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Why is proselytism a problem?

Pope Francis writes a message in the guest book of the mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat (Getty)

During his visit to Morocco last weekend, Pope Francis gave a speech that prompted some puzzling headlines. “Conversion is not your mission, pope tells Catholics in Morocco,” said Reuters. “Pope Francis urges Moroccan Christians against converting others,” reported the Daily Telegraph. Catholics online wondered how the Pope’s words could be reconciled with the Great Commission, Christ’s command to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

The answer, it turned out, hung on a single word: proselytism. The Pope was speaking to priests, religious and leaders of other Christian communities in the Moroccan capital Rabat. His audience serves in an overwhelmingly Muslim country whose criminal code prohibits conversion from Islam to Christianity. It was in this context that Francis made the following remarks:

“Our mission as baptised persons, priests and consecrated men and women, is not really determined by the number or size of spaces that we occupy, but rather by our capacity to generate change and to awaken wonder and compassion. We do this by the way we live as disciples of Jesus, in the midst of those with whom we share our daily lives, joys and sorrows, suffering and hopes. In other words, the paths of mission are not those of proselytism. Please, these paths are not those of proselytism!”

The confusion perhaps arose because the Pope did not offer a definition of proselytism. In the New Testament, the Greek word proselytos referred to a 1st-century convert to Judaism. Later the Anglicised word “proselyte” came to mean a convert in general. “Proselytism” was therefore the act of making converts, and that is how most Catholics understand it today.

The problem is that, following Vatican II, the word has changed its meaning in theological circles. It is now considered a pejorative term. In an article for the Catholic News Agency last year, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey, explained the new definition as follows: “This meaning includes using any type of pressure to convert someone, whether it is moral, political or economic. It means caricaturing with unfair criticism the beliefs of others.”

It is true that Pope Francis has a fondness for neologisms and startling turns of phrase, but he didn’t invent the new meaning of proselytism. In his address in Morocco, he quoted his predecessor, Benedict XVI, as saying that “the Church grows not through proselytism, but through attraction, through witness”. That is an accurate paraphrase of a homily that Benedict gave at the Brazilian shrine of Aparecida in 2007.

Put simply, when Church leaders speak of proselytism, they mean a mission that seeks power and influence rather than the salvation of souls. But lay Catholics have not absorbed this change in meaning. Nor has it won acceptance with the general public or, indeed, academics who study religious movements. Hence the impression that Pope Francis was urging missionaries to no longer make disciples.

If, as the Vatican insists, the Pope was not saying this, what model of evangelisation of non-Christians does he actually favour? In his address in Rabat, he said that where Christians form a tiny minority they are called to undertake a patient dialogue with the majority, while interceding in prayer for them and carrying out charitable works.

But Catholic missionaries in Muslim majority countries already see dialogue, prayer and charity as the foundations of their work. The number of those who engage in aggressive “proselytism” must be close to zero. Some of these missionaries are already indicating privately that they feel undermined by papal remarks that appeared to disparage their brave efforts to win souls in hostile territory.

Any pope who visits a Muslim country is forced to walk a tightrope. In our media-saturated age, the Holy Father cannot escape the challenge of addressing multiple audiences at once. When one of those audiences is Islamic, it is especially difficult to balance his responsibilities to protect Christians, reassure suspicious Muslim authorities and stay faithful to the Great Commission.

It is all the more important, therefore, that Pope Francis chooses his words with extreme care. On this occasion, he has disappointed some Christians who are prepared to risk their lives to win converts. The fault lies, perhaps, with the Church’s contentious definition of “proselytism”. May we suggest that, in future, the word is best avoided?