In the former USSR under Communism, our long-suffering Russian Orthodox brethren were shown varying degrees of cynical tolerance by the state. The longer term aim of the Communist regime was to replace all religious faith with atheism. But the same regime also found it expedient to allow the Orthodox to conduct and attend religious worship, providing they did not attempt to ‘proselytize’.
In his teaching the Holy Father Pope Francis emphasizes the difference between proselytization and evangelization. ‘Proselytize’ has come to be associated with the idea of forcing others to convert. Such forcing would violate an individual’s conscience and contradicts the principle of religious liberty. By contrast, evangelization does not force or impose. It offers, it attracts, it serves, and it persuades, but never by force. Evangelization includes bearing witness to Christ and His Truth by the way we live, by the way we serve the common good, also through dialogue and by listening. Evangelization includes listening to the concerns, hopes, fears, etc. of those of other religions and none.
As part of our mandate to evangelize, ‘listening’ may well help us to communicate more effectively with non-believers, but of course it could never be a substitute for explicit Christian preaching, teaching, and catechizing. The Church has never said that ‘listening’ is to replace our preaching of the Gospel. Yet the admirable initiative of The New Evangelization seems to be advancing so sluggishly that one sometimes wonders if our commitment to that perennial mission has somehow been weakened along the way.
From the twentieth century we have inherited a debilitating crisis of faith within Christianity, a tragic weakening of Christian confidence in the Truth of our religion. For half a century now we have often been more inclined to accommodate and absorb non-Christian ways of thinking rather than wholeheartedly striving to convert and baptize such thinking. Instead of opening up to the modern world with a clear and confident faith, we have turned inwards on ourselves, often to the point of retreating into moral cowardice. It’s all too easy to fudge the real religious issues of the real world by cultivating a bland dialogue of ambiguity and circumlocution.
If Christ is the Son of God, and if Christianity is the fullness of God’s revelation to mankind, then we should be making every possible effort not only to listen, but also to speak, to proclaim, to refute, to persuade, and to convince; not only to maintain God’s flock, but also to increase it, never by force but always with zeal.
In that way we collaborate with the Holy Spirit’s work of converting souls to Christ. We would do well to take St.Paul as our example and guide – again.
Before we embrace the crucifix on Good Friday we should ask ourselves whose image we think we are venerating. A good man? A prophet? The Son of God? My Saviour?