ROME – A persistent line of criticism heading into next month’s Synod of Bishops on the Amazon, generally coming from more conservative and traditional quarters of Catholicism, is that the whole exercise is a distraction from the Church’s core mission of evangelization, meaning bringing souls to Christ.
That, for instance, was the gist of a complaint by German Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, who’s pointedly asked, “What do ecology, economy, and politics have to do with the mandate and mission of the Church?”
What’s sometimes overlooked is that for Pope Francis, such subjects do not constitute an alternative to evangelization. As he sees it, they are evangelization, or at least an essential prolegomenon to it. When Christians stand with people as they face such struggles, the pope believes, they’ll eventually wonder why we’re doing it, and that’s when the conversation begins.
One of the clearest expressions of Francis’s vision came in a Saturday audience with members of the Community of Abraham, a charismatic group founded in northeastern Italy in 1989 and today present in Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine and Hungary as well. The audience was to mark the community’s 30th anniversary.
“The meekness that the Holy Spirit gives us makes us witnesses, because the path of the Holy Spirit isn’t proselytism, it’s witness,” Francis told the group. “If someone comes to proselytize, that’s not the Church, it’s a sect.”
It’s interesting that admonition came in a session with charismatics, who, over the years, have occasionally been accused of practicing a fairly heavy-handed form of proselytism themselves, and of sometimes betraying a sectarian mentality. Francis has come to admire much about the charismatic movement, calling it a “a current of grace” for our time, but clearly also wants to make sure it doesn’t relapse.
“The Church the Lord wants, as Pope Benedict XVI said, doesn’t grow through proselytism but by attraction, meaning the attractiveness of witness, and behind that witness there’s always the Holy Spirit,” Francis said.
“This is the methodology we’re called to live in the work of evangelization,” he said. “We need to walk together with the people of our time, listen to what they carry in their hearts, in order to offer them the most credible response with our lives, that is, the life that comes from God through Jesus Christ.”
“It always does me good,” Francis said, “to listen to that advice St. Francis of Assisi gave his brothers when they started to evangelize: ‘Go, preach the Gospel, and, if necessary, use words.’”
“Start with witness, and then they’ll ask you: ‘Why are you like this?’ That’s the moment to speak,” Francis said.
One certainly can’t accuse Francis of not walking his own talk. Consider his activity over just the last few days, almost none of which would constitute what’s traditionally been regarded as “evangelization” in the strict sense:
- Last Wednesday, which marked the 18th anniversary of 9/11, Francis received a group called the “Higher Community of Human Fraternity,” founded in the wake of the “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together” signed by the pope and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb of Al-Azhar during Francis’s trip to Abu Dhabi in February. Calling the group “artisans of fraternity”, the pontiff encouraged members, consisting for now of representatives from the Vatican and Muslim leaders, to work for implementation of the document’s aims.
- The next day, Francis announced an invitation to world leaders and young people to come together at the Vatican on May 14, 2020, for an event called “Reinventing the Global Educational Alliance.” The aim is to arouse “an awareness and a wave of responsibility for the common good of humanity, starting from the young and reaching all people of good will,” starting with the ecological vision outlined in Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’, which will be marking its 5th anniversary.
- On Friday, the Vatican announced dates for Francis’s trip to Thailand and Japan. He’ll visit the two Asian nations Nov. 19-26, on a voyage likely to showcase his anti-war message with stops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as his inter-religious outreach in encounters with leaders of major Asian traditions such as Buddhism, Shintoism and Confucianism.
- On Sunday, Francis dispatched a message to a meeting organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio devoted to inter-faith harmony and the quest for peace. The meetings began in 1987 as an outgrowth of an inter-faith summit hosted by St. John Paul II in Assisi the year before. Francis told the meeting, “We must all unite, I would say with one heart and one voice, to shout that ‘peace has no borders.’” The caution about borders had another echo in the Madrid assembly when Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke about the world’s estimated 71 million refugees and internally displaced persons as a “test, a barometer for our societies,” and complimented Sant’Egidio for its efforts to promote humanitarian corridors to ensure safe passage out of danger zones.
That, by the way, is pretty much a typical stretch for this whirlwind of a pope, and it’s only a partial rundown of his activity. (Yesterday Francis also met with representatives of the Italian railway system, leading some locals to quip that if he really wants to work a miracle, he could get the trains to run on time.)
One could well ask what all this has to do with promoting the life of faith, meaning getting people to go to Mass, confess their sins, pray the rosary, and do all the other things the Church has traditionally defined as hallmarks of personal sanctity.
It’s a debatable point, of course, but it seems abundantly clear how Francis himself would answer the question of what it’s got to do with the faith: “Pretty much everything.”