Bishop Robert Barron of Word on Fire has taken the trouble to respond to my Commonweal article on World Youth Day in Lisbon, which we were both at, in order to dispel my “confusions” over the distinction between evangelization and proselytism, and what Pope Francis means by those two terms.

Barron says that in my article I “rebuked” him “though” – note the though – the talks he gave in Lisbon “were enthusiastically received by crowds ranging up to twelve and thirteen thousand.” I’m sure they were, and if by the though Barron means to suggest I am impudent to challenge one who is so popular, and held in such esteem, on the topic of evangelization, which is after all his métier, then I put up my hand: guilty as charged. I watched two of his WYD talks, and they were terrific. Barron draws big crowds. He is the Fulton Sheen de nos jours. I once wrote a Tablet piece praising his immense gifts, his tremendous capacity to get to the heart of complex doctrines, and his wonderful winsome manner, “as if inviting you to join him on a treasure hunt.”

But hang impudence; parrhesia first. I was deeply disappointed that Barron had used his weighty media platform to misrepresent and fuel indignation at remarks made by the organizer of WYD, Cardinal-elect Américo (Barron misspells it Amerigo) Aguiar, a few weeks before it began. And after being in Lisbon, living WYD, I felt even more strongly that Barron had got this wrong.

A recap. In the midst of a wide-ranging interview, Aguiar told RTP Notícias on July 6 that popes have always invited all young people, not just Catholics, to WYDs, adding his hope (beginning at the 19-minute mark here) that Lisbon WYD would be a school where young people met others “from Africa, Asia, America, rich, poor, from the West, Catholics, non-Catholics, with religion, without religion, with faith, without faith” and would learn that diversity “is enriching. Whatever it is, it’s enriching.” He then offered a vision for WYD inspired by Fratelli Tutti, that in opening up to others, welcoming them, and making space for them, all would return from Lisbon converted to the conviction that despite our differences we can build a future together. This “encounter with the living Christ” is what Pope Francis hoped for, Aguiar said.

Asked about non-Catholics coming, Aguiar confirmed that all should be able to witness to who they were and what they believed, and to feel at home, that “we don’t want to convert young people to Christ, or the Catholic Church, or whatever.” It was starkly expressed, and taken alone, it was vulnerable – as so often happens in our hyper-polarized Church – to being seized upon by the usual merchants of fear and doom to prove that that under this pope (or/and since Vatican II) the Church has surrendered to the zeitgeist, capitulated to modernity, lost its cojones (etc.).

Yet it was obvious, as Pedro Gabriel and Claire Domingues showed in posts on WPI (here and here), that Aguiar was not rejecting the evangelizing purpose of WYD but articulating a key principle of interreligious dialogue, whose aim is not conversion but mutual understanding and search for truth. Aguiar told Filipe d’Avillez on July 12 that for those with ears to hear, he had been talking for four years about WYD as the encounter with the living Christ, and that in the interview had merely warned against a “proactive proselytism.”

Yet even after this clarification Barron rebuked Aguiar for his remarks, which he said implied that “fundamental disagreement on matters of religion is good in itself, indeed what God actively desires.” He had never suggested any such thing, but it was Barron’s self-congratulatory final line that most bothered me. “I’m scheduled to give five presentations at World Youth Day in Lisbon,” Barron declared, “and I would like to assure Bishop Aguiar that every single one of them is designed to evangelize.”

Barron, in fact, was one of 400 or so bishops from across the world giving catechesis over three days in dozens of languages to 600,000 registered pilgrims. All of the bishops, as far as I could see, were teaching the faith. So, too, was the “City of Joy” down in Belém, where each day thousands of young people spoke to huge numbers of church organizations explaining who they were, what they did and why. Evangelizing, too, were the huge liturgies, the 15,000 people confessing each day, and of course the Pope, who led the final Mass with 1.5m young people in the Parque Tejo, inviting them to let Christ look in their eyes. WYD was a festival of evangelization, in which people celebrated, deepened, and shared their love of Christ and His Church. It was designed that way, by Cardinal-elect Aguiar.

And it was also, at the same time, an opportunity for interreligious and interdenominational encounter: young people were encouraged to visit the mosques and temples that week, there was a Pentecostal-Catholic charismatic praise event, and a constant reminder in the sea of flags that diversity was not to be feared but a gift to be welcomed. Non-Catholic Christians at WYD I spoke to were bowled over by the love and joy and welcome they received, the deep conversations they were having. What was on display in WYD was exactly what Aguiar was hoping for: a Pentecost-ish experience of loving fraternal and ecclesial communion created by the Spirit out of a great global diversity of culture, language, and beliefs. No one dumbed down or hid their beliefs; there was no “epistemological indifferentism”; it was deeply Catholic in every sense. And yet young people could come with doubts, questions, and uncertain allegiances, and they were welcomed and heard.

So I ended my post-Lisbon Commonweal piece wondering if in attacking Aguiar Barron had missed this deeper point that evangelization is firstly about facilitating the encounter with Christ, and we enable this when we make space for the other in love and welcome.

Barron’s reply set about “responding to the confusions on display,” reminding me that any attempt to separate Jesus from the Church is a “gnostic fantasy.” I passionately agree, of course. There is no Christ without His Church, and that means the Church’s teachings. That’s why many years ago, in the time of Benedict XVI, I ran an apologetics program to help young people go on the media to show what the Church really thinks and teaches. And why I wrote a book called How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice, which suggested how to communicate the Church’s values, especially when they challenge contemporary modernity. Perhaps it’s also why I have invested not a little time in understanding and communicating the Francis pontificate, because, as a certain website banner puts it, Where Peter Is …

I admire Barron and his ministry because he engages seekers and questioners and shows them the power and beauty of what the Church really thinks and teaches. He and I share, I think, a frustration that the Church, institutionally speaking, has put too few resources into forming adults in what Evangelii Gaudium 132 calls a “creative apologetics.” This has come up often in the synod: people want to be given the responsibility to explain church teachings, but feel inadequate to the task. They want formation. I hope Barron says this in October, when we will both be at the synod, and perhaps over a beer he will explain the “painful wedge” he claims my remarks have placed “between Jesus and his mystical body.” (If true, I’ll repent and repair.)

Anyhow, to the disagreements. Barron thinks I reject any attempt to bring people to the Church as proselytism (I don’t; it depends), which is plain “ridiculous.” He then enlists Pope Francis as back-up. At a meeting with various US bishops in 2020, says Barron, “the Holy Father clearly stated that by “proselytism” he means an attempt at evangelization that is aggressive, brow-beating, condescending, and disrespectful. I can assure you that he most certainly did not imply that it is tantamount to bringing people into the Church.”

Barron wrote about this meeting at the time, saying he has often been nonplussed by Francis on the one hand urging people to draw people to Christ, but on the other “inveighing against what he calls proselytizing” which left Barron longing for “his definition of the term.” Hearing that the Pope did not mean by proselytizing apologetics or theological clarification, he came away reassured.

But with respect, I don’t think he got to grips with the deeper challenge Francis poses in his use of that term, and as a summary of the distinction Francis makes, it falls well short. And in that lack of understanding, I suggest, lies his misinterpretation of what Aguiar meant.

In a homily in Paraguay in 2015 (worth reading in full) Francis said:

“How many times do we see evangelization as involving any number of strategies, tactics, maneuvers, techniques, as if we could convert people on the basis of our own arguments. Today the Lord says to us quite clearly: in the mentality of the Gospel, you do not convince people with arguments, strategies, or tactics. You convince them by simply learning how to welcome them.”

Asked about evangelization on the flight back from Bangladesh in 2017, Francis spoke of it as living the Beatitudes, Matthew 25 and the Good Samaritan. “In this witnessing, there are conversions,” he said, but not straight away. It was important that “a conversion is the response to something the Holy Spirit has moved in my heart.” And he recalled the lunch he had with young people at the WYD in Krakow the year before, at which one of them asked: what do I have to do to convert and convince my classmate who is an atheist? The Pope told him:

“The last thing you want to do is to say something. You live the Gospel and if he asks you why you do this, you can explain why you do it, and let the Holy Spirit speak to him. This is the strength and the meekness of the Holy Spirit in the conversion. It is not a mental convincing, with apologetics, with reasons, it is the Spirit that makes the call. We are witnesses, witnesses of the Gospel.”

One more example, from January this year, when Francis began a cycle of beautiful catechesis on evangelization with this:

“Our proclamation begins today, here where we live. And it does not begin by trying to convince others, not to convince: but by bearing witness every day to the beauty of the Love that has looked upon us and lifted us up. And it is this beauty, communicating this beauty, that will convince people — not communicating ourselves but the Lord himself. We do not proclaim ourselves; we do not proclaim a political party, an ideology. No: we proclaim Jesus. We need to put Jesus in contact with the people, without convincing them but allowing the Lord to do the convincing.”

Francis is clear, then, what evangelization is: witness through open-hearted hospitality, service of the poor, a life lived according to the Beatitudes. But he is also clear when this becomes proselytism, and here’s the challenging part. The witness can be in tension with, even contradicted by, our attempt to evangelize by means of persuasion, strategies, theological explanations, and apologetics programs. Why? Because in so far as these lead us to put our faith in our own powers, they suffocate the “meekness of the Spirit in the conversion.”

In Evangelii Gaudium 94, speaking of the obstacles to evangelization, Francis identifies “the self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism of those who ultimately trust only in their own powers and feel superior to others.” He has spoken often of the signs of this Pelagianism in triumphalism: a worldly concern with success, outcomes, numbers, the way a certain kind of fist-pumping evangelization celebrates certainty, clarity, and strength. Evangelization, for Francis, is the witness to holiness, and all holiness is “an encounter between your weakness and God’s grace,” as he says in Gaudete et Exsultate 34.

To fall into worldliness is to forget our weakness, to put too much faith in our autonomy and power, and to forget our dependence on God’s power and gift. You see it, sadly, in many diocesan evangelization programs, which are confused with fundraising and “bums-on-pews” recruitment drives. Is this evangelization, or corporate marketing? It may not be aggressive and disrespectful, but it’s still proselytism (and ordinary parishioners know it at once). “When did conversion become a dirty word?” Barron asks. I’d say somewhere around here.

Rather more modestly, I too gave a talk in Lisbon: to a mere 2,000 young people gathered in the Coliseu dos Recreois for an evangelizing initiative called ‘Faith’s Night Out’. The organizers had seen the new Portuguese edition and adaptation of my How to Defend the Faith book and asked me to speak about it. So I shared a few of the above quotes from the Pope, flashed the book, and asked: is Francis saying that this is pointless, or gets in the way?

My answer (based on what Francis says) was that it depends. If you see this book as a manual of brilliant answers for winning arguments and conquering minds and hearts for the sake of converting others to Catholicism, please don’t buy it. But if helps you to understand some of the frames or filters which prevent people from grasping what the Church teaches, and gives you confidence to open up to others, and dialogue with them about those teachings, then perhaps it could help. My point was that, without the kenosis, without the humble self-emptying to make room for the other, it would become an instrument for proselytizing, not evangelizing.

It was an odd way to publicize a book. But this was what Cardinal-elect Aguiar had been saying: that evangelization is not firstly about setting out to convert people to the Church. We need to purify our intentions to ensure that we are not converting people to us, or an ideology, or a corporation, but are enabling the encounter with the living Christ, who always welcomes and makes space for others, and invites them to heal and grow and be converted over time … to Him.

One final point. Barron says I claimed he was “out of fear, clinging to identity and difference.” In fact I wrote was that Barron’s reaction to Aguiar showed this was delicate territory for many in the Church and “deeply threatening to those who cling to identity and difference.” I could have phrased it better, but I had in mind those who reacted furiously to what Aguiar said. I think Barron pandered to that reaction in an unhelpful way, but I did not mean to imply he was fearful (and never said so).

Kenosis is hard, especially in a Church conditioned by a corporate culture, when evangelization programs are bankrolled by millionaires obsessed with outcomes or dioceses anxious at loss of revenues. But without making room for people to meet the meekness of Christ, evangelization is proselytism: the Church without Christ, moralism without mercy — an idea, not a person, as Benedict XVI warned. It’s a challenge. Maybe Bishop Barron and I can find time for a beer one day after the synod to think it through together. I’d like that.

Image: Pope Francis, Cardinal Manuel Clemente of Lisbon, and Cardinal-designate Américo Aguiar (the chief organizer of WYD 2023) have lunch with 10 World Youth Day pilgrims in the apostolic nunciature in Lisbon on Aug. 4, 2023. (Vatican Media)

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Dr. Austen Ivereigh, a contributor to Where Peter Is, is Fellow in Contemporary Church History at Campion Hall, Oxford, the author of two major biographies of Pope Francis (The Great Reformer, 2014, and Wounded Shepherd, 2019) and his collaborator on the book Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future. Follow him on Twitter (@austeni) and his website (austeni.org).

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