Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Preaching the Gospel Does NOT Mean Proselytizing

Right before He ascended to heaven, Jesus Christ gave us what is now called the "Great Commission", as found in Matthew 28:19-20:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
That seems pretty straightforward - we are commanded to proclaim salvation through Jesus Christ throughout all the world.  And certainly the Church has been engaged in that mission from the time of her inception in the First Century.  Many have paid the ultimate price in preaching the Gospel, starting with Our Lord.

However, Pope Francis has told us on more than one occasion that proselytizing doesn't work.  He has called it "nonsense."

Of course, Pope Francis has been roundly condemned by many on the Catholic internet for this statement. Many have interpreted the Holy Father's statement as a rejection of Christ's command to preach the Gospel. But is that what he is saying? Is the Holy Father telling us to reject the clear command of Matthew 28?

I think the last part of Pope Francis' quote above: "We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us" holds the key.

Think about the times when people have tried to convert you to their beliefs. You instinctively recoil. Why? When people try to convert you to their way of thinking, they are, in effect, condemning you. Without knowing you or anything about you or how you got to where you are in life, they are telling you that you must reject and forget everything you have come to learn about right and wrong. They are telling you to reject everything that defines you as a person. They are telling you to reject your life.

Is this what Jesus Christ did when He walked the earth? Aside from the religious leaders of his day, whom he condemned as being hypocrites, Our Lord never once walked up to a person and told him that he was a sinner who needed to repent and change his life. Whenever he approached someone, he would always ask him or her what he wanted. He never imposed himself on anyone.   

We saw this very plainly when Jesus approached the Samaritan woman at the well.  His opening line to her was "Will you give me a drink?"  (John 4:7).  This was enough to stun her because Jesus, a Jew, was talking to a Samaritan, which was never done, and not just a Samaritan, but a Samaritan woman who was shunned by all others in society because she had had so many husbands and was now living with a man who was not her husband.  

Did Jesus at any time condemn the woman?  Never.  Even when he pointed out that she was living outside of marriage, Jesus merely stated this as a fact.  Then He told her that if she drank the water he had, she would never thirst again.  

Jesus did not condemn this woman.  He did not proselytize her.  Jesus offered the Samaritan woman compassion, understanding, love and forgiveness.  And she responded so overwhelmingly that she told everyone she knew.  

Often the people would approach Jesus to ask for healing, as in Matthew 8 when the leper approached Jesus with the words "Lord, if you will, you can make me clean." And Jesus healed him, with no other words than "I will; be clean." Jesus' only instruction after that was to "say nothing to anyone" but just go to the priest as instructed in the law of Moses. 

Right after that, in Matthew 8, Jesus was approached by a Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus immediately offered to go to the servant. But the centurion showed the greatest faith with words that we still repeat at every Mass: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed." Jesus had said nothing to the centurion to elicit this response. Jesus praised the centurion for his faith and told him that his servant was healed. Continuing on in this same chapter, we are told in verse 16 that "they brought to him many who were possessed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick."

What made all of these people come to Jesus as they did? In the previous chapters, Matthew 5, 6 and 7, Jesus preached what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount. I remember the first time I read these chapters. I was 16 years old and was completely blown away. These chapters are the greatest lesson in love that has ever been taught. Jesus defined the true meaning of humility, forgiveness, prayer, worship of God, how to treat your enemies. Jesus taught us to distinguish between what is worthless in this world and the lasting, eternal values. In a word, the Sermon on the Mount is a lesson in what it means to be truly free, not enslaved to anything or anyone except the God who loves us. 

In this great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus definitely warned that the way to life is narrow and few there be that find it. But nowhere does he call out any of the people as sinners who need to convert. He did not condemn the people in any way. And Jesus did not give the people a set of rules to follow. He gave them a new way of life, a new way of relating to each other and to God, telling them that if they were looking for true happiness and something that would last, this was the way. Then Jesus let the people make up their own minds.

When Jesus finished, the people realized they had never heard anything like it before as we are told in Matthew 7:28-29:
And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

What was the difference between the scribes and Jesus? All the scribes knew were rules and regulations. They never saw the people and their day-to-day struggles. They never empathized with the burdens and tragedies the people lived with year in and year out. Their idea of leading people to God was: here are the rules. Now I've done my job. You're on your own.

Sadly, that is how far too many define evangelization today. They think that if you just tell people they are sinners and need to repent, then there is nothing more to do. Pope Francis is telling us to follow the example of Jesus Christ. See the people as people. Relate to them where they are. Show them Jesus in your life, show them the joy, freedom and love that you've found (if indeed you have found this) and let them make the decision.

Jesus touched the people in his time because he lived what he preached.  This can be said of all the saints.  When you proselytize, you are engaged in condemnation, and condemnation never converted anyone.  Jesus on the Cross - the greatest symbol of love the world has ever known - is what converts all of us.  

As I have stated more than once here, I have come to reject most of what passes for catholic blogging.  It seems most are interested only in condemning anyone and everyone who doesn't agree with them.  I'm assuming that they believe that this approach will somehow win people to Jesus Christ.  They need to listen to Pope Francis and follow the lesson of Our Lord.  


  1. Catholic in Brooklyn, check out the following URL:

    BTW, Catholic in Brooklyn, do you think it's a bad idea for one to publicly express one's desire for a certain celebrity to convert to Catholicism?

    1. Interesting that the author of this article is just basically stating his opinion. He does not quote anyone, except to tell us what St. Francis did not say. Also, the author is a former evangelical and obviously still has that mindset.

      Of course we are to evangelize, as I have stated in this post. But we are not the ones who do the converting. That is done by the Holy Spirit. Christ always preached the Gospel, but he never overtly attempted to convert anyone, i,e, he never proselytized. I would suggest the following article to the author of the article you linked to:

      From the article:

      In the Church's lexicon, proselytism typically refers to conversion efforts that fail to respect the prospective convert’s freedom and dignity. High pressure tactics; telling lies about the other person’s current religion; comparing the weaknesses of another’s religious community with only the strengths of one’s own; attempting to convert children in opposition to their parents; offering worldly inducements to change one’s religious allegiance—these are what Catholics would call proselytism. In contrast, a sincere effort to share one’s faith so that others might freely choose to embrace it is considered a virtue. Terms with positive connotations are used to describe such generosity: evangelization, apologetics, catechesis, personal witness, or even simply “winning converts”.

      It is never wrong to express desire to anyone to convert. I wish the whole world would convert. The problem comes in our approach - is it respectful or hateful and condemnig of another's beliefs.


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