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Friday, December 13, 2013

#408: Francis: Person of the Year

Rush Limbaugh says the pope has Marxist ghostwriters, and claims his comments are “going beyond Catholicism.”  Pat Buchanan says he will cause the defeat of the culture wars. Stuart Varney calls him a neo-socialist.  And Time magazine has just made him the Person of the Year.

Pope Francis has made a stunning impact in the few short months since his election, and his latest work is no exception.  Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) is a 90-page, single spaced tome that covers every possible aspect of evangelization from preparing homilies to environmentalism and international economics. It is an astounding tour de force, which takes a substantial effort to finish, not because the writing is difficult--in fact, Francis’s humble style has few papal precedents except, perhaps, John XXIII--but because he covers so much territory with so many rich insights.  In future CrossCurrents I will offer commentary on some of the issues in this document, but for the moment I would simply like to share some of the key passages, since most readers will not have the opportunity to read through the whole thing, available here:

Some of this has already been quoted, out of context, by the media, and while the interpretations of these comments have been largely accurate, the texts themselves have been wrenched from the larger document so that sometimes readers might get the impression that Evangelii Gaudium is primarily a political communication from the pope.

But this document is actually addressed to the members of the Church, with the aim of motivating them and equipping them to take on the challenge of what he calls the New Evangelization.  The passages that follow are examples of what he has in mind. I’ve selected them to convey his central focus, rather than his position on specific issues. For each, I offer a bit of context.

Francis starts by noting the difficulty of joy in our times:

2. The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too.

He contrasts this with the Gospel message:

10. The Gospel offers us the chance to live life on a higher plane, but with no less intensity: “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others”. When the Church summons Christians to take up the task of evangelization, she is simply pointing to the source of authentic personal fulfillment….Consequently, an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!

He insists on the need to reach out without judging or demanding:

14. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”.

Pointing out his intention to offer “some guidelines” to encourage and guide others, he suggests that successful outreach may require decentralizing church operations:

16. Countless issues involving evangelization today might be discussed here, but I have chosen not to explore these many questions which call for further reflection and study. Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question which affects the Church and the world. 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. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization”.

He acknowledges that church structures do not guarantee missionary outreach:

26. There are ecclesial structures which can hamper efforts at evangelization, yet even good structures are only helpful when there is a life constantly driving, sustaining and assessing them. Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s “fidelity to her own calling,” any new structure will soon prove ineffective.

And he shares his personal vision:

27. 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. 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 from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with himself.

He expresses his belief in  the importance of parishes:

28. The parish is not an outdated institution; precisely because it possesses great flexibility, it can assume quite different contours depending on the openness and missionary creativity of the pastor and the community. While certainly not the only institution which evangelizes, if the parish proves capable of self-renewal and constant adaptivity, it continues to be “the Church living in the midst of the homes of her sons and daughters”. This presumes that it really is in contact with the homes and the lives of its people, and does not become a useless structure out of touch with people or a self-absorbed group made up of a chosen few.

He points out that our message must be shaped carefully:

36. In preaching the Gospel a fitting sense of proportion has to be maintained. This would be seen in the frequency with which certain themes are brought up and in the emphasis given to them in preaching…if… an imbalance results…The same thing happens when we speak more about law than about grace, more about the Church than about Christ, more about the Pope than about God’s word.

The pope clearly insists that the gospel message must be centered on joy:

39.When preaching is faithful to the Gospel, the centrality of certain truths is evident and it becomes clear that Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults. Before all else, the Gospel invites us to respond to the God of love who saves us, to see God in others and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others. Under no circumstance can this invitation be obscured!

After surveying some “signs of the times” in our culture, especially the evil of inequity in our countries, Francis cautions that contemporary culture can hamper our mission by infecting our own members with “practical relativism”:

80. This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary enthusiasm! 
  Otherwise, he warns, church-business-as-usual can breed death: “A tomb psychology thus develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.” This can be especially a danger for church leaders who prefer “closed and elite groups” and make no effort to reach out to others:

96. This way of thinking also feeds the vainglory of those who are content to have a modicum of power and would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight. How often we dream up vast apostolic projects, meticulously planned, just like defeated generals!

Evangelizing also requires putting the “good news” ahead of rules and requirements:

165. It has to express God’s saving love which precedes any moral and religious obligation on our part; it should not impose the truth but appeal to freedom; it should be marked by joy, encouragement, liveliness and a harmonious balance which will not reduce preaching to a few doctrines which are at times more philosophical than evangelical. All this demands on the part of the evangelizer certain attitudes which foster openness to the message: approachability, readiness for dialogue, patience, a warmth and welcome which is non-judgmental.

This non-judgmental attitude is a key to accompanying others on their faith-pilgrimage:

172. One who accompanies others has to realize that each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37).

It’s worth noting that of all Francis has said so far, perhaps “Who am I to judge?” (speaking about homosexuals) has been the most controversial. The above passages prove that was no slip of the tongue, but a clear focus on the gospel message.

These quotes represent only the first half of Evangelii Gaudium. Next time I will share more texts from the second half.

  © Bernard  F. Swain PhD 2013

1 comment:

  1. First of all Thank you very much. This is exactly what I have come to understand from this wonderful man. I really have to say he has it right. Decentralizing allow flexibility. The
    fact that we need to focus on the real joy and not get caught up in the rules...do not judge others but help them understand why, and how ...we have a big nut to crack open here.
    I feel we will need you Bernie more than ever. The parish is as Hal mentioned Small is Beautiful concept, small groups become agile, able to adapt, and move forward....Yes Thank you again.