Pope Francis' document delivers wake-up call on evangelization

Pope Francis' document delivers wake-up call on evangelization

Over the last eight months, Pope Francis has revealed his fresh vision of the church’s role in bits and pieces – a homily here, a press conference there and an occasional conversation related by a third party.

In a document released today titled “Evangelii Gaudium” (The Joy of the Gospel), the pope offers a much more complete look at his approach to the church’s primary mission of evangelization in the modern world.

It is a remarkable and radical document, one that ranges widely and challenges complacency at every level. It critiques the over-centralization of church bureaucracy, poor preaching and excessive emphasis on doctrine, while encouraging pastoral creativity and openness, even calling for a much-needed “pastoral conversion” in papal ministry.

Francis urges pastors and faithful to "abandon the complacent attitude that says: 'We have always done it this way.' I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities."

Along the way, the document delivers a stinging condemnation of the excesses of free-market capitalism and its “trickle-down theories” that have failed to deliver economic justice. More than ever, the pope says, the church needs to stand with the world’s poor and its peacemakers.

Papal documents are usually tough to digest, but this one is a must-read for anyone trying to understand Pope Francis and his papal agenda. It offers real insight into a number of crucial topics, in language that is both easily understood and captivating.

I’m still studying the 51,000-word text, but here are some highlights (emphasis mine):

-- Evangelization today demands an "ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred." The pope declares: "I dream of a 'missionary option,' that is, 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 rather than for her self- preservation."

-- On the need for joy in evangelizing: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter…. An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”

-- On being close to the people: “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”

“A church which ‘goes forth’ is a church whose doors are open…. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way.”

-- The role of the bishop, Pope Francis says, is to foster communion and “point the way” to the faithful, but at times to “simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence.” And that goes for the pope, too: "It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization.'"

“It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.... The papacy and the central structure of the universal church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion.”

The pope notes the possibility of a greater role for bishops’ conference, saying: “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church’s life and her missionary outreach.”

-- The church needs to preach salvation, not doctrine. An imbalance occurs, the pope says, when the church speaks “more about law than about grace, more about the church than about Christ, more about the pope than about God’s word.”

Evangelization must be an invitation to respond to God’s love and to seek the good in others, he says.

“If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.”

-- On the need to keep the doors to the sacraments open: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

“I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.”

-- The church’s internal “wars” -- the tendency to form groups of “elites,” to impose certain ideas and even to engage in “persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts” – are all a counter-witness to evangelization. “Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?”

-- On “excessive clericalism” that keeps lay people away from decision-making in the church: “Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the People of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service.”

This has implications both for understanding the all-male priesthood and for respecting women’s legitimate rights in the church, the pope says: “The reservation of the priesthood to males … is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general…. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others.”

His other remarks about women will no doubt provoke questions about follow-through -- for example, that "we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church" taking into account the "feminine genius," and that "pastors and theologians" will have to study "the possible role of women in decision- making in different areas of the church’s life."

-- “Cultural diversity is not a threat to church unity.” Pope Francis, in fact, seems to hint at greater openness to diversity, saying that European culture does not have a monopoly on liturgical and other expressions of the faith. “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.”

-- On the church’s closeness to the poor: “In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor.”

The pope says economic injustice today requires deep structural reforms.

“Today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. 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? … Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape…. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading.”

We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.”

-- The pope is not just critiquing an economic system, but its effect on the spiritual lives of the faithful: "The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience."

-- The document strongly defends unborn children, "the most defenseless and innocent among us," and says the church cannot be expected to change its position on the question of abortion: "It is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty."

-- The pope’s document lays out the contours for what the church calls “new evangelization,” but the text includes a caution about turning this into a grandiose and impractical program: “How often we dream up vast apostolic projects, meticulously planned, just like defeated generals! But this is to deny our history as a church, which is glorious precisely because it is a history of sacrifice, of hopes and daily struggles, of lives spent in service and fidelity to work…. Instead, we waste time talking about ‘what needs to be done’… We indulge in endless fantasies and we lose contact with the real lives and difficulties of our people.”

Evangelization, he says, is primarily about reality, not ideas: “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”

The document is called an “apostolic exhortation” and that’s what it does: it exhorts, it lays down principles and it points to new paths – in some cases, insists on new paths – but it does not offer a detailed program of action. The pope clearly wants the whole church involved in filling in the details, which should make the coming months and years very, very interesting.

22 comments (Add your own)

1. Russell Sveda wrote:
The late Walter Burghardt SJ once preached a sermon at Georgetown for the First Sunday in Lent wherein he quoted Nietzsche's remark that "These Christians don't look redeemed." Burghardt concluded: "For your penance, look redeemed."

Pope Francis certainly looks and acts redeemed. Now he wants the whole Church to act like he does.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 8:19 AM

2. Nicole Rensenbrink wrote:
I love Pope Francis. He redeems my faith in the potential for good borh in individuals and organizations.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 8:20 AM

3. Peter Hardy wrote:
Thank you very much for this detailed summary.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 9:00 AM

4. Bill wrote:
The pope is calling for decentralization of decision making within the Church and less involvement in decision making from Rome. Just how this will work is worrisome to me. At this point we have the German bishops making a decision on providing the Eucharist to divorced and remarried people, which the Church and Christ have forbidden. If these kinds of decisions become commonplace because of the decentralization of the Church's decision making process, the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic id doomed.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 9:06 AM

5. Lillian Brennan wrote:
If everyone practiceiced Pope Francis wake -up call on Evangelization, maybe some of our young people would come back to the church.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 11:34 AM

6. Deb wrote:
As a former evangelical and now aspiring Catholic I wholeheartedly applaud Pope Feancis' simple direct style which treats extremely complex issues with grace. Great summary, thank you.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 2:47 PM

7. ahem wrote:
The Pope has a lot to learn about economics. He's completely ignoring hundreds of years of human progress. Without the free market, the entire world would still be living in grass huts and all the world's wealth would be concentrated in the hands of a few kings and tyrants. We'd be living in a feudal state, dying within a mile of where we wer born---which is what used to be most men's fates until a couple of hundred years ago.

What he's advocating is the same centralized, man-designed, statist system that murdered more than 150 million innocent souls in the 20th century.

So, no, the Pope has blown it. He sounds like a marxist. That's it for me.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 3:04 PM

8. david Koss wrote:
Pope Francis is a gift from God to the Church. I have always admired Pope John XXIII as my favorite Pope, but Francis just continues to show us how to be Church, how to think Church, how to minister as Church, the Body of Christ here on earth.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 3:13 PM

9. Peter wrote:
ahem, so then would Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II were all Communists and the Catechism is "Communist" as well, because they all rejected Laissez-Faire Randian economics

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 4:37 PM

10. Jason wrote:
Just exactly where has Laissez-Faire capitalism been practiced since the early 20th century? Nowhere. Hence no need to condemn it in a papal document. Free market capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than anything else ever. I thought His Holiness was all about the poor?

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 5:01 PM

11. Stu wrote:

The Pope isn't condemning free markets. In fact, quite the opposite. He is condemning markets that are controlled by the Big Government/Big Business consortium that pushes the little guy out and only serves to feed consumerism. If anything, he is pushing for more subsidiarity in our economies that gets away from the "trickle down" philosophies of the plutocrats (Big Business) and bureaucrats (Big Government).

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 6:06 PM

12. Stu wrote:

Laissez-Faire capitalism is not about free markets. To the contrary in fact. The last thing that Big Business wants is a free market where a small business can come in and challenge the status quo. And unfortunately, Big Business is right there to help create policies to help Big Business in that regard.

But you are correct, we don't have laissez-faire now nor have we come close to it for some time. Instead we have a Keynesian equilibrium whereby Big Government and Big Business work together for their own ends (think Obamacare).

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 6:24 PM

13. Sygurd wrote:
Like every extrovert, the pope apparently thinks that his way is the only way... What about the great contemplative tradition of the Catholic Church? The faithful have different gifts and not everybody can be a missionary.

Tue, November 26, 2013 @ 11:05 PM

14. Greg wrote:

I understand your reaction to the Pope's ideas, however, I think his call isn't for Marxism but something new. And I'll note up front that I'm a republican that works on Wall Street and loves Larry Kudlow. Notice that he doesn't promote central planning or redistribution. His criticism is really directed towards the popular culture of the West more so than an ideology. That culture has been driven by two things 1) sophistication of capital and labor markets and 2) a culture of consumerism that rejects obligations to community, family and tradition (the "everyone's a rebel" paradigm we're surrounded with fron music and apple advertisements) These two things have driven our economy and society to have features which result in wealth and cultural focus being concentrated in major urban centers and specifically within classes of highly educated people. For example, the decline of the prior Federal Reserve cities which had been regional economic hubs. Worsening the divide, this class gives very little thought to things beyond their day to day which I'll admit is incredibly competitive and draining and even when they do no one really knows what they're talking about. This isn't a new trend but it is intensifying. Concerning #1, the economic piece, think about the development from the United States' founding as a collection of yeoman farmers with a fairly even distribution of wealth by economic unit (household) to today. Our socio economic trajectory, in my opinion, is moving towards a situation where capital can be allocated and goods can be produced so efficiently that the 0.5% of the population needed to make the technology and run the businesses won't need the 95.5% of the rest of the world, and they won't care because pop culture, factor #2, says "make money or die trying". Go into a nightclub in nyc, london or paris and see what people are listening to, all of it has to do with making $$$.
The Pope makes two assertions about this. First he says that the people currently enjoying extreme success in this system are totally wrapped up in it. I'd agree. Second, he argues that everyone else is in the process of being marganilizied by market forces. I'd agree that this is a trend and there's an interesting piece that MIT robotics professors put out on maket productivity that gives some scary implications.
The Pope's criticisms of Capitalism are cery familiar to the ear of economic conservatives and for that he will turn people off. But his message suggests a need for cultural change more than it does a prescription for govt paternalism or centralization of power.

Stu - laissez faire capitalism depends on the govt's honoring of the social compact as defined by John Locke: govt must safeguard the life, liberty and property of individual citizens (c-corps included) In return for deferenace to the law of the land and payment of taxes by citizens. Implementation of regulation that favors the scale of large corporations undermines the right to liberty of smaller companies. I'd agree that Big Business seems to be an inevitable corruption of the free market economic system, just as redistribution is for countries set up on democratic principles.

Wed, November 27, 2013 @ 5:06 AM

15. kelso wrote:
I really doubt good Pope Francis' exhortation will get beyond the batter's box. He says everything but that there is no salvation outside the Church. That would be LOVE! Dismissing "doctrine" as he put it, is not equivocal to lack of charity. Far from it. The two, doxy and proxy, go together.

Wed, November 27, 2013 @ 8:56 AM

16. Jack wrote:
It's time for a closer look at Chesterton and Belloc's concept of distributism. It is neither capitalistic or Marxist, and it is against the collaboration between Big Business and Big Government (hudge and gudge). It is the only Catholic economic solution, favoring small business over corporations and helping this along with appropriate legislation. The winner is the family.

Wed, November 27, 2013 @ 9:44 AM

17. Joe wrote:

Part of the Pope's point is that Christ called us to be missionaries. He commanded to preach the Gospel and to make disciples of all nations. Everything we do and are need to be a reflection of the joy of the Gospel.

Read the whole document if you haven't. It's profound.

Wed, November 27, 2013 @ 2:21 PM

18. Concerned wrote:
I am a bit troubled by the dual meaning of many of his statements. i wonder if Pope F knows how much he is being taken out of context my main-stream media and liberal progressives, or does he. I certainly think he does not understand capitalism. Who does he want to be the "central planner"? another Hitler or Stalin? What does he mean about decentralizing the Vatican? What would St. Paul say to that? Sign me very confused and troubled by some of what i am reading and hearing so far.

Wed, November 27, 2013 @ 8:19 PM

19. Feargal Duff wrote:
Very refreshing

Thu, November 28, 2013 @ 9:35 AM

20. Bill L wrote:
It amazes me that while so many Anglicans are coming to Rome for a solid foundation we are swinging to the Episcopalian way (only slightly exaggerating) with decentralizing. Pope Francis is pointing to some wonderful ideas on evangelizing, but abandoning the culture wars. It doesn't seem smart. The gates of hell can't prevail against the Church of God. Why not attack? We seem to be the only ones that don't know we're at war with spirits and principalities.
One can't divorce and remarry without an annulment (which I agree with) or they can't receive communion. However I can support and vote in laws allowing the murder of the unborn without being refused communion. Maybe I'm wrong but I can't help but feel totally discouraged.

Thu, November 28, 2013 @ 11:35 AM

21. Aridog wrote:
I have to say I am in agreement with "Greg" and "Joe" above. I am a very "new" Catholic, one baptized for the very first time in any faith at age 69 about 1 & 1/2 years ago. I've been to war and I'd evolved in to a rigorous atheist, but not the kind who demands recognition the same as a religion. What changed me was a Priest I met over 25 years ago and have grown to know as my best friend. He lives as he speaks, without grandeur and his clustered parishes are debt free, but small in the eyes of the Archdiocesan plutocrats who seem to think butts in seats at individual locations is more important than keeping some small locations open as guiding lights, places of refuge for those like me. The4 big wheels can't wait to close minority parishes, including Hispanic in the midst of their own communities. Locations that operate debt free who meet every pledge asked of them, with 400 families and maybe 200 regular attendees do far more than the grand cathedrals in the toney suburbs. If Pope Francis can manage to change this self-centered personal and selfish and cronyism attitude I have witnessed in diocesan offices, good for him. Somehow I doubt the clerical bureaucrats will cooperate. That will be too bad. A simple man turned me, but the echelons of bishops and sundry acolyte clergy that moderate the curia could never have done that. I was military and federal for too long to not recognize hogwash and greed when I see it. I hope and pray Pope Francis succeeds where the message has been lost in the diocesan belfries.

Fri, November 29, 2013 @ 3:47 PM

22. doreen mckinney wrote:
Pope Francis is wonderful, he obviously has God AND the world in his heart.
I hope to see him, when I go to Italy in February. The people of the world are truly blessed to have him.

Mon, December 2, 2013 @ 11:50 AM

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