Pope Francis has taken aim once again at proselytism, telling a group of Italian schoolchildren not to fall into this practice of converting people to Christianity by pressure or by force.

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The Pope’s new condemnation of forced conversion to Christianity came as he made a surprise December 20 visit to students of Rome’s Pilo Albertelli High School, on their last day before Christmas holidays.

The Vatican did not release an official transcript of Francis’ remarks to the children, apart from an indication that the Pope spoke about everything from dreams and downtime – “oxygen to the soul” – to loneliness, melancholy, the “small sacrifices” of gratuitous love and international security and peace.

But according to Italian Bishops’ paper Avvenire, the pontiff, insisting on the need to welcome migrant students in all their diversity and on the “need to live together”, told the pupils:

“Be consistent with your faith. You can’t tell Jewish and Muslim children: come and be converted”.

“That coherence will make you mature. We are not in the times of the Crusades”, the Pope added to the Pilo Albertelli High School students.

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The Pope visited the school precisely to inspect a new display on migration that the students have set up in a classroom, on the importance of welcoming foreigners fleeing from poverty, war and famine.

That display is in the context of a special migrations day the Pilo Albertelli school is holding Saturday December 21.

The Pope’s visit to the school was also a chance to see the former workplace of Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano editor Andrea Monda, who accompanied Francis today and as a religion teacher at the Pilo Albertelli helped a group of students write the meditations for the Pope’s Way of the Cross at the Colosseum on Good Friday 2018.

Why it matters

Warnings about proselytism have been a constant in Francis’ pontificate, from when in October 2013, a few months after becoming Pope, he called the practice “solemn nonsense”.

Francis has also, on occasion, said proselytism “is the strongest poison against the ecumenical path” and a “grave sin”, explaining that “the Church is not a soccer team that goes around seeking fans”.

Though his repeated condemnations of proselytism have raised conservative eyebrows – as if Francis meant the Church should stop ‘making converts’ to Catholicism – what the Pope means with his censuring of the practice is not at all that the Church shouldn’t evangelise.

Francis just means to insist that that evangelisation shouldn’t come with any moral, political or economic pressure, nor with any strings attached, and with total respect for the dignity and freedom of the potential convert.

Francis explained this well in a September encounter with Jesuits on a trip to Mozambique.

In that meeting, the Pope underlined “Evangelization yes, proselytism no”.

“What I mean is that evangelization is free! Proselytism, on the other hand, makes you lose your freedom. Proselytism is incapable of creating a religious path in freedom. It always sees people being subjugated in one way or another. In evangelization the protagonist is God, in proselytism it is the I. […]

“Evangelization is essentially witness. Proselytizing is convincing, but it is all about membership and takes your freedom away. I believe that this distinction can be of great help. Benedict XVI in Aparecida said something wonderful, that the Church does not grow by proselytism, it grows by attraction, the attraction of witness. The sects, on the other hand, making proselytes, separate people, promising them many advantages and then leaving them to themselves”.

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