Pope Francis’ powerful apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) has attracted a tremendous amount of attention, but this is not always a good thing. Like most Church documents these days, the superficial gloss of media coverage is “balanced” by the complainers focusing on what they don’t like. What attracts all the attention is usually topics concerning sex or money. This time, it’s money.
A few paragraphs in the pope’s passionate 50,000-word exhortation have roused the economic ideologues. Members of today’s ideology-entertainment complex are enthusiastically battling over these paragraphs, with certain “conservatives” going so far as to call the pope a “Marxist,” a “dope,” and “the Catholic Church’s Obama.” (The Dec. 1 commentary by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is a thoughtful exception to all of this wailing and gnashing of teeth.)
I won’t dive into this mosh pit of commentary myself, except to reiterate that this document needs to be read — and prayed over — in its entirety. I truly hope that you will do this with others in your parish or small-faith group.
Here are a few of the highlights I found in this remarkable document:
This exhortation has a dual purpose: First is to explicitly recall for us “the joy of the Gospel [that] fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (No. 1). Second is to warn of the “desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart” (No. 2).
The pope warns that “there are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” (No. 6), and he urges all of us who call ourselves Catholics and Christians to recover that joy so that we can extend it to others in a spirit of “missionary discipleship.”
Pope Francis is not warning us to shun the world because of its “desolation and anguish.” Rather, he is asking us to see that it is our own “complacent yet covetous hearts” that often block us and those we touch from seeing “the joy of the Gospel.”
Reiterating the themes of this pontificate — mercy, encounter, and going forth — Pope Francis is appealing to us to develop evangelizing hearts. He is bluntly realistic about who needs to be evangelized (No. 15) and how difficult this process can be (Nos. 22, 23). But he does not refrain from lovingly challenging all of us: “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others” (No. 24). Imagine if every parish community, if our parish community, lived these words.
We are not called to maintain a plethora of structures, he is telling us. “Mere administration’ can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be ‘permanently in a state of mission’” (No. 25).
The pope has a deep pastoral appreciation for the role of the parish, but also its shortcomings. The parish cannot be “a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few” (No. 28). He has an extended section on the importance of good preaching.
“The Gospel of Joy” is an extended examination of conscience for all of us: Pope, bishop, priest and laity. It is in this context that we are to understand his words on the economy and the poor. He is not prescribing specific fixes, but he clearly sees economic injustice as one of many challenges to a missionary Church.
Read attentively and prayerfully, “The Joy of the Gospel” is a remarkably personal call to action. Pope Francis is not afraid to speak his mind. I hope that we are not afraid to listen.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.