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.