69. The Joy of the Gospel: A Window into Francis’ Vision

December 2nd, 2013

Five chapters, 288 paragraphs, and more than 220 pages. This is the Apostolic Letter of Pope Francis titled The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), the second magisterial document of his Pontificate (the previous being the encyclical Light of Faith). It is the first, however, to come entirely from his own pen (and was originally written in Spanish). In 2010 Benedict XVI launched the idea of the “new evangelization”, and in 2012 convened a Synod of Bishops to discuss it. Now we have Francis’ interpretation of the new evangelization in an authoritative statement which is also a compendium to interpret most of what the Pope has been saying and doing so far. Here are some selected highlights. 

Missionary Conversion

Although Evangelii Gaudium comes one year after the Synod and is quoted 27 times, Francis’ whole approach to the topic is more dependent on the 2007 Latin American document of Aparecida than from it. More than the “new evangelization” this Pope loves to speak about “mission”. The former attempts at reaching the un-practicing Catholics, the latter is a style of the whole Church going in all directions. The former is particularly relevant for the ever more secular West, the latter is a “catholic” agenda for the world. According to the Pope, “missionary outreach is paradigmatic to all the church’s activity” (15). Evangelization is a part of mission, not the other way around. Here we are confronted with a programmatic statement of the Papacy: the Church cannot afford to stay in a “simple maintenance” mode: she needs to be in a “permanent state of mission” (25), going out, being always engaged in involving others and being constantly focused on reaching out. Maintenance culture and self-referential attitudes are the “internal” enemies that Francis is willing to fight. The vision of Pope Francis is an outward one and “mission” (whatever it may mean) is at the center of it. His church will not be on the defensive, but will be proactively engaged in promoting its vision.

A Conversion of the Papacy?

In calling others to change, the Pope is also aware of the need for the Papacy to be converted. At times, some “ecclesial structures” may become a burden and should therefore be open to transformation (26). In a telling passage, he goes as far as to say that the he is willing to see a “conversion of the papacy” (32). For those who may wonder what this expression means, this conversion does not entail a deconstruction of the dogmatic outlook of the Papacy, nor the radical questioning of the Papal claims about the Petrine office. It has to do more with how the Vatican bureaucracy functions than with the doctrinal substance of the Papacy. The document in fact speaks of “decentralization” (16) over against “excessive centralization” (32) or the growing role of the Episcopal Conferences (32). There is no sign of “real” conversion of the Papacy in the Biblical sense. The change that is foreseen is in the realm of internal church governance.

More Joy than Gospel

The word “joy” is repeated 59 times and is the common theme of the document. The Pope wants to give a joyful flavor to mission. The Gospel is also part of the title but has a lesser role in it. The “heart” of the Gospel is summarized in this way: “the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead” (36). In this apparently Evangelical definition of the Gospel something is missing: while the objective Good news of God is rightly related to the narrative of Jesus Christ, the subjective part of it (i.e. repentance from one’s own sin and personal faith) is omitted. The tragedy of being lost without Jesus Christ is also downplayed. For this reason nowhere in the document are unrepentant unbelievers called to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. Non-Catholic Christians are already united in baptism (244), Jews don’t need to convert (247), and with believing Muslims the way is “dialogue” because “together with us they adore the one and merciful God” (252, a quotation of Lumen Gentium 16). Other non-Christians are also “justified by the grace of God” and are associated to “the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ” (254). The Gospel appears not to be a message of salvation from God’s judgment, but instead access to a fuller measure of a salvation that is already given to all mankind. According to Francis, therefore, mission is the joyful willingness to extend the fullness of grace to the world that is already under grace.

Roman Catholicism in Pill Form

The document provides interesting comments by the Pope on preaching (“homily” in Catholic language, 135-159), special consideration for the poor (186-216) and the “evangelizing power of popular piety” (122-126), i.e. the various forms of the cult of the saints and Mary. What is even more noteworthy, however, is the section where Francis refers to various slogans that mark the Roman Catholic worldview as it opens up to the missionary task. Here are just two of them:

–          “Unity prevails over conflict” (226-230). The Pope encourages Catholics to find ways in which “conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity” (228). This resolution “takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides” (idem). The “reconciled diversity” (230) is the traditional et-et (both-and) approach that makes a synthesis of opposing views and beliefs, holding them in a “catholic” equilibrium.

–          “The whole is greater than the parts” (234-237). The Pope here encourages Catholics to see the big picture of things. “The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts” (235). This “principle of totality” (237) recalls another distinctive aspect of the Roman Catholic vision in that the Church is “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen Gentium 1).

A final question needs to be asked: Is not the mission envisaged by Francis an attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to increase its catholicity and to expand its being the ultimate sign of unity for all mankind?


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