Pope Francis has ushered in a new phase of evangelization with his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). He writes: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ, joy is constantly born anew. In this Exhortation I wish to encourage the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”
According to the pope, the mission of evangelization is to be the standard, the measure, for all reform and pastoral activity of the Church. “The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response for all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself. . . .I hope that all communities will devote the necessary effort to advancing along the path of a pastoral and missionary conversion which cannot leave things as they presently are. ‘Mere administration’ can no longer be enough. Throughout the world, let us be ‘permanently in a state of mission.’”
Let us consider five characteristics:
1) Mission. In addition to what has already been said about mission, consider: “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.”
2) Joy. Pope Francis has made the “joy of the Gospel” the keystone of his whole vision. While fully acknowledging the sufferings of so many people today, he observes that “there are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter” and that “sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met.”
3) Inclusion. All persons, without exception, are included in our mission. “It is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded. . . . Let us try a little harder to take the first step and to become involved.”
4) Involvement and Support. The pope speaks in very concrete terms: “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. . . . An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be.”
5) Fruitfulness. This is not measured in numbers, but attitude. The whole point is helping people come to Christ. An evangelizing parish “cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds.”
“The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear.”
Pope Francis’s exhortation is a roadmap for ministry, and I believe we can all, priests and deacons, find comfort and challenge in his words. If we consider all of Church life through the lens of “missionary evangelization” and use that perspective to assess our ministries and activities, what changes, what “conversions” do we need to make?
DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.