I recently met a charming and intelligent young woman who, like myself, is a convert. Also like myself she learned the Faith in France. In her case she grew up in the country, loves its traditional culture as I came to do as a foreigner living there once upon a time, perceived as I had that the culture stemmed from Catholic roots, and ended, as I did, by accepting what the Church teaches and putting that at the center of her life instead of embracing modernity as most persons nowadays do, whether they be French or American and including countless cradle Catholics. However, there is a big difference between us. I entered the Church from a Protestant sect, she is a convert from Islam.
Yet even in that difference there is some similarity. After all, what is a Protestant who becomes Catholic doing if not returning to his religion as it was before it was “reformed”? The thoroughly French young lady of whom I speak is an ethnic Berber. Before the Arab Muslim conquest and colonization of North Africa the indigenous Berbers were a Christian people, so in a sense the young woman was returning to her roots when she became Catholic. That is how she feels about it.
Here’s something else. She tells me that according to the priest who gave her instruction 3,000 Muslims a year are converting to Catholicism in France. Now, it is against the law in France to gather statistics on religious affiliation, so the number is an estimate, but an educated one. The priest in question has instructed many Muslim converts. He knows what he’s talking about when he estimates 3,000.
Moreover, these converts, like many if not most converts nowadays regardless of their background, tend to gravitate toward tradition. This is natural. If a person is going to convert, why would he look to worship in a way that is less than unmistakably Catholic?
No doubt the Muslims becoming Catholic in France today will help fulfill expectations that in a few years the majority of Catholics who attend Mass regularly in the country will do so in traditional parishes. The point about them: Who knew? All we ever hear about is apostates — Catholics who leave the Church for some other religion, including Islam. They are often portrayed as heroes of a kind, individuals bold enough to reject the Church’s exclusivist claim to being the only true religion. Of course this is a paradox insofar as it is a very long time since anyone last heard a high-ranking Churchman forcefully and unambiguously teach that there is no salvation outside the Church. In the U.S. you’d have to go back to an era predating the 1940s and 50s — the so-called golden age of the Church in this country. Even before then it was uncommon. After all, it was in the nineteenth century that the bishops turned against America’s greatest-ever Catholic apologist, Orestes Brownson, for championing the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
No wonder, then, that when it comes to potential converts actually joining the Church today, some prelates give the impression they would as soon have them stay where they are. In this connection, let us note the speech Pope Francis delivered on October 28 to a meeting of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community.
Ignored in the U.S., the speech was near the top of the news on state-run media in several E.U. countries, especially Germany. This is not surprising. The Pope’s insistence that “human dignity” and “solidarity” require the nations of Europe to welcome and accept “refugees” amounted to a validation of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s opening her country’s borders to one million of them two years ago. He coupled this with a denunciation of “anti-immigration” movements like the AfD in Germany and National Front in France.
The sentence of the Pope’s speech that leapt out at me was this: “In our day, Christians are called to revitalize Europe and to revive its conscience, not by occupying spaces — this would be proselytizing — but by generating processes capable of awakening new energies in society.” Most of the sentence is gobbledygook, but when Francis says “this would be proselytizing,” you can almost hear him add: “and heaven forbid we should be guilty of that.”
It is not irrelevant to observe that this November 7 was the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Before long it will be the 30th anniversary of the implosion of the Communist Soviet Union born of that revolution. Whatever you may think of Vladimir Putin, in 1989 there were 6,000 Orthodox churches in Russia whereas today there are 36,000. In 1989 there were three seminaries. Now there are more than 50. Meantime, in the U.S., Catholic churches continue to close because there aren’t enough folks going to Mass to keep them open, and seminaries that were built to house hundreds of men are lucky to have six. That is if the buildings haven’t been sold.
Why point out this disparity between Orthodoxy in Russia and Catholicism in America (and the rest of the liberal West)? It is to refute the notion that somehow time, as such, has to do with the moribund condition of sacramental Christianity in the West, as when persons say “This is a secular age.” It may be, but it’s the twenty-first century in Russia also.
The real reasons for the difference lie elsewhere. For one thing, the Russian state fortifies Christian living with laws meant to do exactly that. An example: Unlike the U.S., Canada, and the nations of Western Europe, Russia has not legalized same-sex “marriage.”
There is also another factor: belief. If you don’t believe Christian living in this world is necessary in order to live with God in eternity, why build churches, recruit priests or seek converts?
At the very least, not to proselytize, or try, is to ignore Our Lord’s last commandment, to “make disciples of all the nations,” and how can the Church prosper if she ignores what He commands?