ROME — Pope Francis told Christian high school students this weekend they should respect people of other faiths and not attempt to convert them to Christianity, insisting “we are not living in the times of the crusades.”
Asked by one of the students Friday how a Christian should treat people of other faiths or no faith, the pope said that “we are all the same, all children of God” and that true disciples of Jesus do not proselytize.
Francis said that his experience growing up in Argentina with its waves of immigration was a great help in learning to respect other people.
“There is a mixture of blood, a strong miscegenation in Argentina — I am the son of a migrant — and this made for a culture of coexistence,” he said. “I went to public school and we always had companions from other religions. We were educated to coexistence.”
“This taught me a lot, that we are all the same, all children of God and this purifies your gaze, it humanizes it,” he said. “In Argentina, there is a small group of narrow-minded Catholics who do not want Jews, do not want Muslims but this group, I never liked it, it is a fringe group, they have a cultural magazine but they do not have impact in society and when I used to teach I saw them for what they were, this is the secret.”
The pope went on to say that a Christian should never try to convince others of the truth of Christianity, but should simply give a testimony of consistency and wait for others to ask about the faith.
“You must be consistent with your faith,” he said. “It never occurred to me (and nor should it) to say to a boy or a girl: ‘You are Jewish, you are Muslim: come, be converted!’ You be consistent with your faith and that consistency is what will make you mature. We are not living in the times of the crusades.”
“The last thing I should do is to try to convince an unbeliever. Never,” he said. “The last thing I should do is speak. I should live my faith with consistency. And it will be my witness that will awaken the curiosity of the other who may then ask: ‘But why do you do this?’ And yes, then I can speak.”
“But listen, the gospel is never, ever advanced through proselytism,” he continued. “If someone says he is a disciple of Jesus and comes to you with proselytism, he is not a disciple of Jesus. Proselytism is not the way; the Church does not grow by proselytism.”
The Church grows by attraction, by witness, he said. “Soccer teams can do proselytism, this can be done, political parties can do it, but there should be no proselytism with the faith. And if someone asks me: ‘But why do you do this?’ Read, read, read the Gospel, this is my faith. But without pressure.”
As he did last month, the pope then went on to cite the 11th-century French fictional epic poem La Chanson de Roland as an example of how Christians have tried to convert Muslims by the sword.
“It is an ugly thing but it made me suffer so much, a passage from the La Chanson de Roland, when the Christians, the crusaders had defeated the Muslims and then all the Muslims were lined up and at the front of the line was a priest and a soldier,” Francis said. “The priest stood in front of the baptismal font and as each one approached, he would ask: ‘Baptism or the sword?’”
“This happened in history!” he added.
They also do it with us Christians in other parts, the pope acknowledged, “but what we did shames me because it is a story of forced conversion, of not respecting the dignity of the person,” he said.
When the pope cited this poem in November to make a similar point, treating the account as if it were historical, a number of people offered corrections.
One writer said that The Song of Roland was inspired in part by a historical event, namely Charlemagne’s expedition to Spain in 778, but noted that this expedition to Spain was undertaken at the request of several Muslim governors of Spain, in rebellion against the Emir of Cordova.
Moreover, he said, the invasion was unsuccessful, and is recounted as such in the poem.
“The memory of Pope Francis evoking the victory of the Franks over Muslims is therefore confused, because the expedition was not a victory,” the writer observed.
“The fictitious case of the forced baptism of Muslims supposedly defeated after the capture of Zaragoza — which did not take place — is not historical, but is a pure imagination of the poet,” he added, noting that contrary to the pope’s account, there is not even a Christian holding a sword in the original work.
“How then can he affirm that ‘this is what we Christians did’?” he concluded.
The pope told the high schoolers Friday that since he was a boy he had dealt with people of other religions, because his father was an accountant and would bring home business clients of other faiths.
“It was normal and it did not present a problem for me. But it should be normal. Never exclude someone because they have another faith,” he said.