by Fr. Ben J. Cameron, C.P.M.
Pope Francis has received a lot of criticism recently for some remarks that he has made about how we are called to be witnesses of Christ rather than engage in proselytism. As is often the case, there are people who, wittingly or unwittingly, misinterpret the Holy Father (as was the case with his predecessors). I would like to quote from his remarks which he made to 120 Superior Generals of men’s religious orders, and then comment on them. Speaking about Pope Benedict XVI, the Holy Father said:
“He said that the Church grows through witness, not by proselytism. The witness that can really attract is that associated with attitudes which are uncommon: generosity, detachment, sacrifice, self-forgetfulness in order to care for others. This is the witness, the ‘martyrdom’ of religious life. It sounds an alarm for people.”
First of all, what is proselytism? The Oxford Dictionary of English defines it as the effort to convert or attempt to convert someone from one religion, belief, or opinion to another. So is proselytism a bad thing in and of itself? No, it is not. If we believe in objective truth, objective good and evil, then it is natural that we would want, and make an actual effort, to convert other people to belief in that objective truth, to embracing what is good and rejecting what is evil. Unfortunately, proselytism has a bad name because it has, all too often, involved use of undue pressure for a person to change religions, such as when some groups of English Protestants would give food to the starving Irish during the Potato Famine if, and only if, they renounced their Catholic Faith. Have there been times when Catholics have engaged in proselytism with undue pressure? Of course – there have always been, and will continue to be, people who, seeking to do a good thing, use the wrong means.
What is Pope Francis (and Pope Benedict before him) getting at? It is that a joyful and authentic witness to Christ Jesus is what will really lead other people to come to know, love and serve our Lord. Does this mean that we are not to share our Catholic Faith? Of course not! Witness to Christ is bigger than, but includes, the essential end of conversion, of bringing people to Christ. The idea of witness includes:
- Evangelization – bringing the Gospel to those who have not received/accepted it yet.
- The New Evangelization – bringing the Gospel again to those persons and societies that had once embraced it, but have essentially lost the Faith.
- Catechesis – education and formation of those who have the Faith so that they grasp it more deeply and live it more authentically.
- Apologetics – being ready “to give reasons for the hope that is within you” (I Peter 3:15), which can be a powerful way of bringing people to Christ and our Catholic Faith.
- Christian Charity – a life which is truly based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church should be attractive to others, and lead them to Christ.
- Martyrdom – the martyrs are the ultimate witnesses to Our Lord Jesus Christ; the word “martyr” means “witness,” and the willingness to die for Christ has led many, many souls to embrace our Catholic Faith – “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians,” as Tertullian said in the second century.
Pope Francis is not saying that we should not seek to bring other people to share in our Catholic Faith! But he is calling each and every one of us to live our Faith much more authentically and joyfully. And this joyful witness to Christ will attract other people to the Church. Do not be an angry, embittered Catholic! This never attracts anyone to the Church. St. Francis de Sales, who engaged in the “New Evangelization” of his own time in 17th century Switzerland, said that you “attract more flies with a teaspoon of honey than with a whole barrel of vinegar.” Bitterness and anger will not bring anyone to Christ, but a true joyful witness will attract many persons to the truth, goodness and beauty of our Catholic Faith. May we all be such witnesses!