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Image of the conversion of Mary Magdalene

When Did “Conversion” Become a Dirty Word?

August 22, 2023


I have recently returned from World Youth Day in Lisbon, where I gave five presentations, each one of which, as I promised, was evangelical in purpose. I made that promise in response to Cardinal-elect Américo Aguiar, the organizer of the international gathering of young people who had assured us, a week before the meeting, that he had “no interest in converting anyone to Christ or to the Catholic Church.” Though my talks were enthusiastically received by crowds ranging up to twelve and thirteen thousand, I found myself rebuked, upon my return, by papal biographer Austen Ivereigh in the pages of Commonweal. Apparently, I did not understand the subtleties of Bishop Aguiar’s mind and had failed to grasp the key distinction between evangelization and proselytism. On Ivereigh’s reading, the former is, evidently, “facilitating an encounter with the living Christ” while the latter is “converting others to the Catholic Church.” In fact, Ivereigh goes so far as to say that any effort at conversion to the Church “contradicts” authentic evangelization. 

Well, one scarcely knows where to begin responding to the confusions on display here. The most obvious is the painful wedge that Ivereigh drives between Jesus and his mystical body. The Church is not a collectivity of like-minded devotees of the “living Christ,” whom they presumably have found outside of the stifling confines of the ecclesial institution. Rather, the Church is Christ’s body, the visible means by which he is known, the vehicle that he employs to convey his life to the world. This understanding of the Church is implicit in the Lord’s famous parable of the sheep and goats—“Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do it to me”—as well as in the various accounts of Paul’s conversion, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Therefore, if one wants an encounter with the living Christ, in the full sense of that term, she must seek communion with Christ’s mystical body, the living organism of the Church. The late Cardinal George of Chicago often remarked, “Just as you can’t know me apart from my body, you cannot know Christ apart from the Church which is his body.” A Jesus existing apart from his Church, it seems to me, is not “the living Christ” but rather a gnostic fantasy.

Apart from a real conversion to the Church . . . people will have, at best, a fragmented sense of who Jesus is. 

A second confusion is terminological. What Ivereigh is calling “evangelization” is, in point of fact, “pre-evangelization.” One can indeed prepare the ground for Christ in a thousand different ways: through invitation, conversation, debate, argument, the establishment of friendship, etc. One might legitimately say, at this stage of the process, that one is not pressing the matter of conversion, but one is most definitely paving the way for it. Unless it conduces toward real evangelization, pre-evangelization is an absurdity. And Ivereigh’s identification of “proselytism” and “converting others to the Catholic Church” is just plain ridiculous. If he is right about this, then Pope Francis, who has for ten years consistently spoken out against the p-word, is a fierce opponent of converting people to the Catholic Church! I can offer a correction, as it were, from the horse’s mouth. When I was still a bishop in California, I participated, with my brothers, in a wide-ranging, three-hour conversation with the Pope, during our ad limina visit. In the course of that session, one of the bishops asked Francis to clarify the distinction between evangelization (which the Pope obviously favors) and proselytism (which he obviously doesn’t). The Holy Father clearly stated that by “proselytism” he means an attempt at evangelization that is aggressive, brow-beating, condescending, and disrespectful. I can assure you that he most certainly did not imply that it is tantamount to bringing people into the Church.

During the confusing and often heated discussions around the meaning of “synodality,” I have found it useful to turn to the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and I believe that consulting that classic text might prove helpful in this context as well. Jesus walks with and carefully listens to his erstwhile disciples, even as they move in the wrong direction. All of Pope Francis’s teaching on listening and accompaniment is beautifully congruent with the opening of this narrative. It was a necessary propaedeutic, but what emerges from this, if I might put it this way, pre-evangelistic conversation is a relatively superficial and disjointed understanding of the Lord: they have many of the facts right, but they don’t see the pattern. It was indeed an encounter with Christ, but no careful reader of the story would conclude that it rendered anything close to an adequate understanding of Jesus. 

After listening for some time, Jesus speaks and does so definitively: “How foolish you are; how slow to understand.” Then he immerses them in the Scriptures, explaining how all of the revealed word points toward him, relating to him as type and pre-figurement. Though their hearts are burning within them, the two disciples still do not fully see the Lord. Only when he breaks the bread do they recognize him, whereupon he vanishes from their sight. At that, the two disciples, who were initially walking the wrong way, turn back to Jerusalem and, with excitement, join the eleven apostles. As commentators from the ancient world to the present day have remarked, this story is a sort of icon of the Mass, including a kind of Liturgy of the Word and a Liturgy of the Eucharist, and concluding with a sending on mission. The point is that Jesus is fully encountered only in and through the Eucharistic liturgy, the prayer par excellence of the Church. Apart from a real conversion to the Church, where word and bread are broken open, people will have, at best, a fragmented sense of who Jesus is. 

Ivereigh concluded his criticism of me by maintaining that I was someone who, out of fear, is “clinging to identity and difference.” Well, I can assure him that fear has nothing to do with it, but otherwise, guilty as charged. I proudly cling to the identity of the Church of Jesus Christ and declare it to all the world as something different indeed, a uniquely liberating form of life. 

In an earlier version of this article, Cardinal-elect Aguiar’s first name was misspelled as Amerigo.