Should We Proselytize?

Pope FrancisThe latest of the now-weekly bombshells to emerge from the Holy See is an interview that Pope Francis gave to the influential atheist founder of La Repubblica, the most widely read Italian daily (poorly translated English version here). He joked with Eugenio Scalfari that “my friends think you want to convert me,” to which Scalfari responded that this was a joke, since he’d heard the same about Pope Francis! The interview got off to an interesting start. When Scalfari asked about proselytizing, the Pope responded

Il proselitismo è una solenne sciocchezza, non ha senso.

Which rendered in English is “proselytizing is solemn silliness, and makes no sense.”

Can a pope say that? Does it reflect a lack of confidence in the gospel?

On the contrary, it represents the strongest possible theology. Consider Ignatius’s words to those who would give his Spiritual Exercises to another: it is better “to allow the Creator to deal immediately with the creature and the creature with its Creator and Lord” (15).

The Jesuits have a long history of engaging with those who are not Christian, attracting by example even when language is an imperfect form of communication. My favorite example is Matteo Ricci, but there are many others. Pope Francis is using Ricci’s basic model: engage in friendship, pursue truth together, and allow the Holy Spirit to use you.


  1. Myself and a few friends call this the ‘Ministry of Encounter’ – those providential meetings when something significant in the Spirit happens completely unplanned and unexpected. It is a particular ministry for lay people as we are out and about in the everyday world most of our time. It is a ministry especially appropriate for later years as there is more time to make yourself available. We find it happens on buses, dog walking, in cafe’s, whenever and wherever…but not every time we go out, of course!
    We can prepare by thoughtful reading, prayer, life experience, deepening our own experience of God – otherwise, it is completely over to God.

    • Marion, I like the description “Ministry of Encounter”, you described it so well. I don’t carry my Bible around intent on bopping people over the head whilst exclaiming “Be saved!”, but when people confide their worries, problems, etc., I’ll offer to pray for them later in the day – “when I get to my beads”. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to pray on the spot with that woman of the bench encounter, so when she initiated prayer it was particularly surprising to me. Neither my daughter (adult) nor I realized at the start of the visit how bedraggled she felt. The Holy Spirit proved, once again, that He is capable of working through us even without our full awareness or participation if we are generally open to the stirrings.
      As Pope Francis said “Proselytizing is solemn silliness” – that bench encounter was full of fun and laughter, sharing, mutual interest, nothing intrusive. My daughter and I came away feeling we had experienced/received something very special, the other woman must have felt the same way (witness the parting hugs). As you say, it is completely over to God.

      • Yours is an evolved encounter. The best kind. That’s where God sends exactly whom he needs at that exact moment and we don’t realize til the event is over that he was right there. Awesome.

  2. Something odd happened yesterday – I was out for an afternoon walk with my daughter who is home recovering from a major surgery. We walk a short distance, sit on a bench, walk a bit more, and so on. As we were headed for a bench a woman who was walking towards us stopped and said “Oh, just my luck, I was going to sit there, no matter…” As she was about to walk past us, my daughter invited her to join us as the bench was long enough for the three of us. The woman chatted amicably, turned out she’d had a very rough day, one of many of late as her life had been in some state of chaos and change. She spoke of discouragement, the need to find meaning in life, surely there was a purpose for each and every one of us? She said there had been times when she’d been on the verge of giving up hope. The conversation went back and forth, the telling of the surgery, comments on the beautiful autumn afternoon. At the end of this visit, she asked if she could pray with us before she resumed her walk, as she felt uplifted and encouraged. I was a little surprised as spontaneous prayer with a stranger isn’t something I’ve experienced before, but no matter, she began, and the prayer was one of thanksgiving, hope for the future, healing for my daughter and for all areas of life. Hugs all ’round she left to continue her walk, as we did ours. Was this proselytizing? It was an opportunity to put faith into action, encouraging another human being, assuring her of God’s love for her, and I believe this is what Pope Francis is talking about. We can spout scripture all we want, knock on doors, hand out leaflets, but when the occasion arises, we are called by God to act. If my daughter and I made a difference in that stranger’s day yesterday, it wasn’t of our planning, it was too spontaneous, too Godincidental.

    • Jean, thanks so much for sharing this experience with us. The Holy Spirit was surely working in you and your daughter as you gave love and mercy to this woman in need. That’s service – it is what we are called to do. It’s what Pope Francis continually models and inspires us to do.
      I have a very negative reaction to proselytizing as it seems inherently arrogant and disrespectful of others’ journey toward God or Source. Acting with love is much more effective and acceptable to people of all belief systems. Actions speak louder than words.

      • I have to agree with you wholeheartedly on the negative reaction to proselytizing, as I feel the same way. Young men out on mission with leaflets on that same park path, bent on converting me to their own denomination turns me right off. I understand what Pope Francis wants of us, and I believe most Christians do, too, and we don’t have to look very far for for an opportunity to serve.

      • Yes I wouldn’t let a member of our church come to the door and preach either. It does however remind me of a sweet little old lady who went up and down the streets daily with her little old older husband. She would smile and say, “Do you read your Bible?” Finally when she approached me at a bus bench I reminded her that it isn’t really safe to talk to strangers as people aren’t always nice.”
        “But — ,” she said hesitantly, “you’re nice. Aren’t you?”
        “Yes,” I replied to her relief. But you don’t know that.”
        “Well,” her hubby piped up as he stuck out his 90-something year old chest, “that’s sort of why I come along.”
        Bless their hearts.


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