You Want to Convert Me?

October 2, 2013 by  
Filed under Conversion, Culture, Faith

Kevin LowryI’m a grateful convert, but no one converted me.

You may have read about Pope Francis and his recent dialogue with atheist Eugenio Scalfari, founder of La Repubblica. In the published article, the Pope and Mr. Scalfari exchanged comments about whether they would attempt to convert one another. The Pope’s comments on the matter were decisive:

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. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.

The Pope is unambiguous in his condemnation of proselytism (consistent with his predecessor), but at the same time doesn’t shy away for a moment from a constructive dialogue using a religious context and understanding. He does a masterful job of engaging an atheist friend in a way that is intrinsically evangelical. The key difference between the two approaches is simple – proselytism seeks to manipulate (think smarmy salesperson only interested in you as the potential source of a commission) while evangelization seeks to invite (think best friend in school offering to split his PB&J sandwich when you left your lunch at home). As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s the difference between having the truth, and the Truth having us.

Proselytism and evangelization are often confused, unfortunately, by people on both sides of the discussion. The Pope, thankfully, is not confused in the least. Consider his comments in the light of the Catechism (856):

The missionary task implies a respectful dialogue with those who do not yet accept the Gospel. Believers can profit from this dialogue by learning to appreciate better “those elements of truth and grace which are found among peoples, and which are, as it were, a secret presence of God.” They proclaim the Good News to those who do not know it, in order to consolidate, complete, and raise up the truth and the goodness that God has distributed among men and nations, and to purify them from error and evil “for the glory of God, the confusion of the demon, and the happiness of man.”

This brings us back to the beginning. If we’re honest with ourselves, and sufficiently humble, we can see that “converting someone” is above our pay grade. Certainly, we can engage in respectful dialogue, spirited debates, arguments even. But without love, we’re more of an impediment than a catalyst. 1 Corinthians 13, anyone?

My own conversion process took almost ten years, from the time I first went to Franciscan University as a 16 year old freshman (double majoring in beer and billiards, but that’s another story) to Easter Vigil over 20 years ago when I was baptized and blown away by a sacramental grand slam. It wasn’t the result of a person, it was the result of many people – but above all, the result of grace. Was it ever the result of proselytism? No.

Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit. Our task is to love, to point towards the truth, and to express gratitude for God’s gift of the Church. I’m reminded of a line from a good friend of mine, Dan Burke. In his recent speech at my Legatus chapter entitled The Apologetics of Extraordinary Love, Dan emphasized:

Love is the bridge over which truth can pass.

That’s the way conversion works. Speaking the truth is great, but we need to do so in love, honoring the God-given freewill of our fellow man and seeking to evangelize, not proselytize. In the words of Jesus in John 13:34-35:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

Even our Lord himself allowed people to walk away in John chapter 6 after he began talking about eating flesh and drinking blood. People thought he was nuts. But he honored their decisions, and let them leave. Did he love them, and desire their conversion? Of course! But confronted with the question “Do you want to convert me?” I wonder what Jesus might have said…

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14 Responses to “You Want to Convert Me?”
  1. Charles G says:

    Agreed, but when 98% of the people that readers of that quote, including regular Catholics and non-Catholics, will simply assume the Pope has given up on evangelizing and will not hear the explanation that you give, then I think that is a real problem. Especially when combined with the other quote that on its face seems to endorse moral relativism (it’s good to pursue one’s own vision of good and evil), it behoves the Pope to make clear what he is saying, or else stop speaking so much without careful consideration to explain what his ambiguous statements mean. After all, he speaks with magisterial authority and should be careful.

    • Kevin says:

      Thanks for your comment, Charles. I thought it was interesting that the Pope used this encounter to preach the gospel while at the same time remaining deeply respectful. Perhaps this is a manifestation of the New Evangelization?

  2. Chris L. says:

    Proselytize: to try to persuade people to join a religion, cause, or group.

    I have yet to hear a logical argument for Catholic’s not to do this.

    I do need to point out several flaws in your arguments against proselytizing.

    1. Simply because His Holiness Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI agreed with bishop of Rome Bergolio does not make the Bergolio any less wrong.

    2. Several of your above statements seem to be based on the assumption that to proselytize is to lack in love. When we speak with love, it is evangelizing. When we speak just the Truth, it is proselytizing.

    The second flaw is directly linked into what I find to be the major problem with modern Catholic evangelizing. We have been taught by a relativistic culture that it is wrong to say that another person’s religion or beliefs are wrong and your’s are right. This attitude has largely infected the Church and can only me incredibly offensive to God who is Truth. Proselytizing is inseperable from evangelization and that is why modern efforts at evangelization are failing. That’s why the Church no longer impacts culture. All the Church does today is dialogue instead of convert.

    • Kevin says:

      Chris, I appreciate your input, and understand the concerns various individuals have voiced over this interview. However, I think caution is in order when we start saying the Pope is wrong because we disagree with him. My basic concern with proselytizing is that in practice there is often an underlying arrogance or attempt to manipulate others. That’s not consistent with the gospel. Besides that, I still believe conversion is above our pay grade – of course we can encourage it, desire it for others, plant seeds, and so forth. But at the end of the day, it’s the Holy Spirit that touches hearts in ways we can’t fathom.

      Let’s not forget to pray for our own continued conversions, and for one another. Thanks for visiting.

  3. Tom Perna says:

    Kevin – an excellent blog post. Thank you for writing it. I will make sure you return to it again. Thanks for the link to Pope Emeritus B16 too.

  4. John Radice says:

    I’m a very recent convert from a long (and fulfilling) Pentecostal / charismatic background. I agree with Chris L. and Charles G. What Pope Francis said is very open to misinterpretation. Perhaps there are pitfalls in the way words are used and translated, but proselytism is to my understanding good, essential and a vital part of evangelism. It is going on from ‘declaring the Good News’, to ‘making disciples of men’. Obviously, we must do everything in love.

    • Kevin says:

      John, thanks for visiting, and I share your background with Pentecostal and charismatic traditions. I am deeply sympathetic to Pope Francis and his words and actions being subject to misinterpretation, because I feel quite misunderstood in this post. Let’s face it, we all view the world through unique lenses. I suspect if you knew me, you would understand that I’m a hugely enthusiastic Catholic, just grateful to be here. I’m not knocking the great commission at all, rather emphasizing the importance of humility in our approach, and wondering aloud if the Pope is being more Christlike than we give him credit for. I appreciate your comment, thank you.

  5. Frances says:

    Thanks, Kevin, for a beautifully written and considered piece. Seems very much in the spirit of St Francis of Assisi “Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words”

  6. Don says:

    I just saw a previous episode of the Journey home with Marcus Grodi and you as his guest. I watch EWTN often and especially Marcus’ show. I have been watching faithfully for more than 10 years. I applaud the many guests like yourself who have found a greater faith by coming into the Roman Catholic church. I’m currently counseling a person who has decided, and is now a Roman Catholic. I consider myself catholic and Christian; i.e a follower of Jesus Christ and His teachings. I currently belong to a denomination. Your story was that you were a Presbyterian who converted to Roman Catholicism. These are both Christian denominations. I don’t understand why you, and almost everyone who becomes catholic from another christian church considers themselves a convert.If you were from another religion; yes that is conversion. But
    to go from Christian to another type of Christian in my mind is NOT conversion. My belief is that the true church is not made of brick and mortar, or a certain name on the sign in the front. The true church is made up of those who believe In God, Son, & Holy Spirit; and has a real and direct personal relationship with the trinity. That is what I read in the scriptures, and what I hear from my Lord a savior. Just read John 10 among others to see that there is more than just one sheep fold; yet there is one Body as Paul talks about. I am thankful to the Lord, Kevin for your testimony/journey; for how God has anointed you to serve Him.

    • Kevin says:

      Don, thanks for your comments. The word “convert” is frequently used generically as you suggest. In my case, it’s a bit different since I was baptized when I entered the Church – hence, the term is more accurate.

      Our understandings of the Church differs a bit (rather too large an issue to tackle in a combox), but I appreciate you watching The Journey Home faithfully and engaging in this brief dialogue. May the Lord continue to bless you.

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