Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium (EG), is conspicuous for its incorporation of themes from his three predecessors: Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI. It mentions each of these popes five times, and references to them account for 94 of the 217, or 43%, of the endnotes. If we add 18 references to Vatican II and three to John XXIII, 53% of his references are from Vatican II and the post-Vatican II popes. There are 30 references to the final propositions from the Synod on the New Evangelization of October, 2012, to which this apostolic exhortation is the Holy Father’s response.
Encountering God’s Love in Christ
The fundamental message of EG is fourfold. First, the Church’s mission, and thus the New Evangelization, is the fruit of an encounter with God’s love in Christ that results in a new way of living. In perfect continuity with his predecessors, Pope Francis underscores that the essential content of the Gospel is that God is love. “The heart of its message will always be the same: the God Who revealed His immense love in the crucified and risen Christ.” (EG, n. 11)
“Jesus Christ loves you; He gave His life to save you; and now He is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen, and free you. This first proclamation is called ‘first’ not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment.…” (EG, n. 165)
Our love for neighbor, which sums up the New Law, is a response to God’s love for us, which always comes first. (EG, nn. 12, 24, 162) Throughout the pilgrimage of faith, God’s love never ceases to transform us so that we can love others as Christ loved us. “Anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love. Every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Christ Jesus.…” (EG, n. 120) “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (EG, n. 8)
This connection between evangelization and a life-changing encounter with God’s love in Christ makes it clear what the remedy is for an alarming evangelical and missionary apathy. Too many among the baptized simply are not having this transformational encounter with God’s love. The reason, as we shall see, is that they are not coming to grips with their own poverty in relation to God.
The Joy of the Gospel
The second theme of Pope Francis’ message is joy. Pope Francis is concerned that “there are too many Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter.” (EG, n. 6) Too many “end up being unhappy with who they are and what they do… They end up stifling the joy of mission with a kind of obsession about being like everyone else and possessing what everyone else possesses.” (EG, n. 79) Who would be attracted to a community of “sourpusses”? (EG, n. 85)
Joy is the fruit of the transformational encounter with God’s love in Christ. If this encounter is lacking or superficial, then there will be a corresponding lack of joy, or shallowness of joy, among the Church’s members. “The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that ‘He has loved us first’ (I Jn. 4:19)…. This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time He offers everything to us.” (EG, n. 12)
Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. (Gal. 5:22) It is practically a name for the Holy Spirit, God’s definitive gift to us. It is “a sign that the Gospel has been proclaimed and is bearing fruit.” (EG, n. 21) Joy is inseparable from the faith that keeps alive the memory of God’s love definitively revealed in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.
“Memory is a dimension of our faith which we might call ‘deuteronomic,’ not unlike the memory of Israel itself. Jesus leaves us the Eucharist as the Church’s daily remembrance of, and deeper sharing in, the event of His Passover (cf. Lk. 22:19). The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance.” (EG, n. 13)
The joy of evangelizing derives from the Eucharist! Joy springs from being aware of having been loved by God, of having received the Gift of gifts, the Holy Spirit. This presence of God’s Gift, perceived in our joy, has the power to attract people to the Church, and thus to Christ, and thus to God. The Church grows, not so much as a result of our hard work and clever programs, but “by attraction.” (EG, n. 14)
Love for the Poor
Pope Francis’ third theme is that the Church should live a love of preference for the poor. Evangelii gaudium mentions the poor 76 times! Pope Francis laments that too many Christians are living and “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist.” (EG, n. 80)
God Himself looks down on the poor, hears their cry, and shows them mercy. Just as the joy to which we are called is a participation in Christ’s own joy, so the poverty to which we are called is a participation in Christ’s own poverty. “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake He became poor although He was rich, so that by His poverty you might become rich.” (II Cor. 8:9)
“Today and always, ‘the poor are the privileged recipients of the Gospel’ … and the fact that it is freely preached to them is a sign of the kingdom that Jesus came to establish. We have to state, without mincing words, that ‘there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor.’” (EG, n. 48) To encounter God’s love in Christ is to encounter His mercy toward us in our own poverty. As a result of being loved in our own poverty, we are called to love others in their poverty. It is the message of the unforgiving debtor. (Mt. 18:23–35) Once Christ has loved us in our poverty, the only way to fulfill the commandment to love others as Christ has loved us (Jn. 13:34) is by loving the poor.
This is the meaning behind the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that “the Eucharist commits us to the poor.” (n. 1397) If there is a crisis of missionary zeal, it must be due to a crisis of Eucharistic faith and devotion, and this latter crisis is rooted in the failure of too many Christians to come to terms with their own poverty in relation to God. For humility, which is this poverty in relation to God, is the necessary condition for encountering God’s love in Christ. (CCC, n. 716)
For the Holy Father, our faith is put to the test every time we encounter someone who is poor. The following insight of Cardinal Ratzinger is an apt elucidation:
“The deepest poverty is the inability of joy, the tediousness of a life considered absurd and contradictory. This poverty is widespread today, in very different forms in the materially rich as well as the poor countries. The inability of joy presupposes and produces the inability to love, produces jealousy, avarice—all defects that devastate the life of individuals and of the world. This is why we are in need of a new evangelization—if the art of living remains an unknown, nothing else works. But this art is not the object of a science—this art can only be communicated by [one] who has life—he who is the Gospel personified.”
Structures Are not Ends but Means
Regarding ecclesiastical institutions, Pope Francis writes of a necessary “missionary conversion” (EG, n. 30) for parishes, dioceses, and the Apostolic See. Like his predecessors, he is concerned about the Church closing in on herself, being preoccupied with bureaucratic realities at the expense of solicitude for people. He discerns that “if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems…. In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach.…” (EG, n. 63)
Ultimately, structures must be at the service of a personal encounter with Christ that true evangelists aim to bring about. We are “constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” (EG, n. 88) We are called to develop the “art of accompaniment” (EG, n. 169), which is to make a commitment to people who need to be loved. Structures and institutions do not love—people do.
Very importantly, the renewal of structures presupposes the renewal of hearts. Only hearts transformed by the encounter with God’s love can direct the renewal of structures and put them to the test of whether they are transparent to missionary charity and useful as its expression and in its exercise. “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks 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.” (EG, n. 33)
In light of all of this, Pope Francis shares with us his vision for a genuinely evangelical Church:
“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. The renewal of structures demanded by pastoral conversion can only be understood in this light: as part of an effort to make them more mission-oriented, to make ordinary pastoral activity on every level more inclusive and open, to inspire in pastoral workers a constant desire to go forth and in this way to elicit a positive response from all those whom Jesus summons to friendship with Him. As Pope John Paul II once said to the Bishops of Oceania: ‘All renewal in the Church must have mission as its goal if it is not to fall prey to a kind of ecclesial introversion.’” (EG, n. 27)
In what will likely be one of the most quoted passages of this exhortation, Pope Francis warns against a kind of sense of false security or safety that can come with an obsession to maintain structures:
“Let us go forth … to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ…. I prefer a Church which is 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. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our consciences, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light, and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life. More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk. 6:37).” (EG, n. 49)
[Editor’s Note: Many people have questions about Pope Francis’ new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii gaudium. “The Catholic Servant” asked Professor Douglas Bushman to respond to two of these questions.]
Question: What is the level of teaching for an apostolic exhortation? How must it be followed by Catholics? Can one disagree with all or parts of it?
Professor Bushman: Contemporary Catholics are most familiar with the post-synodal apostolic exhortations, which elaborate on the themes considered by the Synod of Bishops. Interestingly, though Evangelii gaudium is about the New Evangelization and Pope Francis refers (30 times) to the final propositions of the Synod on the New Evangelization (October, 2012), it is not a post-synodal apostolic exhortation. The Pope writes an apostolic exhortation to encourage the entire Church, or a group within the Church, to fully embrace the demands of living the Gospel. The exhortative nature of these texts indicates that they presuppose what God has revealed and the doctrine that the Church authoritatively teaches. Thus, they are not intended to be authoritative affirmations or clarifications of doctrine, nor are they legislative in nature. Regarding the question of the authority of ecclesiastical texts, people should avoid assigning levels of engagement of teaching authority to an entire document, as, for example, we believe that all of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit and asserts what God wanted asserted and is free of error. Rather, they should be alert to the fact that an apostolic exhortation contains many re-assertions of Scripture and dogmatic pronouncements, as well as statements that are in various ways related to Catholic teaching. Catholics must believe all that the Church authoritatively teaches, but they can certainly question and disagree with a pope’s reading of the signs of the times. They should also recognize that, even if he is inaccurate in one or another of his assessments of particular situations, this in no way attenuates his teaching authority with respect to faith and morals. Permit me to say that it would be lamentable if questions of this kind were to prevent well-educated Catholics from examining their own consciences regarding Pope Francis’ main preoccupation, namely, loving the poor.
Question: Some people are disagreeing with Pope Francis’ statements about economics in this document. They think the Pope doesn’t seem to understand the free market system as experienced in the United States. Can he be wrong, and how does a Catholic sort through such a document as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable?
Professor Bushman: Some of Pope Francis’ phraseology has given rise to alarm and consternation. Yet, Pope Francis has said that there is nothing in Evangelii gaudium that is not in the prior social teaching of the Church. Upon close examination of his precise wording, my view is that this is true. The Church openly and repeatedly has said that she is not an expert in politics or economics. The Pope’s teaching authority does not assure us of any special expertise in making judgments of a technical nature about the relative efficacy of various political and economic systems. The Church does insist, however, that she is an expert in humanity. This means that her concern with political and economic questions is focused on the moral principles that bear upon human dignity and ultimately on the place of secular activity in Christian life. On my reading of Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis is consistent with the teaching of his predecessors when he asserts that a trickle-down market system cannot, by itself, assure that the poor are treated as they should be. His insistence is that the capacity of any economic system to measure well against the criterion of concern for the poor depends on the moral disposition of those who are engaged in economic activity, especially those with the greatest influence.
Douglas G. Bushman, S.T.L., is Professor of Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colorado, where he holds the Blessed John Paul II the Great Chair of Theology for the New Evangelization.