“A missionary disciple is not a mercenary of the faith or a producer of proselytes, but rather a humble mendicant who feels the absence of brothers, sisters and mothers with whom to share the irrevocable gift of reconciliation that Jesus grants to all.” 

–Pope Francis
Homily at Holy Mass
Supachalasai National Stadium of Bangkok

During his first full day of events in Thailand, Francis spoke to thousands during Mass in Bangkok’s national stadium. In his homily, he highlighted the role that the earliest missionaries played in Thailand’s history. They brought the Catholic faith to the country and helped to nurture it over many years. In typical Francis fashion, his quotable quote reminds us that evangelization is, at its root, an act of love. True evangelization is motivated by our desire to share the love we first received through faith in Christ Jesus. 

Importantly, evangelization is not attempting to simply win an argument or to convince another person see the world as we do.This is an important distinction. Once we start to put our own conditions on the Gospel, we adulterate it, complicate it, and cause it to lose its flavor. This only increases the likelihood that others will reject what should be a simple life-giving message: Jesus died for you, rose from the dead, and longs for you to be with him forever in heaven. 

Of course, social media–the new mission ground of our time–remains a place where, if anything, there is a noticeable lack of “humble mendicants.” Perhaps people enter into it with the intent of having faithful discussions, or maybe discussion is just a pretext. Whatever the motivation, the way that Catholics often engage the world and each other on the internet often quickly descends into verbal abuse, and Catholics become “mercenaries” who wish to destroy their opponents, when they should be gathering people together through unity in love and truth. 

Francis’ language here is indeed quite strong. The violent way that Christians “evangelize” on the internet is a far cry from the approach of the early missionaries to Thailand, who witnessed to the faith and suffered persecution for the sake of the Kingdom. When those who have humility in their hearts evangelize, there is less urgency to wage war on the customs and traditions of the local culture. Missionaries are not threatened by those who are discovering new ways to respect both their heritage and their Christian faith. Quite importantly, Pope Francis is clearly skeptical about any attempts to destroy a culture’s fundamental ties to their communities and their histories. 

Francis writes in Christus Vivit

Today, in fact, we see a tendency to “homogenize” young people, blurring what is distinctive about their origins and backgrounds, and turning them into a new line of malleable goods. This produces a cultural devastation that is just as serious as the disappearance of species of animals and plants. For this reason, in addressing young indigenous people gathered in Panama, I encouraged them to “care for your roots, because from the roots comes the strength that is going to make you grow, flourish and bear fruit”

As Austin Ivereigh explains in his book, Wounded Shepherd, Pope Francis has a special interest in ensuring that local customs and traditions are protected and honored. As a priest, his approach put him at odds with liberation theology, which–with its Marxist roots–represented a kind of ideological imperialism that sought to lift up the poor, but on its own terms. In contrast, Francis and his fellow bishops cultivated a “theology of the people” that values and exalts personal and communal piety and honors people’s roots in places, families, and communities. The theology of the people is a fundamentally positive and culturally appreciative way to express the preferential option of the poor, especially as it sees each  person, not as an object, but as a cooperative part of God’s plan. 

Nothing could be more harmful to evangelization than “adding on” to the message of the Gospel, insisting that another, in order to be a true Christian, must dress a certain way, pray a certain way, or love a certain way. Rather, as Francis says in his homily, evangelization can only be rooted in a desire to see our missing brothers and sisters in our living Church, worshipping alongside them, knowing that Jesus died for all of us.

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