The Joy of the Gospel — thoughts on chapter one

Even as someone who has deeply appreciated and been excited by the ministry of Pope Francis, I must admit I reacted a bit cynically when I read Fr. Jim Martin’s take on the new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, posted at CNN’s Belief Blog: “In all my years as a Catholic, I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprising and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.”

“Okay, Father,” I thought. “I get it. It’s a good document. But seriously, that’s a bit overstated.” (Like him, I have read a lot of church documents, and some are quite remarkable.)

Having now begun to read Francis’s new letter to the Church, with highlighter in hand, it is already (only one chapter in) entirely clear to me why Fr. Jim would write such words. It truly is quite stunning, if it’s to be taken seriously.

My free time left outside of work and family time is of course limited (I ended up putting the document aside last night, in favor of a family movie night, since the kids have no school tomorrow), and I don’t want to rush through it, so I’ve only read up to the end of the first chapter so far. Here are some initial reactions on the introduction and chapter one. Further comments to come, no doubt.

***

To this lifelong Catholic, many portions of this document sound to me like one of those great sermons you hear from the local black Baptist preacher when you end up getting a chance to be at one of their services — plain-spoken, enthusiastic, personal, and relevant to real life — and you end up thinking, “Why can’t my priest preach like this?” Right from the start, with the Pope’s compelling call for “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus,” the document had me ready to listen and wanting to grow.

That’s not to say that other papal documents are not good or even great, but in almost every case homilists, teachers, and others in pastoral ministry are left to figure out how to “translate” the documents into clear and accessible language for the regular folks in the pew, because if we just read a paragraph to them from the document, eyes would immediately glaze over and little would be understood. That is not the case here! Someone forgot to translate this into “encyclicalese.”

***

It is absolutely true that this document is a decisive rejection of “business as usual” within the Church. Given it’s clear words and Francis’s own style, it’s hard not to come away with a sense that it’s time to question a lot that we have taken for granted in our ecclesial structure, culture, and style.

If you read or hear some of our most prominent Catholic “conservatives” make light of this document, if they make as though there’s nothing here that makes them nervous — you know, the “move along, nothing to see here” — either they have not read it or they are being dishonest. There is much here to cause anxiety for those who have made a career of defending every little doctrine, tradition, and practice of the church. In the first chapter alone, sections 11, 16, 22, 26, 27, 32, 40, and 43 stand out for this. (My oh my, does #43 stand out for this!)

***

The vision that Pope Francis lays out here is practically the diametical opposite of the “smaller, purer church” thinking that is often attributed to Pope Benedict (though I’m pretty sure that particular phrase comes from people interpreting or explaining Benedict, and is not his own) — that is, the thinking that in today’s secularized world, where so many people question or reject so many of the Church’s doctrines, we should accept the fact that we won’t have so many people, but at least those we do have will be the true believers, not infecting Catholic life and teaching with the poison of doubt and disloyalty. Pope Francis’s words could not be farther from that:

The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. (n. 47)

***

I recognize in Evangelii Gaudium a new expression of what I thought at the time that Pope John Paul II was really getting at when he originally called for “a new evangelization” (before it became a catchword in capital letters). I think this is what he had in mind. Not a resurgence of apologetics that demonstrate each and every doctrine, practice, and policy in a pat syllogism and that expose the errors of anything or anyone that does not fully support it all. Indeed, I suspect the latter approach is what Francis has in mind when he writes, “There are times when the faithful, in listening to completely orthodox language, take away something alien to the authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ, because that language is alien to their own way of speaking to and understanding one another.”

Rather, John Paul was trying to get teachers and preachers to “constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness” (n. 41) and who “[i]nstead of seeming to impose new obligations … should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.” I’m afraid that’s not, in many cases, what we got.

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