Francis and the Atheist – a conversation on what matters most

By Paul Fahey                                                                                        Thursday, October 3

Poor english translations aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Pope Francis’ latest public interview. Why? Because here the pope models evangelization for us.

Before I explain, here are the facts of the interview for those of you who don’t follow Catholic happenings on a daily basis. On October 1, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica published an interview, a conversation between Eugenio Scalfari (a known Atheist) and Pope Francis. In the published article, Scalfari paints for us the context of the interview.

The meeting with Pope Francis took place last Tuesday at his home in Santa Marta, in a small bare room with a table and five or six chairs and a painting on the wall. It had been preceded by a phone call I will never forget as long as I live…I was still stunned when I heard the voice of His Holiness on the other end of a the line saying, “Hello, this is Pope Francis.” “Hello Your Holiness”, I say and then, “I am shocked I did not expect you to call me.” “Why so surprised? You wrote me a letter asking to meet me in person. I had the same wish, so I’m calling to fix an appointment. Let me look at my diary: I can’t do Wednesday, nor Monday, would Tuesday suit you?”

Why is this context important? Because it sets the tone of the entire splendid conversation between these two men. Pope Francis randomly calls Scalfari up one day (something this pope is rather fond of doing) and asks to talk with him in person. Why? It seems that Francis simply wanted to have a conversation. That, I believe, is the key to evangelization.

Now with more Pope than ever before!

The pope begins the interview by saying, “Some of my colleagues who know you told me that you will try to convert me.” To which Scalfari replies, “It’s a joke. My friends think you want to convert me.” Here Francis tells us how to evangelize,

Proselytism is solemn nonsense, it makes no sense. We need to get to know each other, listen to each other and improve our knowledge of the world around us. Sometimes after a meeting I want to arrange another one because new ideas are born and I discover new needs. This is important: to get to know people, listen, expand the circle of ideas. The world is crisscrossed by roads that come closer together and move apart, but the important thing is that they lead towards the Good.

 In other words, evangelization begins by sincerely engaging another person. To meet the other where he or she is at, to take them seriously, to try and see the world as they see the world. And what is so great about this interview is that after telling us what evangelization looks like, the pope then gives us a concrete model. Here we have two men that clearly disagree about what matters most. Yet, they are able to engage each other as persons, respecting the other’s dignity, seeking to understand how the other views reality. My favorite part of this conversation is toward the end when Francis asks Scalfari a question:

You, a secular non-believer in God, what do you believe in? You are a writer and a man of thought. You believe in something, you must have a dominant value. Don’t answer me with words like honesty, seeking, the vision of the common good, all important principles and values but that is not what I am asking. I am asking what you think is the essence of the world, indeed the universe. You must ask yourself, of course, like everyone else, who we are, where we come from, where we are going. Even children ask themselves these questions. And you?

This question sparks a dialogue that appears to be sincere and respectful, but neither trite or shallow. Here we have two men talking about what matters most, not soft-balling their questions or answers, while also respecting the personal integrity of the other. Here we see the first stage of evangelization playing out before our eyes – personal relationships and sincere conversation that seek to know the Truth and understand the Good.

Preaching the Gospel

So go read the whole interview, not with an agenda, not with mind dead-set in criticism, and not to use the pope’s words to justify your personal feelings about the Church. Just read it. It is delightful and, like Pope Francis keeps demonstrating, refreshingly human.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and catechist. He has a BA in Theology with minors in History, and Catholic Studies and is currently studying at the Augustine Institute for a MA in Theology.

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