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…