When I sponsor a Catholic missionary, are they trying to convert people?

This question was submitted to Busted Halo’s Summer School Contest.

Q: In some denominations, the primary function of missionaries is to attempt conversion of the unchurched or non-practicing members of another religion to Christianity. Is this type of direct evangelization a common practice in Catholicism? Parishes are often asked to support missionaries, but we are asked to support a mission of service, not conversion. Just wondering.

missionary3In years prior to Vatican II, there was often a sense that if one died without being baptized in the Catholic Church they would be denied entrance into heaven. 16th century missionaries like Francis Xavier were greatly concerned with getting people baptized. Developments in theological understandings of the proper relationship between Catholics and members of other faith traditions have evolved over time. Vatican II clearly teaches in Lumen Gentium, the document where the Church explains her purpose and mission, that, “All are called to belong to the new People of God” (#13). Some are clearly members of the Catholic faith and explicitly baptized in the Church. Others are baptized in different Christian traditions. Others are members of different religious traditions (e.g., Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists). And there are those who sincerely seek God and strive to do God’s will, although they have no knowledge of the Gospel of Christ (#13-16).

Today, Catholics missionaries preach the word in love and deed. Many people in the communities around the world where missionaries serve are attracted to join the Church because of their selfless and heroic work. Many others work along with Catholics to build up the people of God as the Holy Spirit so moves them.

In short, Catholics do hope to convert the world by their actions, but their focus is on inspiring others with their service and then leaving the choice of conversion up to individuals.

Richard G. Malloy, S.J., Ph.D., is Vice President for University Ministries, the University of Scranton, Scranton, PA, and author of A Faith That Frees (Orbis Books).