On the list of what Italian writer Vittorio Messori calls the “perplexities” about Pope Francis, meaning things that are sometimes hard to figure out, one item probably has to be the pontiff’s attitude towards missionary efforts.
On one hand, Francis talks constantly about the imperative of evangelization and spreading the faith. During his recent trip to Sri Lanka, for instance, he called upon Asian Catholics to ramp up their “missionary zeal.”
On the other, Francis rarely misses an opportunity to condemn what he calls “proselytism.” He famously called it “solemn nonsense” in a 2013 interview, and during an ecumenical vespers service Sunday evening at the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls he called on all Christian churches to reject “proselytism and competition in all their forms.”
So, which is it? Are Catholics supposed to be trying to convert people and bring them into the Church, or not?
To begin, Francis’ rhetoric on proselytism is absolutely nothing new. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI made the same distinction between proposing the faith — understood to be a good thing, indeed obligatory — and imposing it through aggressive or coercive techniques, which they also saw as wrong.
Yet given Francis’ penchant for taking a traditional position and giving it new currency through clever turns of phrase — witness his “breed like rabbits” sound-bite in defense of Natural Family Planning, for instance — Catholics who are engaged in missionary endeavors may be forgiven a bit of confusion about what exactly this pope wants them to do.
Here’s something to think about: When Pope Francis blasts “proselytism,” he really may not be talking about, or to, Catholics at all.
In that regard, it’s important to remember that Francis’ primary frame of reference is as a Latin American pastor. There’s no part of the world that’s seen more organized and aggressive campaigns of proselytism in the last quarter-century or so, and for the most part Catholics have not been the architects of those efforts.
Instead, they’ve been more akin to the targets.
Arguably the most dramatic religious realignment of the late 20th century was the transition in Latin America from an almost homogeneously Catholic continent to a flourishing spiritual free market, with Evangelicals and Pentecostals posting massive gains.
Belgian Passionist the Rev. Franz Damen, a veteran staffer for the Bolivian bishops, concluded in the 1990s that more people had converted from Catholicism to Protestantism in Latin America in the last quarter of the 20th century than in Europe during the entire century after the Protestant Reformation.
Almost all of that Protestant growth was among a bewildering variety of Evangelical and Pentecostal movements, some of them foreign imports, but many home-grown.
In a similar vein, a study commissioned in the late 1990s by CELAM, the Conference of Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, found that a staggering total of 8,000 Latin Americans had deserted the Catholic Church every day for the entire span of the decade.
While some of that growth has cooled down, Latinobarometro, a Chile-based firm that conducts polls in 17 Latin American countries, nonetheless recently projected that less than 50 percent of Latin Americans will identify themselves as Catholic by the year 2025.
To be sure, Francis would be the first to concede that proselytism by Evangelicals and Pentecostals isn’t the only factor responsible for those Catholic losses.
The future pope was the lead author of a 2007 document by the Latin American bishops calling for a “grand continental mission,” in which the bishops conceded that taking the continent’s Catholic identity for granted often meant that the Church hadn’t worked hard enough to take good pastoral care of its people.
Yet Francis and other Latin America prelates also have seen more than their fair share of what nasty proselytism directed at the Catholic Church looks like.
In the late 1990s, for instance, Bishop Sergio von Helde of Brazil’s Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, one of the largest Pentecostal denominations in Latin America, went on TV on the feast of Our Lady of Aparecida, the national patroness of Brazil, and kicked an icon of the Madonna, declaring, “This is no saint!”
Von Helde thundered about the idol-worshipping corruption of the Catholic Church, which is a staple of some Evangelical and Pentecostal rhetoric. His performance caused a backlash among many Brazilian Catholics, and von Helde was eventually convicted under Brazilian law of “public disrespect for a religious symbol.”
In Ecuador last year, a pastor named Eduardo Mora of the “Almighty International Pentecostal Evangelical Church” was likewise sentenced to a year in prison for organizing anti-Catholic marches in which images of the saints and the Virgin Mary were smashed and burned, while preaching fiery sermons against Catholicism as a blasphemy against the Bible.
While von Helde and Mora may represent extreme positions, and there is a growing dialogue among Catholics, Evangelicals, and Pentecostals in some parts of Latin America, there’s no denying that much of the door-to-door missionary effort by Protestant challengers across the continent sometimes has an anti-Catholic edge.
I recall being in Peru a decade ago and asking a local priest how the Catholic/Pentecostal relationship stood there. He walked me around a corner to a Pentecostal mega-church where a massive electronic billboard, worthy of Times Square, flashed this message: “Come hear Sunday’s Sermon on the Seven Sins of the Catholic Church.”
“That,” the Peruvian priest said, “pretty much sums up our relationship.”
None of this is to say that Francis wants to fight fire with fire, launching some sort of anti-Evangelical/Pentecostal crusade. On the contrary, in Buenos Aires he once famously allowed Protestant ministers to give him a blessing during a joint prayer service, and as pope he’s reached out in multiple ways, including making a special trip in Italy to visit a Pentecostal church run by an old friend from Argentina.
While there, he delivered an historic apology.
“Catholics were among those who persecuted and denounced the Pentecostals, almost as if they were crazy,” Francis said. “I am the shepherd of the Catholics, and I ask you to forgive my Catholic brothers and sisters who did not understand and were tempted by the devil.”
Still, Francis also knows what the ugly face of proselytism looks like from his own experience.
This background may help reduce anxiety levels among Catholics involved in what’s called the “New Evangelization,” meaning an effort to relight the Church’s missionary fires, about where Francis stands.
The bottom line is that when this Latin American pope rips into “proselytism” and “competition,” Catholic evangelists in the United States or Europe probably aren’t at the top of his mind.