Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), released Nov. 26, is the first document of his pontificate to reflect almost completely the pope’s own mind.
Though Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), released in July, was Pope Francis’ first published work, that document primarily was inherited from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. “The Joy of the Gospel,” though, is all Francis.
Vision of evangelization
Spread out over five chapters and 51,000 words, “The Joy of the Gospel” is an intensely pastoral meditation on the New Evangelization that calls Catholics “to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.”
In it, Pope Francis reflects on the need for a loving personal encounter with Jesus Christ, the essential place of joy in evangelization, the crises in the contemporary world, the demand to love the poor, unity in the Church, the authentic role of women in the Church, the evils of abortion and other threats to human dignity and the need for creating “spirit-filled evangelizers.” Interestingly, rather than merely analyzing the work that resulted from last year’s Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization, the exhortation very much contains Francis’ own vision for evangelization.
“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” he writes, and he urges repeatedly for Catholics to be joyful in evangelizing.Far from saying, as some have claimed in recent months, that Catholics should not evangelize, Francis insists that every member of the Church has a role to play, and that there is no room for negativity and pessimism. He laments, “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. … An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”
Likewise, he calls on Catholics “to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way.’ I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities.” He also warns against “spiritual worldliness,” which is marked by the two extremes of “a purely subjective faith” or “a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism.”
In contrast, he writes that the Church’s evangelizing “has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead.”
And this requires an ecclesial renewal that cannot be deferred. He describes a dream of a missionary impulse that transforms everything, “something much more in the line of an evangelical discernment. It is the approach of a missionary disciple, an approach ‘nourished by the light and strength of the Holy Spirit’ and that remembers always that evangelization is “first and foremost the Lord’s work, surpassing anything which we can see and understand.” Such renewal is for the entire Church, however, from individual Catholics to parishes and dioceses, and even the papacy itself.
Francis is not calling for some chaotic or haphazard campaign. “A Church which ‘goes forth,’” he writes, “is a Church whose doors are open. Going out to others in order to reach the fringes of humanity does not mean rushing out aimlessly into the world.” Faithful to the Second Vatican Council, he teaches, “today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.”
Toward that end, he takes a sober look at the modern world and gives a strong “no” to an economy of exclusion, the new idolatry of money, a financial system that rules rather than serves, inequality that spawns violence and a sterile pessimism. In sum, he writes, “the dignity of each human person and the pursuit of the common good are concerns which ought to shape all economic policies.” Citing Jesus’ example of poverty and love for the forgotten and marginalized, Pope Francis wants a “Church which is poor and for the poor.”
Pope Francis also warns that “the culture of prosperity deadens us” and lists other grave challenges, such as the priority that is given to “the outward, the immediate, the visible, the quick, the superficial and the provisional”; the proliferation of new religious movements — from fundamentalism to a spirituality without God; the process of secularization that reduces the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal; and the profound cultural crisis of the modern family, which will be the focus of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops next October.
He uses the vivid term of “spiritual desertification” to describe the results of trying “to build a society without God or to eliminate their Christian roots.” He adds that there is need for “an encounter between faith, reason and the sciences with a view to developing new approaches and arguments on the issue of credibility, a creative apologetics which would encourage greater openness to the Gospel on the part of all.”
End to fighting factions
Francis diagnoses the failure of Catholics to respond to cultural challenges not through “an excess of activity, but rather activity undertaken badly” and that can lead to discouragement and despair. “A tomb psychology develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum,” he cautions, adding such an outlook “is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, sourpusses.”
Here he encourages the Church toward unity by saying, “No to warring among ourselves.” Francis touches on that war in several ways. He reiterates that “reservation of the priesthood to males … is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general.” Similarly, he notes that “when properly understood, cultural diversity is not a threat to Church unity,” and he reminds the faithful that “popular piety enables us to see how the Faith, once received, becomes embodied in a culture and is constantly passed on.”
And for those who claim that Francis has demoted the Church’s teachings on abortion, he strongly condemns the destruction of “unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.” He adds bluntly, however, that “we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish.”
Matthew Bunson is OSV senior correspondent.