04Dec The prophets of doom have got their answer!

Today Pope Francis issued a bold new document—in Vatican parlance an “apostolic exhortation”—called “Evangelii Gaudium” or “The Joy of the Gospel.” In this new document, he sets out an exciting new vision of how to be a church.  In all my years as a Catholic, I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprising and invigorating.  Frankly, reading it thrilled me.
To me, it seems that with each new homily, address, interview, general audience message and letter, Pope Francis is challenging himself—and us—with three questions, each of which flows naturally from the other:
First, Why not look at things from a new perspective? Second, Why not be open to doing things in a new way?  And third, Why not have a new vision for the church?
And what is Pope Francis’s vision for the church?
It is to be a joyful community of believers completely unafraid of the modern world, completely unafraid of change and completely unafraid of challenges.  Not everyone will like this document.  Some may find it frightening. For it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo–explicitly: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way,’” he writes in a section entitled “Ecclesial Renewal.”
The document’s overall message is that Catholics should be unafraid of new ways of proclaiming the Gospel and new ways of thinking about the church.  In fact, such new ways are essential if we are to spread the Gospel at all. This may sound like boilerplate talk expected in a document on the “New Evangelization,” but it is not; for in the document Pope Francis identifies areas of petrification in the church, areas where he wants to see real change.
This is not to say that the “Evangelii Gaudium” seeks to overturn traditional church teachings. Instead it seeks to overturn the way that we have done things, and to be fearless in doing so.  For example, while he reaffirms the church’s inability to ordain women as priests, he also invites the church to think about their place in the church in new ways, to imagine “the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.”
Over and over, Pope Francis takes aim against such longstanding roadblocks to growth as “complacency,” “excessive clericalism,” and even Catholics who act like “sourpusses.”  (That’s the official English-language translation.)  About that last roadblock, he says that there are Christians whose lives are like “Lent without Easter.”
Nor does Pope Francis have patience for people who are “tempted to find excuses and complain.” Essentially, he contrasts this dourness and pessimism with the joy of living a life centered in Christ and focused on the hope of the resurrection. It is a hope-filled, positive and energetic view of the church actively engaged with the world.
“Evangelii Gaudium” is very difficult to summarize, so wide-ranging is it. Ironically, something that would at first appear to be a narrow topic—how to spread the Gospel today—offers Pope Francis the latitude to address many topics in his trademark open style. The exhortation moves easily from a discussion on joy as a requirement for evangelization, to how “personal dialogue” is needed for any authentic invitation into the faith, to the difficulty of being a church when Catholics are “warring” against one another, to the need for priests and deacons to give better homilies, to an overriding concern for the poor in the world—the last being a special concern of the pope.
To that end, some will be surprised that Pope Francis champions an idea that has lately been out of favor: the church’s “preferential option” for the poor. “God’s heart has a special place for the poor,” the Pope says.  But it is not enough simply to say that God loves the poor in a special way, and leave it at that. We must be also vigilant in our care and advocacy for them.  Everyone must do this, says the pope. “None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.”
And in case anyone misses the point, after a critique of the “idolatry of money” and an “economy of exclusion,” the pope says: “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”
What’s more, this does not mean simply caring for the poor, it means addressing the structures that keep them poor: “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed.”
This joy and confidence needed to tackle these challenges—both inside and outside the church—is rooted and grounded in a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. Without that “personal encounter” with Jesus trying to spread the Gospel is useless.  We must have what he calls a “constantly renewed experience of savoring Christ’s friendship and his message.”
Most Catholics will, like me, read the letter with enthusiasm. But some Catholics have criticized the pope for trying to change too much in the church—even though no dogma has been altered. A few Catholics are not only beginning to critique him, but even worse, fear him. Change seems to be something to fear. As one of my Jesuit friends used to say, playfully, “I’m against change; even change for the better!” But the church must change if it is to grow—not in its core beliefs, but in the way that it lives out and shares those beliefs.
My advice to Catholics would be: Read the entire document. Take your time. Be generous with it. Let it excite you. Pray with it. And be open to the Holy Father’s call 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.”
Finally, as Jesus said, “Fear not.”  We can change the way we do things in the church—the spread of the Gospel demands it. So be confident in God’s desire for the church to grow and change. Besides, as Francis says, “Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand.”
At one point, Pope Francis uses a famous quote from Pope John XXIII, who noted at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that many doubted things could change for the better. Too many people at the time—1962—were predicting doom and disaster for the church and for the world. But Pope John disagreed. “We feel that we must disagree with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster.”
“Evangelii Gaudium” is Francis’s own ringing response to prophets of doom.

11 Responses

  1. Shaun the Sheep

    It’s funny, but as an orthodox Catholic attached to Sacred Tradition, I have no enthusiasm for this Pope. I’ve tried to give him the benefit of the doubt so many times, right from the start, but I am tired. This Pope upsets me. So I have resolved not to read his works, and simply to concentrate on my own faith and in trying to build up the Church in whatever small ways God wants me to. I will read the Catechism and the writings of the great saints of the Church. And I know that part of this building up the Church is in trying to love the Pope, and to pray for him. It’s hard. It was easy to like Pope Benedict. Now I am being challenged to pray hard for this Pope, so that he leads the Church as God wants, not how he might want himself. I understand the vision Pope Benedict had; I read his radio prophecy in the 1970s about a smaller, poorer Church of the little people, so it is not as if I am closed to new ideas, or to new realities facing the Church. But doctrine can’t be changed to satisfy modern man. The truth is the truth and it is the task of every Pope to safeguard the Sacred Deposit of Faith and to present it in every age to man.

  2. Eddie Finnegan

    And there was Frank the Shepherd telling priests to get up close and personal to take on the smell of the sheep while all the time Shaun the Sheep is keeping his hygienic distance in case he gets contaminated with the smell of this stinking pope. A perplexing conundrum, surely. Can anyone out there offer a solution to put Shaun the Sheep out of his misery? I don’t think that trying to persuade Shaun that Frankie is NOT hell bent on stealing his hard-earned Sacred Deposit from the Benedictine Bank is going to work.

  3. Con Devrew

    This is a good assessment of Evangelii Gaudium (EG), which in Pope Francis’s style, is appropriately intentionally vague (nuanced?) in parts. Catholicism by its nature is joyful. However an explanation of this joy is necessary in a culture which may have a different concept of joy. What was the spiritual joy of Blessed Teresa of Caluctta over her long period of the dark night of the soul?
    There are one or two gaffes. Is it true to say that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Koran are opposed to every form of violence” (Para 253)? Pope Francis’s fellow Jesuit, Samir Khalil Samir, (Egyptian born), doesn’t think so.
    Pope Francis is constant in his focus on the poor, troublingly so. But in EG he doesn’t strengthen his argument with the postulation of the “absolute autonomy of markets”. If one follows Evangelii Gaudium’s injunction (231–233) to look at the realities of the world today, it will soon be discovered that there is literally no country in which markets operate with “absolute autonomy.” In most Western European countries, for instance, governments control an average of 40 percent of their nations’ GDP. In many developing countries, this percentage is higher. Most economies are highly regulated.
    Efforts to “resolve the structural causes of poverty” have had no real lasting success. Surveys show that levels of global poverty have on average marginally decreased over the past 20 years. The empirical finding is that this has been achieved through trade between poor and rich countries, between developing countries themselves and within poorer economies. Ireland has experienced this. Transfer of aid, be it at parish, national or international level is of course imperative, but unless it is on a massive scale, (it rarely is), its long term effects are minimal. As the Pope says such transfers are at the theological heart of Catholicism.
    Similarly the metaphor of defend trickle-down theories used by the Pope is outdated among many market-orientated scholars. Market-orientated Nobel-laureate economists such as Edmund Phelps and Douglass North have shown how the values, expectations, beliefs, and rules (including the rule of law) define how a given economic culture helps determine whether or not a country can break the bonds of poverty. It is obvious that the area of cultural values should be the focus of Catholicism. These values impinge on the area of international trade – if we don’t buy their goods and services we may have the duty to grant domicile to their people. EG is relevant in this regard. As Pope Benedict would have put it, “your neighbour is the next person you meet who is in need of something.” Love of neighbour means you help him.

  4. Sean O'Conaill

    #3 Con Devree
    .
    Thanks for that critique of the pope’s take on the economic causes of poverty. This, however provokes some questions in my head:
    .
    “Market-orientated Nobel-laureate economists such as Edmund Phelps and Douglass North have shown how the values, expectations, beliefs, and rules (including the rule of law) define how a given economic culture helps determine whether or not a country can break the bonds of poverty.”
    .
    Has any ‘country’ ever broken the bonds of poverty to the extent that none of its citizens is in serious material want?
    .
    Secondly, in economic theory is all demand equally desirable and sustainable? Is there any notion of unsustainable, and therefore undesirable, demand?
    .
    I ask this question in light of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s recent assertions that economic inequality is necessary to foster ‘the spirit of envy’, and that greed is a “valuable spur to economic activity” . Apple’s promotion of iDiocy – the endless pursuit of the latest designer goods as proof of ‘coolness’ – seems to be a model for entrepreneurialism generally. That can only lead to increasing inequalities, but to me inequality itself is unsustainable.
    .
    Finally, do any economists recognise the potential dangers in mimetic desire – the desire to possess what others possess – and therefore the potential economic benefits of tempering what the Bible calls covetousness with self-denial accompanied by philanthropy, unconditional giving?
    .
    I can see no other route than the latter to a more equal, sustainable society, as ‘democratic’ governments seem to be necessarily toadies to their economic elites.

  5. Shaun the Sheep

    Eddie, there’s a funny cartoon idea there if you have the talent for it. I can see it now!

  6. Joe O'Leary

    The church needs to give a concrete and convincing face to its mission. The world needs at least one leader who will speak out about inequality. Francis solves both problems at one stroke.

    Now I see Obama is devoting the rest of his presidency to fighting inequality. The Francis effect?

  7. John

    Shaun the Sheep “An orthodox Catholic attached to sacred tradition” : I guess that what Francis is saying is that tradition is not sacred. If you make tradition the most important thing you get stuck in the past. If you confuse tradition with doctrine then you get, well, confused.

  8. Linda, Derry

    Maybe someone could clarify: is ‘Sacred Tradition’ not the teachings of the Early Church Fathers, handed on to succeeding generations of successors? My understanding is that Jesus told the first bishops of the early church “They that hear you, hear ME”….maybe “Sacred Tradition” is referred to as “Sacred” for very good reason?:-)

  9. Orthodox Catholic

    And Australian former-priest Greg Reynolds is still excommunicated.

    Pope Francis still knows how to sign a decree, I guess…

    Viva il Papa!

  10. Kevin

    You have to pray hard for some Pope ? God love you and your so sorely tried ‘faith’.

    I’d suggest ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ more fitting – but would be wholly dishonest in your case.

    What is ‘truth’ Shaun ? In the face of death, what the hell is ‘truth’ ? I don’t know much if anything about ‘sacred tradition’ or any of that ‘stuff’ – but I know enough to know that you nor I nor ANY Pope are any the wiser on ‘truth’ than the other. Certainly and most surely in the very face of death.

    Conversion of heart is a long, sore process and maybe we can all get over ourselves and pray willingly for each other.

  11. Joe O'Leary

    I can only urge “Shaun” to read the Apostolic Exhortation meditatively. Francis is a true preacher, with power to convert his hearers.


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