Evangelization Vs. Proselytization.
Proselytism is the strongest venom against the path of ecumenism.
— Pope Francis, Oct. 13, 2016
by Chris Sparks (Feb. 27, 2017)
Why on earth would a pope who has written an apostolic exhortation called Evangelii Gaudium (On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today's World) say such a thing?
After all, aren't we all supposed to share our faith? Aren't we supposed to proclaim Christ to all nations (see Mk 16:15; Mt 28:19)?
The Holy Father isn't discouraging evangelization. He's discouraging proselytization.
In a homily given on Aug. 5, 2013, the Holy Father discussed the difference, reiterating again and again some of the differences between evangelization and proselytization.
• Evangelization goes out to others and listens to them; proselytization excludes others and simply talks at them.
• Evangelization is a proclamation of Jesus, allowing people to have an encounter with Christ; proselytization is proud and convinced that it has all the answers.
• Evangelization trusts in the Holy Spirit as the true evangelist, as the one who makes converts; proselytization believes it's up to us, to the force of our arguments and persuasive power.
To summarize the Holy Father's points, you could say that evangelization is all about trust, and proselytization is all about fear.
Proper evangelization is a proclamation of Jesus without fear or apprehension that no one will listen. It arises out of our living relationship with Jesus through prayer, regular reception of the Sacraments, performing the works of mercy, and fulfilling the duties of our state in life. We become transparent to Jesus and so are living proclamations of the Gospel. We don't all need to be saints or scholars to evangelize; we simply need to love Jesus and be prepared to share that love with other people. At the same time, we are to present Jesus as clearly and as accurately as we can, so we must study Church teachings in Scripture and Tradition, learn the lives of the saints, and be prepared to defend the faith to the best of our ability.
It's just like playing on a local sports team — players don't have to be ready for the big leagues, but they do have to be ready for the upcoming game. You don't have to be a professional athlete to have fun, but you've got to be fit enough to play the game at all.
Just so with evangelization. We need to be prepared, even though we don't need to be the next St. Thomas Aquinas.
Proselytization, on the other hand, is essentially spiritual bullying, driven by the fear of God and the fear of neighbor. We fear that if we don't make converts, we are failures and will be punished, because we believe that making converts depends upon us and our efforts, rather than on our cooperation with the Holy Spirit. We fear that if our neighbors don't convert, there's something wrong with the Gospel or with ourselves. Proselytization isn't inspired by the Holy Spirit, whose fruits are "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5:22-23). Proselytization arises from the works of the flesh, whose bad fruits include "hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy" (Gal 5:20-21).
The Holy Father is calling Christians, then, to leave behind the works of the flesh, to not attempt to force anyone else to believe as we believe, but rather to become transparent to Jesus Christ in the holiness of our lives and the truth we profess. We are to become light to the nations, salt of the earth, a people set apart, a city on a hill. We are to draw people to us with the power of the Holy Spirit, not any sort of earthly power or force. We are to prepare ourselves to the best of our abilities to be good and faithful witnesses to one who is infinitely better than we are, allowing grace to build on prepared nature. Consider the examples offered by the saints, such as St. Faustina — could her writings in the Diary have so powerfully communicated the love and mercy of God to the nations if she herself had not cooperated so fully with God's grace? Could Mother Teresa of Calcutta have been such a powerful Christian witness in the 20th century if she hadn't been deeply, radically converted herself? Could St. John Paul II or St. John XXIII have left such a mark on the history of the last century if they hadn't also been fully given over to the Holy Spirit?
So let us ask the saints and angels for their intercession, that we may take up the mantle of evangelization in the present day and be a light to the nations in a dark time. Let us trust in Jesus and the Holy Spirit to evangelize through us, if only we say yes to God, if only we act from love of God and neighbor.