When I first read what WYD coordinator, Lisbon auxiliary bishop Américo Aguilar, said to reporters in his July 6 interview, I had to think it was taken out of context. This is a man entrusted with helping to organize one of the most important Catholic events of the year, a churchman being elevated to the position of cardinal, coming out with the now-infamous response: “we don’t want to convert the young people to Christ or anything like that.” What Catholic leader would say that?
An answer presupposes a question, but in this case few commentators have provided us that, leaving us to wonder what Bishop Aguilar was responding to with these words.
It turns out that the questioner was a member of the secular press corps, asking the Bishop if non-Catholics could attend. I suppose the concern might have been: will non-Catholics feel welcome at WYD? Will they feel unduly pressured or harangued by Catholics anxious to promote their faith? Will they be accused of being in error or shunned as outsiders?
When asked if non-Catholics could attend, what could the Bishop respond? Is the WYD really exclusively for Catholics? Or is it an event to which others may come and experience what it is to be in a Catholic crowd. Maybe it’s a place for the curious to see what Catholicism is all about.
But you don’t easily venture into a heavy-duty gathering of any body of believers if you think you will be badgered to conform. I think, for example, of my Democratic Caucus meetings, where I am very nervous attending as a Pro-Life Democrat. Much as I would like to find dialog there, I fear I would just be shouted down.
What is proselytizing?
Here’s where the oft-quoted term “proselytizing” comes in. The dictionary defines proselytizing as trying to convert a person to one’s own religion or way of thinking. Not to be confused with evangelization, proselytizing has the connotation of forcible or unwelcome pressure to convert. Imagine Mormon missionaries at your door, Jehovah Witnesses passing out pamphlets, or even the party-organizer on the phone to see whom you are voting for. Catholics don’t normally do that. At least, that’s not what we see as evangelization. That’s not the conversion we are looking for. Catholics invite; we don’t coerce. We dialog; we don’t harangue. Even your apologetics? That's for someone who wants to engage with you, who’s ready or open to that mode of spreading the faith.
How did Jesus evangelize?
This has nothing to do with dumbing down the faith. It’s been demonstrated by preachers, beginning with Jesus himself, who ministers to outsiders along with his own people, and calls on us to spread the faith to all the world, yes, but using his modality. What was his modality? Healing, driving out evil, and offering the Good News—but not forcing it. Remember John 6, when some disciples choose to leave him, and he doesn’t stop them.
With the disciples Jesus meets on the road to Emmaus, he does not full-on confront them with their unbelief, but gently dialogs with them until they themselves are suddenly moved within to see the truth of what he is saying. With doubting Thomas, Jesus lovingly offers his wounds as evidence, without making Thomas feel punished.
Paul, who preaches mainly in Synagogues, where he will find somewhat like-minded people, says, “To the Jews I am a Jew; to the Greeks I am a Greek.” He doesn’t push his faith; he offers it, so exultant and convinced that many choose to join him.
What is conversion?
The conversion Paul himself had experienced on the road to Damascus was a transformation brought about by Jesus Christ himself—a total reordering of Paul’s thoughts and beliefs, resulting in total commitment to Christ. In this sense of the word conversion, we do not convert people; God does. We don’t impose our beliefs on them; we share them, witness to them.
In that sense, the World Youth Day offers young committed Catholics a world stage on which to witness—both to those outside this gathering, and to others present who may need to receive that message. Sharing our beliefs, being excited over our beliefs is not proselytization; it is evangelization. As Catholics, our first duty as evangelists is to let Jesus Christ be known. That is not proselytization either. It’s evangelization.
If you study the writings of Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict, or Pope Francis, in all of them you will find this distinction confirmed. Evangelization comes first. It is best fed through dialog. Its focus and goal is a knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Bishop Américo Aguilar can take his place with these in promoting the WYD as a place where all can be welcome in an atmosphere in which Jesus Christ is central.