For Catholics across the globe, the significant events of 2013 — which marked the resignation of one pope and the election of the first Latin-American pontiff in the history of the Church — have stirred hopes as well as anxieties about the plans of our new shepherd.
But as we begin 2014, we might set aside the media chatter and allow Pope Francis to guide our own resolutions for the coming year.
In his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium — literally translated from Latin to "The Joy of the Gospel" — Pope Francis shares his "dream" of a Church and, ultimately, a world radically converted by "a missionary impulse, capable of transforming everything."
He wants every part of the Church to radiate the "joy" that comes from a deep relationship with Christ and acceptance of God’s unconditional mercy. He calls for hands-on service to the poor and spiritual healing for captains of industry, alienated Catholics and homeless families.
To be fruitful, the work of evangelization must be grounded in prayer and the sacraments. Patience and perseverance are required, as the faithful model the witness of Jesus, who listened to the woman at the well before he called her to conversion. Once the spiritual foundation is established, we can better discern the will of God for our lives, and thus identify the path toward fruitful service.
George Weigel, the papal biographer, underscores a central truth about this pope and his message for the Church: "First and foremost, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is a radically converted Christian disciple who has known the mercy of God in his own life and who wants to enable others to share that experience — and the healing and joy that come from friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ."
Pope Francis has made clear that we cannot do the work of evangelization without first experiencing God’s mercy in our own lives. We must ask for it, pray for it and receive it. Maybe we need time before the Eucharist at adoration, where the Lord uses the silence to offer life-changing words of forgiveness and hope, as well as wisdom, that will effectively guide our actions in the world.
In addition to urging each of us to cultivate a more personal relationship with Christ, Pope Francis also calls on his flock to follow him and draw near to people who hunger for God’s love, for hope and for truth. Francis asks: Who is near us? Who needs the hope and love that comes from God’s saving word? No matter what they have done, no matter their animus toward the Church, he asks us to discern an opening that may allow us to draw near to those around us who are hungering for Christ — and thus slowly build a bridge to him.
Pope Francis also reminds us that our lives must offer an engaging contrast to the "culture of death" that normalizes despair, passivity and selfishness as necessary byproducts of a confusing, unjust and chaotic world. Each of us has experienced the hope that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. But do we share that gift with those who walk alone, who have been hurt by someone in the Church or perhaps misunderstood some aspect of Catholic teaching?
As Father Robert Barron has noted, "This joy is not superficial optimism, but manifests itself in a willingness and preparedness for mission." And for some of us, the most challenging question is: How do I express that sense of mission in action?
Pope Francis has boldly captured our attention and bluntly implored us to draw near to those who are materially or spiritually impoverished. "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," he wrote in "The Joy of the Gospel." His message is uncompromising: Service to the poor cannot be severed from the work of evangelization. As disciples of Jesus, it is not enough to pay taxes or show up once a year to provide Thanksgiving turkeys or Christmas gifts for the needy. Parents with young children will need to focus on sharing their faith around the dinner table, and pastors have been admonished by Francis to improve their homilies.
Francis wants his flock in the thick of things, accompanying the undocumented workers, the single mothers and the elderly parents forgotten by their own children. Clothes, shelter and food may be needed, but, fundamentally, this is not about distributing donated goods or justifying a "welfare mentality," which he rejects. Rather, our personal encounter with the needy can inspire fruitful collaboration. Maybe we can help a parolee land a job, stabilize an inner-city parochial school that provides a pathway to a better life, mentor a fatherless child or help create a business in a tough neighborhood.
In James 2:15-16, we read, "If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?"
2014 is upon us. And while we are still digesting all the events of the past year, let’s allow our new shepherd’s words and actions to bring us to make some changes in our own faith lives.
Let’s begin by taking to heart one pointed admonition for Catholics engaged in the New Evangelization from our Pope: "Never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral."
Image Credit: Radio FM Cancao Noca/CNA 7.30.13