A missionary and compassionate Church

A summary of Pope Francis’ exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel

By Fr. Jack Lynch, S.F.M.
March/April 2014

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“I dream of a ‘missionary option’, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

That statement of Pope Francis is a good summary of his exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), which was released last November on the Feast of Christ the King. In his own words he writes: “I have chosen to present some guidelines which can encourage and guide the whole Church in a new phase of evangelization, one marked by enthusiasm and vitality.” (EG17) He writes as a pastor with 22 years of experience as a bishop in Buenos Aires, seven years as an auxiliary bishop and 15 years as archbishop.

His personal testimony

“I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting Him encounter them.” The frequent use of the word “I” is indicative of his personal testimony and expectation. As a result of a constant encounter with Jesus, members of the Church are to be bold and creative. He proposes to promote an evangelization that is not about imposing new obligations but rather about sharing one’s own joy in the Gospel.

He exhorts us, “Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow.” (EG10) One of the profound changes is in communicating through every word and gesture an understanding of our mission and how to live it without fear: “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” (EG10)

Writing as a pastor

He writes as a pastor who is a passionate believer in Vatican II. “In virtue of their Baptism, all the members of the People of God have become missionary disciples…Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization.” (EG120) Notice that his language is inclusive. He is speaking not only to Catholics but to all who believe in Jesus Christ. He goes on to remind us that, “the Church does not evangelize unless she constantly lets herself be evangelized.” (EG174)

Vatican II promoted consultation and collegiality. Francis writes, “Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy…Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach (EG32)…It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. I am conscious of the need to promote a sound ‘decentralization.’” (EG16)

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security...”

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium

His collegial spirit is evidenced in Evangelii Gaudium by his citing of 10 documents from a diversity of bishops’ conferences from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, Oceania, and North America. He writes that a bishop must “encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law, and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.” We need to be creative in developing structures that allow for greater lay participation ensuring co-responsibility.

A compassionate leader

We have come to know Pope Francis as a leader and a pastoral man. As you read his Exhortation, the com-passionate man who is very clear about his missionary identity and that of the Church invites us to encounter what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and the essence of the mission is evident on every page. He invites all of us to be like, “the Good Shepherd, who seeks not to judge but to love.” (EG125)

He tells us that the missionary style “has to concentrate on the essentials, on what is most beautiful, most grand, most appealing and at the same time most necessary.” (EG35) His style speaks volumes about him and his mission. Managers are concerned with process and maintenance; leaders are concerned with mission and vision, which give the institution a sense of purpose and direction. Pope Francis is a leader who inspires. Through the pages of Evangelii Gaudium, he challenges and empowers us to be faithful and joyful disciples of Jesus.

A witness

To those who continue to say that he hasn’t changed anything, I recall the words of Pope Paul VI who said that people listen more willingly “to witnesses than to teachers.” Francis does both very well; he exudes compassion—the principal characteristic of the ministry and teaching of Jesus—in his attitudes but above all in his actions: “I believe that the secret lies in the way Jesus looked at people, seeing beyond their weaknesses and failings.” (EG141)

Evangelii Gaudium is not an attempt to overturn traditional teaching but rather a call to be open to the Spirit and fearlessly change the way we do things. Pope Francis doesn’t mince words about attitudes and mindsets that impede that realization. Since the day of his election, he has spoken loud and clear to clergy about excessive clericalism, careerism as a leprosy, personal ambition, and complacency. He warns against Catholics who act like “sourpusses” (EG85) and “Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” (EG6)

A preferential option for the poor

You will recall that shortly after his election he said he longed for “a Church which is poor and for the poor!” In his writing he makes clear his preferential option for the poor.

He wants a Church that is more missionary and compassionate; one that reaches out to those most in need. His is a theology of the poor: “Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor, and for enabling them to be fully a part of society (EG187)…As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems…Inequality is the root of social ills.” (EG202)

His vision of the Church

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has expressed his vision of the Church. Repeating what he often said to the priests and laity while he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he writes (EG49): “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security…More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mark 6:37).”

This article attempts to give a summary of Pope Francis’s exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. To benefit from its full message, Fr. Lynch invites everyone to read the document for its excellent teachings on homilies and their preparation, its statements on women in the Church and on interreligious dialogue, and much more.

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