LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Pope Francis is moving fast to advance his “dream of … 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.”
That “dream,” expressed in passionate and sometimes admonitory terms, framed his 84-page apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), released Nov. 26 and welcomed by Catholic leaders and thinkers as a blueprint for evangelization in the 21st century.
“The title — ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ — says it all: We need to speak boldly about Christ and the Gospel and do it with joyful lives, engaging the world,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.
George Weigel, the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church, told the Register that Pope Francis was building on the foundations of his predecessors, but he also identified something “new” from the Church’s first Latin-American pope.
“He puts the New Evangelization at the very center of the Church and orients everything else around it,” said Weigel. “This exhortation demonstrates the seamless continuity between John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis and the continuity between the John Paul-Benedict interpretation of Vatican II and Francis: It’s all about recovering the missionary vocation of everyone.”
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes that an orientation toward missionary outreach must be “paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity,” rather than reserved for chancery offices and full-time catechists.
“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,” said Francis.
The apostolic exhortation highlights the importance of evangelization, the challenges that impede its progress, the early Church’s tradition of hands-on service to the poor, the hunger for good homilies and the need for courageous believers prepared to share the Word in slum neighborhoods and corporate boardrooms.
‘Renewed Personal Encounter’
“Pope Francis invites all Christians everywhere to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ and identifies evangelization as the center of the Church’s concern,” said Father Robert Barron, rector of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
“The central task of the Church is this invitation to know Jesus Christ, not as an idea or as a concept, but as a living, divine Person, who, out of love for us, offers himself to us as a gift. In order to fulfill our mission to introduce the world to Christ, we must first know him ourselves, and one of the foremost characteristics of someone who knows Christ is joy,” Father Barron told the Register.
“This joy is not superficial optimism, but manifests itself in a willingness and preparedness for mission,” said Father Barron. “Pope Francis is clear: The one thing that positions everything that the Church seeks to accomplish, from worship to catechesis to efforts to serve the needs of the poor, is the central and urgent task of evangelization.”
The call to evangelize is accompanied by an unapologetic critique of U.S.-style free-market economies, which, according to the Pope, engender broad indifference to the plight of the poor.
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” Francis asks (53).
The Holy Father acknowledges that his strong words might bruise the feelings of some Catholics, but he said that was not his intention.
“My words are not those of a foe or an opponent,” Francis states. “I am interested only in helping those who are in thrall to an individualistic, indifferent and self-centered mentality to be freed from those unworthy chains” (208).
Weigel suggested that the Pope’s critique of the economy reflected the guiding principles of Catholic social teaching developed over the past two centuries.
Economic markets, said Weigel, “should serve the common good, which is the constant teaching of the social-doctrine tradition since Leo XIII. I think the Pope also realizes that the materialism of the West is a real impediment to the New Evangelization, because it often results in a practical atheism.”
Judging Market Economies
Francis’ harsh judgment of market economies is accompanied by a critique of a “welfare mentality,” and he calls on the faithful to pursue hands-on service and spiritual support for the needy.
“Pope Francis, in this apostolic exhortation, invites, indeed intentionally provokes, us to consider the misery that real people in real circumstances must cope with,” noted Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, who has also issued a video response to the papal document.
However, Father Sirico suggested that the Pope’s strong words on this subject raise questions that should provoke further discussion among Catholics and other people of goodwill.
“How do we reconcile his affirmation of business as ‘a noble vocation’ that serves ‘the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all’ (203), with his clear warnings about ‘absolute autonomy of markets’ (202)?” asked Father Sirico.
“Indeed, does the Pope make a distinction between what his predecessor Blessed John Paul II called the free economy and the kind of crony or state capitalism so clearly on display today in much of his own Latin America?”
Archbishop Kurtz emphasized that the Holy Father is addressing both material and spiritual poverty and that Francis offers prayer as the wellspring for evangelization and service that bears fruit.
“He asks us to be mindful, also of a poverty that is spiritual: those who may be rich in money but are addicted to consumerism. They ignore God in their lives, and they fail to serve their brothers and sisters,” said Archbishop Kurtz. “The work of evangelization ought not to be hectic, with people running in all directions at once. Rather, he calls us to begin any work with prayer and to be grounded in prayer.”
“He is giving us the true blend of contemplation and action. Prayer and contemplation take us away from selfishness, not from people,” he said.
Stirring, Intense Debate
The lengthy apostolic exhortation has stirred intense debate regarding the direction of this pontificate on non-economic issues, like Curial reform and the role of women.
And the document also features passages that directly or indirectly affirm Church teaching on abortion, homosexuality and religious freedom, tamping down speculation that Francis will set aside unpopular moral teachings to attract alienated Catholics.
Addressing the subject of abortion, Francis states: “Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question.
“I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or ‘modernizations.’ It is not ‘progressive’ to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life” (214).
The Pope clearly signals his desire to decentralize the Church, reducing the size of the Vatican Curia while fostering consultation and action by national bishops’ conferences, dioceses and parishes.
“I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures,” he writes (49).
Archbishop Kurtz said the Pope seeks to foster “true collegiality,” and he said that the challenges posed by the New Evangelization have already inspired collaboration between the U.S. and Mexican bishops’ conferences. Archbishop Kurtz anticipated further engagement with the Latin-American bishops’ conference, CELAM, in the months ahead, as Church leaders prepare for the Synod of Bishops in October.
The Role of Women
The work of evangelization also provides further context for the Pope’s call for greater participation by women in the Church at all levels of “decision-making.”
Though he repeats his predecessors’ firmly stated position that the ordination of women is a closed subject, he acknowledges that the growing role of women in society has raised “profound and challenging questions which cannot be lightly evaded” (104).
Pia de Solenni, a moral theologian based in Seattle, said the Pope has signaled that the Church needs to “play catch-up pastorally.”
“Women have had leadership positions at different times in Church history, and, today, there are chancellors who are women,” de Solenni told the Register. She added that more changes are still needed, including how we view motherhood. However, she also suggested that many Catholics, who have been formed by a culture that dismisses the complementary value of gender differences, do not understand the nature and origins of the all-male Catholic priesthood.
“When you see the priesthood as a position of power, it makes no sense that women can’t be priests,” she said. “We need to see it as a way of being: The priest is Christ, who is the Bridegroom for the Church, his Bride. The relationship is one of love, not power.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.