The difference between proselytism and conversion

Written by Father Joseph Wallace
Last month the Catholic–Jewish Commission of the Diocese of Camden and the Jewish Community Relations Council sponsored a most interesting program at Congregation Sons of Israel, Cherry Hill, titled “The Status of Jewish-Catholic Relations in Our Time.” It featured the esteemed Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Rabbi Arie Folger, who shared his two experiences in the past year meeting with both Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict. His meeting with Pope Francis included a presentation of a declaration from the leading Orthodox rabbinic organizations, titled “From Jerusalem to Rome, Reflections of 50 years of Nostra Aetate.”

Father Joseph Wallace is pictured with, left, Rabbi Arie Folger, Chief Rabbi of Vienna, and Rabbi Ephraim Epstein of Congregation Sons of Israel.

Rabbi Folger also spoke about a hastily scheduled meeting between him and Pope Emeritus Benedict concerning a text penned by the emeritus pope, titled, “Grace and Vocation Without Remorse.” The Orthodox rabbis had questions for emeritus Pope Benedict surrounding the ever neuralgic topic of conversion and proselytism of the Jews. The meeting helped to smooth ruffled concerns over the issue and Rabbi Folger stated after the meeting “so much blood has been shed as a result of Christian animosity towards Jews, it should be clear to Benedict that there can be no positive approach to proselytizing Jews.”

The theme of proselytism was again raised last week in Pope Francis’ remarks while on his visit to Morocco. During his homily in the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Rabat, Morocco, the pope said, “What are Christians like, in these lands? To what can we compare them? They are like a little yeast that Mother Church wants to mix in with a great quantity of flour until all of it is leavened.” He added, “For Jesus did not choose us and send us forth to become more numerous! He called us to a mission. 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 his condemnation of proselytism he quoted emeritus Pope Benedict, “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.’”

At the heart of this controversy with non-Christians, as well as non-Catholic Christians, is the difference between proselytism and conversion. One of my professors in seminary, now bishop of Paterson, N.J., Bishop Arthur Serratelli, in a recent article provides us with an insight into this recurrent stumbling block in both ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. He posits that the meaning of the word proselytism has changed over time. He explains that “originally, the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament passed the word ‘proselyte’ into modern languages with a neutral meaning. It simply meant a convert, someone who changed his or her opinion or religion. And, proselytism meant the attempt to persuade someone to make such a change. But, today proselytism is almost universally seen as a sinister activity when it comes to religious beliefs.”

Bishop Serratelli explains that the use of coercion of any kind today described as proselytism is always wrong and to be condemned. However, the nature of the true Christian is to proclaim to the world our faith that Jesus Christ is the one and only Savior of the world. To bring this point home, Bishop Serratelli also quotes Pope Emeritus Benedict, who 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, culminating in the sacrifice of the cross, so the Church fulfills her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of the love of her Lord.”

In conclusion, Bishop Serratelli sums up our duty as baptized Christians to proclaim to the world our salvation in Christ respectfully. He says, “Jesus is the one redeemer of all. His gospel is the word that saves. His word is the truth that sets us free. ‘No believer, no institution of the church can avoid the supreme duty to proclaim Christ to all peoples’ (Pope Saint John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 3.50).

“And when this is done in love, listening to the other, respecting the other, and offering the witness of a faith-filled life, this is not proselytism, but true evangelization.”

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.