94. Proselytisation or evangelisation?
94. Proselytisation or evangelisation?

94. Proselytisation or evangelisation?

Last week’s post contextualised the data that Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. The post came up last week due to the comparative analysis of the Bible and the Qur’an. Today’s post begins the discussion on the spread of the two religions from the Middle East to the entire world. Evangelisation and proselytisation are words used interchangeably in discussing conversion to another religion or denomination. But are they exact synonyms?

The term ‘evangelisation’ derives from the Latin evangelium, from Greek εὐανγέλιον (transliterated as euangelion), which means “good news”. Hence, evangelising means preaching the gospel to someone. The verb ‘proselytise’ comes from the Greek word προσήλυτος proselytos (prefix προσ- (pros-, “toward”) and the verb ἔρχομαι (érchomai, “I come”), which means ‘newcomer’. The term ‘proselyte’ appears in the New Testament, where it signifies a convert to Judaism (Matt 23:15; Acts 2:11). Hence, ‘proselytise’ is to convert someone to a religion.

Historically, the two terms have been used interchangeably in winning new converts to the Christian faith. However, with time, proselytisation began to take on a negative connotation. Consider Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary’s current meaning for the two verbs. ‘Evangelise’ is “to preach the gospel to” or “to convert to Christianity”. ‘Proselytise’ is “(a) to induce someone to convert to one’s faith (b) to recruit someone to join one’s party, institution, or cause”.

Therefore, evangelisation means preaching the gospel and allowing the person to choose conversion. On the other hand, proselytisation entails adopting all possible legal and illegal and moral and immoral strategies to convert one, willingly or unwillingly, to another faith.

The evangelisation model was Jesus’ preferred mode of propagating the faith, and he was explicit about it.

When Jesus sent the twelve apostles and charged them not to visit any foreign territory, he said, 

“Whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart. As you enter the house, salute it. And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town” (Matt 10:11-14). When Jesus sent the seventy-two to visit the other towns and villages, he said: “whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart. And wherever they do not receive you, when you leave that town shake off the dust from your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 10::4-5).

The evangelisation model corresponds to the Parable of the Sower, where the listener’s heart is likened to a path, rocky ground, thorns, and good soil (Matt 13:1-9). More importantly, evangelisation confirms the free will that God gives us and from which he wants all our actions to emerge. Everything about our salvation mystery is about exercising our free will. Mary freely chose to bear the Son of God. Jesus freely chose to complete his mission, even when he was afraid.

The early disciples preached the gospel, and people willingly and voluntarily converted. On Pentecost day, about 3,000 people converted after listening to Peter’s speech (Acts 2:40). The Church later deviated from this model and forcefully converted people (I will discuss this in subsequent posts). Hence, recent popes have re-emphasised evangelisation as the right model for propagating the faith. 

The Second Vatican Council Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis humanae, states:

In spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonourable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered an abuse of one’s right and a violation of the right of others.”[1]

Pope Benedict XVI, during his apostolic visit to Latin America, said: “The Church does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by “attraction”: just as Christ “draws all to himself” by the power of his love.”[2]

Pope Francis has been more emphatic in rejecting proselytisation. In a homily on 8 May 2013, he reflected on the propagation of the faith using St. Paul’s preaching at the Areopagus (Acts 17: 15, 22 – 18: 1). He argued that right from the beginning, Paul did not affirm that the people were already condemned to hell. Instead, he sought to dialogue with them to build a bridge to bring the gospel to their hearts. Pope Francis reiterated the words of Pope Benedict that the Church “does not grow by proselytism… but grows by attraction, by witnessing, by preaching.”[3] Based on the homily, Chris Sparks summarises the difference between evangelisation and proselytisation.

“Evangelisation goes out to others and listens to them; proselytisation excludes others and simply talks at them. Evangelisation is a proclamation of Jesus, allowing people to have an encounter with Christ; proselytisation is proud and convinced that it has all the answers. Evangelisation trusts in the Holy Spirit as the true evangelist, as the one who makes converts; proselytisation believes it’s up to us, to the force of our arguments and persuasive power”[4].

On several occasions, Pope Francis has argued that proselytism undermines ecumenism. Speaking about the Orthodox in his address on his apostolic visit to Georgia and Azerbaijan, Pope Francis said,

Never fight! Let the theologians study the abstract realities of theology. But what should I do with a friend, neighbour, an Orthodox person? Be open, be a friend. “But should I make efforts to convert him or her?” There is a very grave sin against ecumenism: proselytism. We should never proselytise the Orthodox! They are our brothers and sisters, disciples of Jesus Christ. Due to historical circumstances which are so complex we are where we are today. Both they and we believe in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and we believe in the Holy Mother of God. “And so what should I do?” Do not condemn. No. I must not do this. Friendship, walking together, praying for one another. Praying and carrying out works of charity together, when this is possible. This is ecumenism. But never condemn a brother or a sister, never refrain from greeting an Orthodox brother or sister because they are Orthodox”[5].

In an interview on the occasion of his visit to Sweden in October 2016, Pope Francis affirmed that “to proselytise in the ecclesial field is a sin…Proselytism is a sinful attitude”[6]. In an interview with Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian Bishops’ Conference on themes of Jubilee, Ecumenism, and the Second Vatican Council, the Pope reiterated that “Proselytism among Christians, therefore, in itself, is a grave sin,”. When the journalist asked why, the Pope replied: “Because it contradicts the very dynamic of how to become and to remain Christian. The Church is not a football team that goes around seeking fans.”[7]

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


[1] Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom: Dignitatis Humanae, 4, in AAS, LVIII (1966), 929-946.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily: Holy Mass for the Inauguration of the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, 13 May 2007, available at URL: https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20070513_conference-brazil.html

[3] Pope Francis, Homily: Jesus excludes no one, 8 May 2013, in L’Osservatore Romano, ed. quotidiana, Anno CLIII, 9 May 2013. Available at: https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/cotidie/2013/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20130508_non-escludere.html

[4] Chris Sparks, Evangelization Vs. Proselytization, 27 February 2017, available at URL:  https://www.thedivinemercy.org/articles/evangelization-vs-proselytization

[5] Pope Francis, Address of the Holy Father on his apostolic journey to Georgia and Azerbaijan, 1 October 2016, available at URL:  https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2016/october/documents/papa-francesco_20161001_georgia-sacerdoti-religiosi.html

[6] Ulf Jonsson, “Intervista a Papa Francesco in occasione del viaggio apostolico in Svezia”, in La Civiiltà Cattolica, 28 October 2016, 6.

[7] Stefania Falasca, “L’intervista ad Avvenire. Papa Francesco: non svendo la dottrina, seguo il Concilio” in Avvenire, 17 novembre 2016, available at URL: https://www.avvenire.it/papa/pagine/giubileo-ecumenismo-concilio-intervista-esclusiva-del-papa-ad-avvenire  

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