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What is the difference between proselytizing and evangelization?

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Iakov Filimonov I Shutterstock

Edifa - published on 02/09/21

One of them relies on God.

In 1599, the Propaganda Fide Congregation was founded in Rome to “spread” the Christian faith throughout the world, especially in the newly discovered America. (This is how the word “propaganda” began, which now more generally means any attempt to spread ideologies and political views.)

The word “proselyte” was used in Greece in earlier times to designate a foreigner who came to settle in the country, and among the Jews it referred to a pagan who, after taking an interest in the religion of Israel, ended up adopting all its observances — including circumcision.

Subsequently, the word “proselytizing” was used to describe the zeal to convert others to one’s ideas and especially to one’s religious belief. Today, the word is often used in a pejorative sense to stigmatize the attitude of those who put in place a whole strategy to convert as many people as possible — willingly or unwillingly — to their beliefs.

But isn’t that what Christians who are committed to the new evangelization are doing today? They, too, are trying to develop a real strategy to “reach” as many people as possible: they don’t hesitate to go door-to-door, to preach the Gospel in the streets on market days, to hand out leaflets at the exit of subway entrances to invite passers-by to a religious event. They use all modern communication techniques to reach those who are both close and  far away. So what is the difference between proselytizing and evangelization?

The purpose of evangelization is not to persuade someone of the excellence of a doctrine

The essential difference comes from the fact that evangelization does not aim primarily to persuade someone of the excellence of a doctrine, but to have them meet the living Christ, present in the midst of his Church. We also like to help them discover aspects of the Good News that He has come to reveal to us, and why we believe that He is truly our Savior and Lord.

The second difference is that Christians are convinced that only God can convert hearts and that their conduct must not contradict the Gospel they proclaim. The proselytizing attitude, in its negative sense, believes only in its efforts, only seeks to convince, without leaving room for God, even pushing us away from Him. How could anyone believe in the word of a Christian who is irritated by the small number of people he has managed to reach?

One winter evening, St. Francis de Sales went to preach in a parish in Chablais (south of Lake Geneva). In the congregation sat only one, somewhat older, person. St. Francis gave his sermon as if a whole crowd were there: he liked to say that one soul was a field vast enough to sow the word of God! It is so true that the success of an apostle cannot be measured by the number of people evangelized.

Abbot Pierre Descouvemont


Bishop Robert Barron

Read more:
Bishop Barron offers free online course on evangelization

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