduce mission to a type of social activity. Is that a legitimate concern?
Everything that is within the scope of the Beatitudes and the works of mercy is in agreement with mission, is already proclamation, is already mission. The Church is not an NGO, the Church is something else. But the Church is also a field hospital, where everyone is welcome, as they are, where everyone’s wounds are healed. And this is part of her mission. Everything depends on the love that moves the heart of those who do things. If a missionary helps dig a well in Mozambique because he is aware that those he baptizes and evangelizes need it, how can it be said that that work is separate from evangelization?
Image: Bells and Cross at Mission San Juan Capistrano, Adobe Stock
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.