Pontiff envisions Church that reaches out to peripheries

In the run-up to the conclave, many commentators believed the new pope would belong to the Pontifical Council of the New Evangelization created by Pope Benedict XVI. The New Evangelization was the theme the pope had chosen for the Synod of Bishops last October. It was arguably the major task of his pontificate. 

And it often was mentioned by cardinals going into the conclave as the key challenge for the Church. That’s why the cardinals on most commentators’ A-list of papabili — Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan; Odilo Scherer of Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila — are all members of the pontifical council, and why it was assumed the new pope could be one of them.  

He wasn’t. But the one who was elected spoke directly to those concerns.

Letting Christ out

Inevitably, Christian proclamation and mission in today’s context was a major topic of conversation in the General Congregations before the conclave. When Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, stood up to speak March 9, he did not use the term “New Evangelization.” But his three-and-a-half-minute speech was precisely on that topic. And it made a strong impression. 

“When the Church does not come out of herself to evangelize, she becomes self-referential and then gets sick,” he warned. When that happens, it ceases to reflect the light of Christ, and comes to believe, inadvertently, in its own light. It then “gives way to that very serious evil, spiritual worldliness.”  

Cardinal Bergoglio said Jesus did not just knock at the door from the outside, but also from the inside, asking to be let out. Yet “the self-referential Church keeps Jesus Christ within herself and does not let him out.” The Church, he said, had to go “to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also the existential peripheries: the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all misery.”

Two choices for Church

He then offered a simple and direct choice between two images of the Church: on the one hand an “evangelizing Church that goes out from itself and that devoutly listens to and faithfully proclaims the Word of God”; and on the other, “a worldly Church, living within herself, of herself, for herself.” This choice, he said, “should shed light on the possible changes and reforms which must be done for the salvation of souls.” 

The next pope, he added, “must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, that helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from ‘the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.’” 

Like all good evangelization, this was both a diagnosis and a cure. It enabled his listeners to understand that evangelization was not just a necessary task for the Church to do for its own health, but also a means of identifying the root cause of some of the internal problems it faced. It was, in effect, a reform program, one designed to fit the Church for mission.

Deep humility

At the heart of the pope’s own evangelizing style, as well as his vision for the Church, is humility. In the synod last year, Cardinal Tagle of Manila made what many regarded as the most influential speech of the meeting in his call for the Church to imitate Jesus’ love and concern for “those neglected and despised by the world.” Humility, he said, also meant willing to be silent, for “a Church at home with silence will make the voiceless believe they are not alone.” 

When Pope Francis told journalists he wanted “a poor Church, for the poor,” he was echoing that vision. The early Church grew rapidly because it put the poor first, as God did; its “option for the poor” spoke of the divine. Pope Francis believes that a Church that does the same speaks more powerfully of Christ.  

His homilies and addresses contain a clear teaching and use few, but often laserlike, words: he said of gay marriage in Argentina, for example, that it was an attempt to “destroy God’s plan.” They also show him to be a master of metaphor, painting vivid and often challenging word-pictures. 

After the election he told the cardinals — in a reference to their age — that they were like “fine wine”; on April 17, he told a crowd in St. Peter’s Square that Jesus was “like a leader at the head of the rope when you scale a mountain, who has reached the summit and draws us up to him.”  

Those who know him say that three main themes of Pope Francis’ evangelizing endeavour are likely to be those of the final document of the 2007 conference of Latin American bishops in Brazil, which he drafted.  

The themes — personal encounter with Christ, the option for the poor and the stewardship of creation — are already present in his homilies and addresses, not least in his inauguration Mass, where he spoke of the task of pope — and of every Christian — as being “to protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest.” 

In conferences, synods and documents the Church has spoken much in recent years about the task of the new evangelization. Pope Francis’ election has already led to an increase in Mass attendance and confessions. He has opened the doors to let Christ out. 

Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk).