Pope Francis on Sunday called on the small number of faithful in Morocco not to proselytize Muslims in the country, recalling words of Benedict XVI that the Church grows not through proselytism but attraction.

The comments, made during a meeting with priests and religious in Rabat’s cathedral, provoked a fair amount of strong reaction on social media.

“It’s the New Non-Evangelization,” said one observer in a tweet, while another remarked that he had read the Pope’s words as ignoring Jesus’ Great Commission: to make disciples of and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

One priest told the Register that he felt it was just a continuation of “constant ambiguity” from the Pope, and wondered “how will this go down with the Persecuted Church?”

But when read in context, Francis’ words were not as controversial as many media reports seemed to imply.

He did not, for instance, urge the faithful to refrain from converting others to boost their small numbers, as some reports suggested.

The relevant paragraph of the address reads:

Our mission as baptized 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 (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 1). In other words, the paths of mission are not those of proselytism. Please, these paths are not those of proselytism! Let us recall Benedict XVI: “the Church grows not through proselytism, but through attraction, through witness.” [a 2007 homily] The paths of mission are not those of proselytism, which leads always to a cul-de-sac, but of our way of being with Jesus and with others.

In the preceding, opening paragraph, the Holy Father recalled that Jesus “called us to a mission” and that he “put us in the midst of society like a handful of yeast: the yeast of the Beatitudes and the fraternal love by which, as Christians, we can all join in making present his kingdom.”

“In this context,” he continued, “I recall the counsel of Saint Francis to his brothers as he sent them out: “Go out and preach the Gospel: and if necessary, also with words.”

The Pope noticeably did not use either the word evangelization or conversion in the address, but further questions surround the definition of the word “proselytism.”

The English Oxford dictionary defines a proselyte as “a person who has converted from one opinion, religion, or party to another,” but many take proselytism to mean forced or pressured conversion. So what does the Pope mean by it?

 

Pope Francis’ Definition

Massimo Borghesi, author of The Mind of Pope Francis: Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey, told the Register April 1 that for Francis, proselytism “indicates zeal lacking mercy, animated more by the will to power than by a desire to communicate Christ.”

He added that “on the contrary, a testimony of true humanity, of love for one's neighbor, like that of Mother Teresa in Hindu India, is capable of attracting hearts, of inducing respect towards Christians, to men of Christ.”

Borghesi also recalled the martyrs of Tibhirine, monks killed by Islamists in Algeria in 1996, who “produced affection and admiration for the Christian faith in so many Muslims” — an example, he added, also given by Blessed Charles de Foucauld, the 20th century French missionary also assassinated in Algeria but in 1916 and beatified by Benedict XVI in 2005.

“Christianity in the first centuries communicated itself by attraction, also when the name of Christ could not be uttered,” he added. “Francis does nothing but recall a basic experience of the Church,” Borghesi said, and that those who think the Pope is espousing “bad theology” show they “haven’t understood anything.”

“None of the last popes, from John Paul II [see a 1987 declaration in which he rejects “any form of proselytism”] to Benedict XVI, ever said that you have to go to Islamic land to catechize Muslims,” he said. “It's not just about opportunistic reasons but also of respect. The same respect that is required of Catholics by the Orthodox Church who travel to countries traditionally linked to Orthodoxy.”

But would St. Francis agree with this approach? The saint visited the Sultan of Egypt Malek al-Kamil 800 years ago this year “to show him and his subjects the way of salvation and proclaim the truth of the Gospel message,” according to St. Bonaventure.

He went on to record that St. Francis preached the Gospel to the Sultan in such a way that al-Kamil was not offended, could see the love that flowed from the saint, and was astonished by his boldness.