On January 11th, Pope Francis began a new cycle of Wednesday Audiences by returning to one of his favorite themes: the difference between proselytism and evangelization. After commenting on the importance of evangelization in the Christian life, and reflecting on the calling of Matthew, he quoted a homily given by Pope Benedict XVI at Aparecida: “The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction.’”
This might bring to mind the hackneyed phrase, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” There is a certain truth here—but we can’t attract others if we aren’t noticeably different from those around us. Perhaps this is why argumentative proselytism is so often confused with evangelization. In the modern world, we Christians tend to look like everyone else; our actions are unremarkable, and so we are left with nothing but words, ideas, and arguments with which to spread the Gospel.
We’re not necessarily called to be different in externals; as the anonymous author of the 2nd-century Letter to Diognetus remarks, “Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life…they pass their lives in whatever township—Greek or foreign—each man’s lot has determined; and conform to ordinary local usage in their clothing, diet, and other habits.”
At least, we’re not called to become different merely in externals. Rather, to return to the Pope’s address, we are called to be different internally. Our task is to show the love of Jesus to the world, to “put Jesus in contact with the people, without convincing them but allowing the Lord to do the convincing.”
While we should not choose to be different merely to distinguish ourselves or to show off, the inner choice of love will naturally lead to external differences. Love will transform us, and the love of Christ will shine forth in whatever we do. As the Letter to Diognetus goes on to say, “Nevertheless, the organization of their community does exhibit some features that are remarkable, and even surprising…Like other men, they marry and beget children, though they do not expose their infants. Any Christian is free to share his neighbor’s table…They obey the prescribed laws, but in their own private live they transcend the laws. They show love to all men.”
In fact, if we truly open ourselves to love, we will embark on a new way of life. What would our lives look like if we were full of love? Would we casually spend money on superfluous luxuries while the poor are starving? Would we spend our time spreading discord and division on social media? Would there be anyone among us who was lonely or in need?
In his address, Pope Francis tells the story of a group of foreign sisters who were assigned to run a hospital. They couldn’t speak the local language—and yet the patients were content because the sisters looked on them with love. In closing, Pope Francis leaves us with this question: does our gaze resemble that of Jesus? Do we attract people and draw them toward his Church?
Image: Adobe Stock. By Halfpoint.
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.