Having just finished reading Evangelii Gaudium, the Apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis, I was left with much to ponder. This is dynamite! For it is designed to blow away all that hampers mission in the 21st Century. A sterling effort to unite Catholics the world over through renewed emphasis on mainstream Catholic teaching. A firm but loving corrective which will leave all who engage with it feeling some sense of chastisement tempered with encouragement. In short everything that I believe an apostolic exhortation should be.
The first thing that becomes clear is that Pope Francis has little time for damaging ecclesial politics. Thus both ‘ultra traddies’ and ‘loony liberals’ get a smacked bottom before being called back to the balanced centre that is Catholicism properly understood.
Lovers of tradition at the expense of living faith are warned of the danger of exclusivism. What is the point of ancient formulas, no matter how beautiful they may be, if they alienate and are no longer useful in the modern world? How might we be failing if we simply distribute the sacraments but do not fully share the Gospel of Christ? What benefit the quest for spiritual purity if it makes us overly judgmental and prone to creating elitist clubs, “a self absorbed cluster of the chosen few“, in which our own comfort trumps the needs of others?
Modernists need not be smug. Pope Francis is equally scathing of those chasing a “spirituality without God.” He complains about those who “fall into a relativism” and do not endorse a “mystical faith within a pluralist landscape” or pass on the faith to a new generation. He warns such children of this age that too many pastoral workers, including consecrated men and women, fail because they place “too much emphasis on their own personal freedom and relaxation”. He goes on to make it abundantly clear that the male only priesthood is here to stay and that opposition to abortion must continue.
The voice of dissent, those tireless calls for a departure from catholic teaching- the conforming of the church to the world- these have become a silly distraction for Pope Francis. All too often worldly agenda is wrapped up as serious theological questioning at a cost to serious mission. And so a line is drawn in the sand and the conversation brutally ended. This must stop. It has led Argentinian activists to burn an effigy of the Pope- so we can probably state that the honeymoon with the liberal media is coming to an end. Little wonder. Pope Francis has come out in this document as a staunch Catholic defending the faith of the ages.
This position is one that will dismay campaigners for doctrinal change. For the Pope is telling us that it is not the faith that needs to change in the modern world- that is not up for grabs and never will be- it is the attitude and behaviour of believers that must change. The faith must be understood better- and there is a strong suggestion made that catechesis is poor. Indeed Pope Francis feels a need to call for much better preaching in which the faith is explained well and succinctly. We cannot just preach certains parts again and again at the expense of others. This will certainly challenge those who have delighted in ever presenting the fluffier aspects of faith but never speak on hell and judgment, just as an example.
The point being that we Christians, of all types, have fallen asleep and become lukewarm and ill equipped for mission. Many no longer even know the faith very well. The joy of Christ has left us. So much so that he remarks many Christians seem to live in a perpetual Lent without any promise of Easter! Even even those who pray face “a heightened individualism, a crisis of identity and a cooling of fervour” because they live too much in this world and do not sacrifice enough to live out an authentic Christian life.
Something which is increasingly hard to do in the modern world. And my goodness that world is given a bashing! Those financial institutions that do not show compassion, that imagine they exist to rule and not to serve, get absolutely hammered as does that sort of governance which offers an uncaring trickle-down form of economics. The sort that leaves the poor languishing at the bottom. And we are warned that so many of us have blood on our hands in this regard because we are complicit with the evils that ravage our day. The media a problem for Pope Francis because it so often does not build up society but destroys it. He is clearly very concerned, and rightly so, about the plight of the family within a world in which technology offers so much transitory pleasure but no real lasting joy.
Pope Francis states that the answer to all the problems we face is a renewed Christian mission. The Church needs to blow away the cobwebs of its own comfort and get out amongst the poor and the spiritually needy. “I prefer a Church…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.” Powerful words that none can argue with. But we can only offer Jesus to the world by sharing true joy that comes from a true Christian love not simply by proselytising or banging on about doctrine.
Little wonder he challenges the laity then as well as clergy. They are asked to give more of themselves- an assault on Sunday only nominalism! “At a time when we most need a missionary dynamism which will bring salt and light to the world, many lay people fear that they may be asked to undertake some apostolic work and they seek to avoid any responsibility that may take away from their free time. For example, it has become very difficult today to find trained parish catechists willing to persevere in this work for some years…as though the task of evangelization was a dangerous poison rather than a joyful response to God’s love”
And then we get the hints of where change might be expected. It becomes clear Pope Francis thinks the Vatican is too centralised and that mission suffers as a result. He is wise therefore to stress that Episcopal Conferences could have greater responsibility in governance. My only stipulation would be that this will only work if we have bishops fit for purpose. Nonetheless we should expect a change to the administration of the church and reading between the lines a speedier and more compassionate response to those unable to receive communion. Why? Because sinners need mercy and we all need the deep joy of Jesus in our lives. Something that is not happening enough in the world today.
And it is this need for divine joy in our hearts that rings out from this document in the end. For the Pope makes it abundantly clear that the cause of all Christian decline and division, and of our societal pain too, stems from the fact that very often we dare not live out our faith authentically. We are trapped instead, diminished by our own self serving misery. So it is time to call us back to our first vocation. To learn once again what it means to love God and neighbour as self.
And we cannot do that locked away looking after our own comfort hidden and out of touch. Nor can we do it by giving in to the prevailing culture and the relativist claims it makes. It comes only from a mission hearted encounter with the living Lord Jesus. It comes by getting out amongst the poor and learning how to love. God bless our Pope- this is stirring stuff and nothing for the normative Catholic to fear, nevertheless it is a mighty challenge to us all. Best get ready then for work of this papacy is just about to start…
Do read it all. It is really very good.