Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Evangelization means to "Open the doors to Christ"

Pope Francis gave yet another high profile interview (it's probably impossible for him to give a low profile interview). He sat down to speak with Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of Italy's largest daily newspaper, La Repubblica. Scalfari, a professed atheist, previously wrote an open letter to Pope Francis, which was published in La Repubblica. Francis famously answered Scalfari's letter with his own letter, which was published by the same newspaper. Lest anyone think this kind of exchange is entirely new, the Francis/Scalfari correspondence put me in mind of something I recently read- the newspaper exchange between Cardinal Martini and Umberto Eco, which is available in book format, even as an ebook, under the title Belief or Nonbelief?: A Confrontation (the translation is a bit sketchy in parts, distracting, but not destructive).

Eugenio Scalfari

It seems that Francis, once again (see "All Who Do Evil Are Redeemed- Christians Included"), may have overestimated how well many Catholics understand their faith. I am referring specifically to his critical comments about proselytizing, which he made at the beginning of the interview. As they sat down to talk the Holy Father joked that his friends warned him that Scalfari would try to convert him, which prompted Scalfari to comment that he was similarly warned. Striking a more serious note, Pope Francis said, "Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us." Apparently some have taken this to mean that Pope Francis does not believe in evangelization, or missionary activity. To draw the contrast- proselytism stands in relation to evangelization the way threats stand in relation to good faith negotiations.

Pope Benedict with then-Brazilian President Lula da Silva

During his Apostolic Visit to Brazil back in 2007, Pope Benedict, in his homily for the Mass celebrated to inaugurate the fifth General Conference of CELAM, which gathering was the main reason for his visit, noted,
The Church considers herself the disciple and missionary of [God's] Love: missionary only insofar as she is a disciple, capable of being attracted constantly and with renewed wonder by the God who has loved us and who loves us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:10). The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction”: just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love, culminating in the sacrifice of the Cross, so the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord (underlining emphasis mine)
Pope Paul VI addressing the UN General Assembly in New York, 4 October 1965

In short, proselytization is merely an attempt to get to someone to change from his/her religion to your own, a endeavor that fails to take into account the person in his/her totality.

When it comes to evangelization, almost thirty-eight years after its promulgation, it would still be difficult to top Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi. This is the source of the concept (not the phrase) of "missionary discipleship" invoked by Pope Benedict in his Brazilian homily and repeatedly by Pope Francis during his visit to Brazil earlier this year (see "What is missing from post-WYD Catholic commentary?"), which concept constitutes the footings of the foundation of CELAM's 2007 Aparecida document.

Pope St. John Paul II struck the same notes in his encyclical letter on the Church's permanent missionary mandate, Redemptoris missio. One must keep in mind that in JPII's ranking of human rights, freedom of conscience in religious matters only took second place to the right to life. It is from this document that we are given the best definition of evangelization, one I think that is reflected in Francis' dismissive comment about proselytism: "On her part, the Church addresses people with full respect for their freedom. Her mission does not restrict freedom but rather promotes it. The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience. To those who for various reasons oppose missionary activity, the Church repeats: Open the doors to Christ!"

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