The Holy Father, Pope Francis, attracted a mixed reaction when he expressed his dislike of proselytization to a conference of Jesuits during his visit to Mozambique in early September. He told them: “Today I felt a certain bitterness after a meeting with young people. A woman approached me with a young man and a young woman. I was told they were part of a slightly fundamentalist movement. She said to me in perfect Spanish: ‘Your Holiness. I am from South Africa. This boy was a Hindu and converted to Catholicism. This girl was Anglican and converted to Catholicism.’ But she told me in a triumphant way, as though she was showing off a hunting trophy. I felt uncomfortable and said to her, ‘Madam, evangelisation yes, proselytism no.’”
The Pope clearly believed that these two young people had been coerced in some way and that, as a consequence, their freedom had been compromised. Quoting from an address given by Emeritus Pope Benedict in Brazil during his visit in 2007 he reminded his listeners that the Church does not engage in proselytism.
“Instead” said Pope Benedict, “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 that the Church fulfils her mission to the extent that, in union with Christ, she accomplishes every one of her works in spiritual and practical imitation of her Lord.”
It is impossible to know whether the South African lady who presented the two new converts to the Pope was being triumphal or whether she was simply overjoyed that they had found the path that led them to reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church. Yet it raises the important issue of whether conversions should be a cause for celebration. In so many countries that is the case, because it is seen as a homecoming. The convert has finally found his or her true spiritual home and the community of faith sees it as a reason to rejoice. Here in the country, it appears to be less the case. So many converts have spoken of being left to their own devices soon after their reception and of then struggling to find a proper role and sense of identity within the Catholic parish which now their spiritual home.
The St Barnabas Society (and the Converts Aid Society before it) has never engaged in “proselytism” in the sense of actively seeking out and trying to coerce would-be converts. Yet at the same time it has always recognised the importance of supporting and encouraging them, not only on the conversion journey itself, but also after their reception into the Catholic Church as they try to adapt and settle. When someone moves into a new home it is hugely comforting and reassuring when their new neighbours knock on the door with a bottle of wine or some food as a sign of welcome. It says “We’re glad to have you here!” In a similar way we see it as our task to say to those who have entered the Catholic Church, sometimes at huge personal cost, “We’re glad to have you here. Welcome home!” Without wishing to stretch a point I am happy to call that “evangelisation.”